Status and envy in academia

Published in Campus Review, 23-29 October 1996, p. 9 under the title "Jealousy, happiness and the quest for status and salaries" with extensive subediting leaving out one quarter of the following text.
pdf of article as published

Brian Martin

The current campaign for pay rises for academics is about money, to be sure, but it is also about that central currency in academic struggles, status. Academics compare their salaries with those of public servants, politicians and government scientists. The social dynamics of status and envy explain a lot about academia.

Compared to most other occupations, academics have much to be happy about. They have higher than average salaries, stimulating work and great control over the way they organise their time and tasks. Yet academics complain bitterly about their pay, about increasing workloads and about harassment from ever more diverse administrative requirements and expectations.

Even without these increased pressures, happiness can be elusive. Michael Argyle in his book The Psychology of Happiness notes that there is little correlation between happiness and objective measures such as income. A key factor is comparisons with others. If academics compared their salaries to those of ministers or nurses, not to mention the unemployed, they wouldn't have so much to complain about.

More than money, what's really involved here is status. Salary is a symbol of status in the general community. Just as important, though, is status within academia itself.

One leading scholar I know received a significant promotion. Not a single member of his department offered any congratulations. A different scholar obtained a dramatically better position at another university. Colleagues offered at most grudging congratulations. A plausible explanation for these responses is jealousy.

Universities are status systems. Individual academics keenly seek promotions, not just for increased pay but because of increased rank and associated status. Giving papers at conferences, getting papers published in prestigious journals and bringing in research funds are all ways of improving one's status.

The trouble with the academic status system is that a general improvement in everyone's status is difficult, since status depends most of all on comparisons with immediate colleagues. When one person's status goes up, the relative status of others goes down. As a consequence, the successes of colleagues are often resented rather than welcomed.

Denigration of colleagues, other departments and disciplines is a common theme in informal conversations. Many academics express resentment about those they believe are inferior to themselves but who receive equal or greater rewards, whether this is the form of appointments, promotions, research grants or reputation. It is less common to hear academics acknowledging that there is anyone with greater accomplishments who has been treated less well than themselves.

The enormous significance attached to honours such as membership in academies and Noble prizes is symptomatic of the scholarly status race. There is usually more interest in who receives such honours than in what the recipients are being honoured for.

At many seminars, questioners seem more interested in displaying their own brilliance than fostering a creative dialogue. In some departments there are ongoing disputes over teaching loads, partly explained by the fact that undergraduate teaching has lower status than research and postgraduate supervision.

When postgraduates receive unnecessarily harsh criticism and get no support for publishing their work, it is sometimes due to supervisors who are threatened by the success of their own students. Envy has far-reaching consequences in academia, few of them pleasant.

In the recent round of institutional amalgamations, some academics from "old" universities bitterly resisted joining with staff from former colleges of advanced education, who they perceived as inferior in qualifications and research performance, or just as from supposedly inferior institutions. Someone else rising in status can be quite a threat, even if one's own position remains objectively the same.

The economic implications of the quest for relative status are explored by Robert H. Frank in his book Choosing the Right Pond: Human Behavior and the Quest for Status. These insights have not been applied systematically to academia.

One way to get beyond envy and the status race is to focus on intrinsic satisfaction. This is possible in teaching, for example in seeing students improve their understanding and performance over a period of time. It is also possible in research, when the topic is chosen for its intellectual or social importance rather than its utility as a vehicle for personal advance. Some of my most satisfying intellectual experiences have been in collective projects outside academia. Away from the scholarly status system, it's much easier to have a free-ranging intellectual dialogue.

Inside the system, it can be a great personal challenge to carry on enjoying work without being unduly disturbed by apparent unfairness in rewards -- namely others getting more than they deserve! Those who achieve striking successes may be resented but often, ironically, this is unwarranted. After getting an appointment or promotion, for example, the successful academic soon adjusts to the new situation, making comparisons to a different group of peers. Happy? No more than before!

Brian Martin is in Science and Technology Studies at the University of Wollongong.

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