Why Academic Politics Are So Vicious

The stakes are bigger than they seem.
By Jid Lee

Twenty years have passed since I taught my first day of classes as a beginning assistant professor at Middle Tennessee State University. To be honest, these days I often find myself bored as well as exhausted. But I do not seek a life elsewhere. It is the fact that I can spread ideas that keeps me faithful to what I do.

Despite all of its problems, the worst of which I have experienced personally, academia is still the only place where freedom of speech can be exercised for the sole purpose of protecting the core principles that are necessary to the functioning of human society. It isn’t a place where people defend “reality,” the euphemism used to justify the sordid ways of the world. Academia is an arena where what should be—not what is—is promoted; it is a place where integrity still matters. Academics have an enormously important job: we are the ones who impart to the younger generations the knowledge needed to create a more humane society.

I couldn’t disagree more with Henry Kissinger’s infamous remark, “Academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small.” If I had a chance to meet Kissinger, I would shake hands with him and correct him: “You yourself owe a lot to the academy of which you thought so little. Where else would you be praised so consistently for having opened the door to China? The media, of course, is where you initially won the gift of the fame you enjoy now, but it is at colleges and universities where you will enjoy an immortal fame. It is history professors who will explain your historical achievement in the most specific, memorable detail. Thanks to academia, you will be given a place in history for generations to come.” Academic politics, I believe, are so vicious because the stakes are so huge.

I gladly agree with those who might jeer at academics for being dreamers out of touch with reality. I happily shout that we are dreamers. Because academia has remained a dreamer’s place, it has withstood the test of time. Because it is full of dreamers, it has kept the records of what took place many hundreds of years ago; it can present Beowulf, Julian of Norwich, the Canterbury Tales, and Hamlet. Without academia—the mecca where a multitude of books is carefully filtered into a select few that deserve places in history—we wouldn’t have a tradition that is available at the move of one finger in a library; we wouldn’t have books with pages to turn. When the records of the past stop being actively interpreted, they’re lost.

To this day, I am more disappointed by the academics who carelessly agree with Kissinger than I am by any of the nonacademics who, out of ignorance, would give him the satisfaction of mindless agreement. I am saddened that these professors do not try to keep in mind the true worth of their work, that they do not make the effort to let the world cherish them. Instead of trying to prove Kissinger and his likes wrong, they engage in infighting and internal war, tearing one another apart for the most trivial points and the smallest turf issues.

“You’d better create your own course and have it approved by the department and the university curriculum committee,” I have heard a faculty member admonish a colleague more than once. Instead of sharing their courses with other qualified faculty members, they try to monopolize them as if they were holding patents for business products. But they don’t earn a salary increase or receive extra pay for the monopoly. “We have hundreds of confused students,” a faculty representative from the Business Department claims to the University Curriculum Committee, a group that decides which new courses will be approved or rejected. Yet, merely to emphasize the seriousness of the problem, he grossly exaggerates the number of the confused students. He adds, “The word leadership was first used in a course title on my campus by the Business Department. Now, the Women’s Studies Council is using the privileged word for one of its recently created courses, the Women’s Leadership Seminar, and many of our business students think it’s a course for them. They end up registering in a wrong course. We petition that the University Curriculum Committee ask the Women’s Studies Council to remove leadership from the course title.”

To be honest, I can’t guarantee that I have never participated in these narrow-minded turf wars. Although I don’t believe I actively promoted any infighting, I’m afraid that I may have been tempted to be overzealous about my areas of specialty at some points in my academic career. Why else would I have initially said no to the chair’s suggestion that I share the teaching of one of my prized courses with another faculty member who had the same expertise?

I said no reflexively; in less than two minutes, I changed my answer to a resounding yes. But it dawned on me later that I perhaps had agreed to share the course with another faculty member more because I was embarrassed about being so petty than because I was broad-minded enough to give away a piece of my small pie. I was being politically wise, feigning that I had been merely joking when I said no. 

I abstain from mentioning other examples of these sorts of petty academic politics not because I want to hide them but because I want to ask myself and my fellow academics always to remember the truth—that politics everywhere are mean and ugly. Lamentably, my colleagues remain oblivious to the fact that Washington politics—among the supposed bigwigs like Kissinger—are just as mean and ugly, and, more deplorably, they prefer to forget that the supposed bigwigs are just as petty as anyone else.

My fellow faculty members, I regret to say, are in a hurry to accept Kissinger’s unfair characterization of them. Instead of pointing out that every human group or institution has its own sordid ways, they voluntarily surrender to the unjust notion that academia is particularly rife with nasty and small-minded arguments. Watching turf fights among the faculty, they themselves whisper to each other, “Do you remember what Kissinger said about academic politics?” To make it even more laughable, the faculty who wage campus politics themselves love to quote Kissinger—as if they were not the ones contributing to their own distorted reputation.

