Academic politics are vicious because the stakes are so low?
January 12, 2008 12:50 AM   Subscribe

Does anyone have a decent citation for the idea that academic politics are so cruel/brutal/intense/vicious because the stakes are so low?

I've seen various attributions to Wallace Sayre, Henry Kissinger, Woodrow Wilson, and Harry Truman, but I'd like a source that isn't a weak tie via Google, something like a reputable book of quotations or an edition of letters, if possible.
posted by cgc373 to Writing & Language (4 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: This is via Google, of course, but it's an extensive quotation from a book which sets itself up as the go-to source for such things: the quote verifier.
“ACADEMIC politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” This observation is routinely attributed to former Harvard professor Henry Kissinger. Well before Kissinger got credit for that thought in the mid-1970s, however, Harvard political scientist Richard Neustadt told a reporter, “Academic politics is much more vicious than real politics. We think it’s because the stakes are so small.” Others believe this quip originated with political scientist Wallace Sayre, Neustadt’s onetime colleague at Columbia University. A 1973 book gave as “Sayre’s Law,” “In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the stakes at issue—that is why academic politics are so bitter.” Sayre’s colleague and coauthor Herbert Kaufman said his usual wording was “The politics of the university are so intense because the stakes are so low.” In his 1979 book Peter’s People, Laurence Peter wrote, “Competition in academia is so vicious because the stakes are so small.” He called this “Peter’s Theory of Entrepreneurial Aggressiveness in Higher Education.” Variations on that thought have also been attributed to scientist-author C. P. Snow, professor-politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and politician Jesse Unruh (among others). According to the onetime editor of Woodrow Wilson’s papers, however, long before any of them strode the academic-political scene, Wilson observed often that the intensity of academic squabbles he witnessed while president of Princeton University was a function of the “triviality” of the issues being considered.

Verdict: An old academic saw that may have originated with Woodrow Wilson but was put in modern play by Wallace Sayre.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 2:07 AM on January 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure what discipline you're in (and so what counts as a 'decent' cite) but Stanley Fish wrote a funny piece way back called "The Unbearable Ugliness of Volvos" which discussed how academics were, at heart, pretty miserable resentful people. Quotes include "Academics like to eat shit, and in a pinch, they don't care whose shit they eat."

Fish, S. The Unbearable Ugliness of Volvos." There's No Such Thing as Free Speech. New York: Oxford UP, 1994. 273-79.

It's discussed here:

and you can google for more.
posted by carter at 6:39 AM on January 12, 2008

Asked before, too.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:39 AM on January 12, 2008

Response by poster: Weird, ikkyu2. The "feud" business wasn't part of my mental toolkit while trying to think about this question; like languagehat in that thread says, academia seems to be central to the quotation, although as the answers there show, the idea works for other domains too. In any case, thanks for the confirmation that it's an indefinite attribution, folks. (Oh, and I'm not really in a discipline, carter; just curious and inclined to trust books more than web site cites.)
posted by cgc373 at 10:53 PM on January 12, 2008

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