Chapter 2 -- The Academic Pecking Order | Pierre van den Berghe

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The ingenuity displayed by man in making invidious distinctions between himself and his fellows is sufficiently great as to provide a field of specialization, and hence a livelihood for a substantial number of sociologists. The academic game cannot be played successfully without an adequate understanding of the status hierarchy or pecking order of the players. Hierarchies are the consequence of competition for scarce resources. The more you get, the higher you rank; and the higher you rank, the more you are allowed to take. Subhuman species, and some human groups, compete for basic necessities like food and sex. However, professors are too well fed to regard food as a scarce resource. Prescriptive monogamy in American society has seriously interfered with man's harem-building propensities, though, of course, modest and clandestine little ventures in that direction may occasionally be indulged in. Unlike baboons, professors cannot openly fight over the right to mount coeds on the campus green. In fact, any attempt to do so outside the privacy of one's office would be regarded as moral turpitude and a cause for dismissal.

There remain three basic commodities over which most men spend most of their lives fighting: power, wealth, and prestige. Academics fight over all three, but most of all over the last. Universities and colleges are, first and foremost, institutions in which positions are gained or improved by patting your colleagues' backs, or by deprecating their efforts, or by a judicious combination of both techniques.

This is not to say that professors are indifferent to power and wealth, but the scope for invidious distinctions on these two dimensions is not very great. The salary 'ratio of a full professor to a beginning assistant professor is only about two to one. How unsatisfying for a Nobel Prize winner in Physics to think of himself as only twice as good as the young Ph.D. from Kansas State who may never get anything worthwhile published. (By comparison, the head of a corporation can regard himself as twenty or thirty times as valuable as a junior executive or production engineer.)

Power also does not differentiate well enough among professors. The basic power of professors is to flunk students, and hence to affect adversely their life chances. This power is jealously guarded and shared equally by all teachers, from the most junior assistant professor to the most senile full professor. Under the guise of protecting academic freedom and professional autonomy, every teacher has despotic power over students. In the British system, this power is mitigated by external examiners and reviewed by academic Senate, but in America, the judgment of the teacher is final. A student may cajole, bribe, or seduce his or her teacher to change a grade; a dean may drop a discreet hint over the telephone that the star football player should be given a D instead of an F so that he can stay in school; but in last analysis, there is no effective redress against the arbitrary judgment of the teacher.

The trouble with this power, however, is that, since it is equally shared by all professors, it cannot serve as a basis for making invidious distinctions among them. The only kind of power that can serve that gratifying function is power over one's colleagues. Some measure of it can be acquired by becoming a departmental chairman, a dean, a provost, or a university president. By and large, the more academically mediocre a college or university is, the more powerful its administration is, and the more valued administrative posts are. The poorer community colleges and religiously affiliated schools are almost undistinguishable from high schools in this respect. In big-league academia, however, to become an administrator often entails a loss of prestige and leisure, a vast amount of uninteresting work, and only a modicum of power.

At good schools, a department chairman or a dean can have a certain amount of nuisance value to his colleagues; he can retard their promotion or deny them a "merit" increase in salary. But, actually, his power is limited because the opportunities for professors to move to a better job at another university are so great. In fact, the mere threat of resignation, judiciously used, frequently suffices to obtain what one demands as we shall see in Chapter Five. Once a professor has tenure, there is little a chairman or dean can do to him, except be an irritant, and even that is very much a two-way affair.

Luckily, there remains prestige as a basis of differentiation among professors. Here the possibilities are limitless, and professors have developed a pecking order of such scope, complexity, and subtlety as to deserve admiration.  Vanity, a trait ascribed to certain male birds of bright plumage and to females of the human species who display varying portions of their epidermis on the screen or stage, is likewise the dominant characteristic of college and university teachers.

This little book cannot do justice to the intricacies of academic rankings; it can only provide a modest introduction to an extremely immodest world. Every academic belongs to at least three discrete status systems: he is a member of the larger society, of his college or university, and of the group of people who share his specialty.

In the larger society, the professor is ascribed a solid place in the upper middle class, though his unkempt lawn, unwashed car, black friends, or long-haired progeny may occasionally attract the ire of his neighbors. However, even withal his status is sufficiently secure that he can afford such harmless eccentricities. In any case, most professors could not care less what their neighbors think of them, because their social life is almost exclusively confined to other academics. Whether professorial homes are grouped in a gilded ghetto as is the case in some small college towns, or physically dispersed over large metropolitan areas, professors constitute something close to an occupational caste with strict rules of commensality. There are exceptions of course. Some bored wives of civic­minded professors will canvass for the League of Women Voters or engage in some other form of do-goodism. And the more radical academics will occasionally rub shoulders with the oppressed in protest marches. But, for most academic families, the supermarket and department store are the only significant links with the outside world.