The World of Money

I know—as clearly as anyone else—that academics are so poorly esteemed mainly because their work has nothing to do with money. What academics do for a living has no direct bearing on the world of money, the world that yields direct and immediate results in numbers and statistics and brings an instant satisfaction for those involved. Academics try to impart information to help the world to become a better, more humane place, in an effort to contribute to the common good of all human beings.

People do not choose to become professors in order to serve a system or to promote an ethos that thrives on fast successes and windfall profits. Because they do not believe in making money except for the purpose of preserving human dignity, academics do not consider money to be one of the top priorities in their lives. Because, in a country where money is used to determine a human being’s worth, they do not preach the importance of making money, they are perceived as being less than relevant. 

If a professor’s profession had much to do with money, nobody would dare to call academic politics petty, though they still might describe them as vicious.

Academics, knowing with a painful clarity that they willingly selected a profession that has little to do with money, accept the notion that they are irrelevant. They voluntarily give in to the belief they despise—the belief that money is the standard in evaluating the worth of a human being’s work. I see that they esteem money—the thing that they gladly gave up to opt for the vocation they cherish so. Why else would they so thoughtlessly agree with Kissinger and his likes? Why else would they internalize the norms they have rejected?

I don’t say that faculty shouldn’t fight for the money they deserve. Just because they dedicate themselves to advancing ideas over the so-called reality in which morality is often sacrificed in pursuit of monetary profit, it does not mean that they should be reluctant to seek better pay. Rather, I believe they have more rights than anyone else to claim money because they are committed to creating a world in which more people, not fewer, have access to money. They spread the idea that if money is accessible to a large number of common people, not only to a privileged few, money would then become the greatest avenue to the common good; it would become the best friend for democracy, not its worst enemy. Academics, in other words, have the authority to tell people how to construct a system owned by people, not by money; they have the power to instruct people how to make money a servant for the system and how to avoid making the system a servant to money. They have the ability to promote the truth that money serves human beings but that human beings do not serve money. Can you think of anyone who deserves money more than this bunch?

Professors and Donors

Larry Summers once quipped, “The A students tend to become professors and the C students become wealthy donors.” I by no means disregard the C students in my classes because I, like Larry Summers, know that the C students are more interested in nonacademic activities; they are more inclined to be socially active and therefore to be involved in the business world. I treat them with the same respect with which I treat all students. But often, I notice that people, academics and nonacademics alike, make the grave mistake of missing the critical fact that not all C students turn out to be wealthy donors for their alma maters; only an extremely small fraction of college dropouts achieves such prominent success in the world. Quoting such names as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg, examples of the few extraordinary individuals who, without a college degree, were talented and lucky enough to become the world’s richest billionaires, they speak as if college diplomas were a barrier for those who wish to succeed in nonacademic places. They conveniently forget to notice that most of their C students may not only fail to be wealthy donors but also fall behind in the competitive market for any field.

As people choose to celebrate a few extraordinary individuals who achieved phenomenal degrees of success without a college diploma—and choose to ignore the massive number of ordinary individuals who fail because they do not have a college diploma—they commit a fallacy in their thinking. The purpose of college education is to help the majority of citizens to obtain learning, so that they can make a decent living and be informed citizens. Mass education makes a democratic nation thrive. Who other than professors would give people this gift?

There is another and more egregious way in which Larry Summers’s quip has been misinterpreted. Undoubtedly, he was trying to speak to a facet of the truth when he said, “The A students tend to become professors, but the C students become wealthy donors.” Larry Summers was using humor to communicate his perspective. He meant that the C students are more likely to bring money to the university, not that they are more likely to be rich; he praised the C students because they have more chances to help professors to teach in an environment that is conducive to learning; and he acknowledged the C students because some have potential to bring fame to their alma maters.  He recognized them, in short, because they have more power to help academia become more visible, because they have more means to help academics. But his true meaning has been distorted as if he had tried to glorify the academic mediocrity of the C students.

Summers’s quip has been quoted by students who wish to justify their academically lazy attitude, as an excuse to downgrade the importance of academic excellence. It has been cited as if it were a product of a public consensus declaring the insignificance of academics. It has been taken to mean that excelling academically isn’t recommended, that it is better to become a businessman than it is to become a faculty member. Larry Summers’s original point—that a money person can help a person of knowledge—has been twisted to mean that a person of money is superior to a person of knowledge.

I’d like to suggest twisting Summers’s words to serve my own academic self-interest: “The A students can help the C students to spend more money, and the C students can help the A students to make more money.” The A students, by receiving the benefits of donations from the C students, may be paid more for research and teaching. With a professor’s self-aggrandizing wit, I would quip, “People of knowledge are superior to people of money because they help them to spend their money for the highest purpose.” With laughter, I believe we can put money and knowledge back on equal footing.

Jid Lee is associate professor of English at Middle Tennessee State University. She is the author of From the Promised Land to Home: Trajectories of Selfhood in Asian-American Women’s Autobiography and To Kill a Tiger: A Memoir of Korea. Her e-mail address is [email protected].