Occasionally, a professor gains notoriety in the larger society by climbing Mount Everest,[1] writing a salacious book, inventing a bigger and better bomb, murdering his wife, stirring up the students, transplanting a heart, naming his dog after the president of the republic to which he has been temporarily sent as ambassador, or some such noteworthy action. Celebrity among laymen, however, is frowned upon in academia and often can only be purchased at the cost of prestige loss in the other two status systems, the ones that really count. [Author's Note 1: With apologies to my friend and colleague Richard Emerson, who was crazy enough to do just that.]

Professors belong to two large groups of colleagues: the staff of their college or university, and all fellow specialists in their discipline. Only the members of a given department at a given university share common membership in both of these larger groups. Thus the department is the academic habitat par excellence, the principal scene for the enactment of competition for prestige. Only fellow specialists can fully evaluate one's prestige, and one regularly interacts only with those specialists who teach at the same university. Yet, both of the larger groups contribute to a scholar's sum total of prestige in a complex and partly reciprocal fashion.

Universities and colleges, as even laymen know, are ordered in a hierarchy of prestige. The layman's hierarchy does not necessarily correspond to the academic person's evaluations. Thus, it may be socially prestigious to go to an "elite" liberal arts college tucked away in the hills of New Hampshire or Connecticut, but such places do not rank high in the preference of most academics, except for a few snobs and eccentrics who genuinely enjoy teaching. With a remarkable degree of consensus, professors rank institutions of higher learning into a number of pyramidal categories. At the top, there are ten or twelve great universities, with the twin giants of Harvard and Berkeley among them; then one finds a further fifteen or so distinguished institutions trembling on the edge of greatness but lacking the aura of the great ones. Following is roughly a score of highly respectable schools, which however begin to show certain weaknesses especially in graduate training and facilities; then come some fifty to seventy-five colleges that do a decent job of educating undergraduates and to whose staff one can belong without having to apologize or explain where the school is located; a further 200 to 250 schools might still perhaps be described as on the right side of academic respectability, but one would rather not be there if one had a choice. Finally there is the great dismal mass of the 2000-odd institutions that are of "higher learning" only by the most charitable of definitions.[2] [Author's Note 2: This last category has been termed "academic Siberia," a designation unfair to Siberia, whose institutions of higher learning are undoubtedly of better quality. Perhaps one should speak of academic Alaska instead. The reader should excuse my refusal to name any schools (beyond the reference to Harvard and Berkeley), as doing so might adversely affect the sale of this book.]

The large university, whether private or public, with a well-established graduate program, a good library and research facilities, low teaching loads, and a selected undergraduate body is the most desirable. The small isolated college with heavy teaching, a poor library, and no research facilities or graduate students stands at the other extreme, especially if it is a vocationally oriented community college or a religiously affiliated one. The "elite" liberal arts college stands somewhere in between. To join a given institution automatically places one on a prestige ladder according to the rank of the institution, and, more specifically, of one's own department among the others in the nation. Indeed, not only are colleges and universities given an overall ranking, but in each discipline an academic will, with considerable consistency, be able to establish a rank order of departments in his field. Thus University A might have a "top ten" over-all ranking, but its chemistry department might only rank ''top twenty but not top ten."

One's university affiliation pegs one at a certain level vis-à-vis colleagues on other campuses, but within one's institution many finer status distinctions are made. First, in a given college or university, the various departments are placed on a rough scale of intellectual distinction and interestingly, the order is much the same every here; medicine, mathematics, and the natural sciences are high status subjects, while education, agriculture, social work, and nursing rank low; the social sciences and humanities have intermediate status with yet finer distinctions between the specific fields, e.g., economics frequently ranks higher than sociology. As a general rule, the more quantitative and the less "applied" a subject is, the higher its status; and as the higher status subjects tend to attract the better students and vice versa, this prestige order frequently does reflect real qualitative differences in both staff and students.

This prestige ranking of subjects is also related to the students' assessment of the difficulty of a course. Courses known to be "gut," "snap," or "mickey mouse" have low status; thus one way a professor can enhance his status as a lecturer is to be a stiff grader. Alternatively, he can try to be a popular lecturer, a policy which calls for lenient grades and a certain histrionic flair. Reserving a discussion of teaching strategies for Chapter Six, it should be noted that the opinions of students, especially of undergraduates, have relatively little direct bearing on the teacher's prestige. Nevertheless, the person who has a reputation for being a good teacher is the object of a certain amount of envy on the part of his colleagues. (This envy is reflected in sneering remarks that X is a "crowd pleaser.") Interestingly, most professors are unwilling to grant that students are legitimate judges of their performance, yet teachers do compete for students, especially for graduate ones. Ability to attract a coterie of sycophantic graduate students is an important prestige symbol. And, recently, student ratings of teachers have somewhat increased the relevance of undergraduate opinion to academic prestige within the university.

On the whole, however, in conformity with Veblen's theory of conspicuous leisure, a top prestige symbol in academia is how little one teaches. The higher one's rank and the more exalted one's reputation, the fewer defiling "contact hours" one has with students, and the more senior the students. Lecturers and assistant professors typically spend nine to twelve hours a week with freshmen and sophomores; full and associate professors spend six or fewer hours with seniors and graduate students. And a few prima donnas manage to get research professorships that entail no teaching at all beyond an occasional graduate seminar.

Academic title (instructor, lecturer, assistant professor, associate professor, etc.) is perhaps the most visible determinant of prestige within the university. To each rank belong certain rights and privileges. Tenure usually comes with promotion to an associate professorship; salary and power increase with rank though not very steeply, while work load decreases. Office space, especially where scarcity forces some "doubling up," is generally proportional to rank, and so is access to secretarial assistance. In short, the less one has to do, the better the facilities one has to do it, and the more one gets paid for it. A more detailed description of this enticing process will be reserved for Chapter Five.

So much for the main factors making for prestige competition within the university. Let us now turn to the external prestige system---the prestige determined by the recognition of colleagues in your discipline. The overwhelming majority of them are attached to other institutions and are thinly spread all over the world. Each discipline thus constitutes a vast network of people isolated from each other except during the brief ritual of the annual convention when scholars converge on some large city's Hilton Hotel for three or four days of inebriated gossip, frantic job-hunting, and unashamed prestige-mongering. The national, indeed the international, nature of this prestige system, as well as the imputed expertness of the judgments passed makes the body of fellow specialists the ultimate measure of a scholar's worth. Unless your work is known and discussed by other experts in your field, you are a strictly local figure. It is immaterial that most criticisms be adverse, as they most typically are; the important thing is that you be spoken and written about, preferably by people you have never met.

One of the surest indices of academic prestige is the frequency with which your name is cited in colleagues' publications. As important as frequency is the context in which you are quoted. It may range from an incidental footnote, to a critical paragraph, an entire article, or even a doctoral thesis or a biography. Of course, you get quoted to the extent that you publish; to this important topic we shall devote the whole of Chapter Seven.

Apart from printed evidence of scholarly status, the annual convention or meeting of the professional association is the greatest prestige show in the academic world. Conventions mean many things to many people. Ostensibly, they are a forum for the exchange of ideas and the presentation of papers on the latest advances in the discipline. In fact, this is little more than a pretext to justify the university's paying your travel expenses. To graduate students, conventions are a slave market for academic employment. More senior academics have a chance to peddle their manuscripts to publishers' representatives. Old classmates exchange gossip over cocktails. Various committees transact business. Foundation and government agents are solicited for support. All these varied and useful functions are overshadowed, however, by the fact that the annual meetings are first and foremost rituals of prestige competition. Professors strut around on the soft carpets of hotel lobbies with the assiduousness of birds of paradise in their display dances, but without even the excuse of a tangible reward such as the favors of females.

Unknown young scholars attend conventions to court the favor of the nationally known ones, and the latter in order to receive the homage of the nonentities, to bask in the sunshine of their glory, and to defend their territory against challengers. Regular attendance at conventions can actually be a substitute for publishing as a method for achieving a reputation. If the people who matter have seen you often enough, your name will be bandied about and suggested for editorial boards, offices in your professional society, and the like. After a decade of diligent attendance and proper courting of the mighty, you may find yourself an established star of a magnitude quite disproportional to your scholarly accomplishment. You will then be one of these people about whose accomplishments colleagues are understandably hazy, but whose name will nevertheless appear on a great many committees and boards. You will in fact have become the recipient of an unearned academic reputation, but as relatively few people can tell the difference between that and the bona fide article, the sources of your recognition are of little consequence.

Meetings are excellent barometers of professional standing. You know that you are leaving the drab herd of mere teachers of undergraduates when the following things begin to happen with increasing frequency:

1) People whom you cannot remember having ever seen claim to have met you at such and such a place.

2) Important colleagues recognize you on sight with­ out having to cast a furtive glance at the. name tag on your lapel.

3) Colleagues who have never met you read your name tag and exclaim: "Oh! I have long wanted to meet you," or "I am using your book in my class," or "I have just read your article in such-and-such journal."

4) People whom you only know slightly approach you and say: "The grapevine has it that you are unhappy at X. Would you be interested in coming to Y?"

5) Graduate students deferentially approach you as the authority on the subject on which they are writing their thesis, and ask for advice or for clarification of a fine point in your thinking.

6) You accidentally overhear your name mentioned in colleagues' conversations.

7) Your name is formally cited by colleagues reading papers. (It doesn't matter whether their comments are positive or negative.)

8) Rumors and anecdotes circulate about you. (Their nature is unimportant.)

9) Publishers' agents ask you: "Won't you write a textbook for us?"

10) Your feuds with colleagues become notorious.

11) A slight expectant hush follows your appearance in a group.

12) People approach you with greater frequency than you approach others.

13) Your own former classmates become openly envious.

If these flattering things do not begin to occur between five and ten years after getting your Ph.D., they will probably never happen. You might as well stop attending professional meetings and withdraw to the security of your college, where you can at least cut something of a figure at the faculty club and make students laugh at your jokes.

These two academic prestige systems---the one rooted in the local university and the other based on national recognition in the professional association---are intricately interconnected. Thus, in order to gain the respect of your professional peers, you must be affiliated with a respectable institution. If you are located at Apache Creek Junior College,[3] you have obviously fallen by the wayside, and no self-respecting school will condescend to pull you out of the hole. Conversely, tenure and promotion at the better universities depend in good part on publication and on some test of professional recognition outside the home campus. [Author's Note 3:  The name is meant to be fictitious, but such a place probably does exist, in which case I proffer my apologies in advance.]

The principal ground on which these two forces meet is, of course, the academic department. And, since the national system is paramount, day-to-day prestige competition between members of a department consists mostly in impressing upon others how much better known than your colleagues you are outside the home university. There are several ways to do this, such as discreetly attracting your colleagues' attention to quotations from your work in the publications of others. You may even resort to some such ruse as asking your secretary to drop into a departmental meeting to let you know that you have a person-to-person call from the Under-Secretary of Defense or the Chancellor of the University of Chicago.

By far the most effective way of establishing prestige is to be frequently away from the campus on long-distance trips. The top dogs in any department are the ones who are constantly attending international conferences, giving lectures at other universities, or consulting with government or industrial firms---in short, the professorial jet set. The jet-propelled professor does almost everything except that for which he draws his salary. His undergraduates have to be content with lecture notes hastily scribbled on the back of airline menus between the martini and the crab cocktail; the university that pays his way to give a prestigious public lecture will have to be satisfied with a few associations of ideas hastily thrown together between planes to the accompaniment of saccharine music at O'Hare airport. Some professors even keep a mental note of their annual air mileages. The truly big-league log at least 100,000 miles (about fifteen transcontinental round-trips). Meanwhile, the graduate teaching assistants get valuable experience, and the undergraduates get what is known in polite society as the short end of the stick but what in student culture goes by a more vivid (but alas, unprintable) simile. The airborne professor is no longer simply absent-minded, he is also absent-bodied, a fleeting shadow that can occasionally be sighted picking up his mail in the departmental mail room.

Short of being physically absent from campus, prestige competition calls for at least being inaccessible, ostensibly in order to engage in prestigious work, namely research or writing. The device of the secretary to answer the phone and screen visitors is of course widely used inside and outside of academia. But only a few of the more senior professors who are departmental chairmen or have large research grants have private secretaries. So professors have devised other ways of making themselves unavailable, especially to students. They can stay at home where they can keep a nice little tax-deductible study. More ingeniously, they can have unnamed office doors where only the initiated can find them. Or else they can get lost between their multiple offices. Thus a professor can belong to both an institute and a department and have an office in each; or he can abscond to the entrails of the library where he has a cozy cubicle and cannot even be reached by telephone.

Having drawn the tantalizing picture of academic success, we must discuss the ways of getting onto the ladder in the first place, a painful subject to which we shall now turn.

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