Chapter 3 of

Tied Knowledge: Power in Higher Education


by Brian Martin

Go to Tied Knowledge contents page

In many ways, being an academic is one of the most pleasant and privileged of occupations. The work can be challenging and continually raising new issues, especially research work. Intellectual work can be truly exciting. Most importantly, many academics have a great deal of control over the way they do their work: the research topics they choose, when they work and when they relax, and when a project is complete and ready for publication. In addition, they have considerable control over the way they teach their students. The combination of on-the-job freedom and intellectual challenge is hard to beat. (To this can be added: high status in the eyes of the general community, adequate or generous salary, security for tenured staff, and a belief in the value of one's work.)

But all is not perfect in the would-be academic heaven. Many academics - fortunately not all - find their job enjoyment spoiled by the unsavoury nature of competition and academic infighting. This includes fear of having one's ideas stolen or being beaten to a breakthrough, and consequent restrictions on intellectual openness. It includes petty jealousies, bootlicking and the formation of cliques, rivalry for appointments and promotions, and a general lack of personal and intellectual generosity.

Teachers or researchers who find themselves in the 'wrong' subject specialisation may find their performance subtly denigrated and their contributions in seminars overlooked or icily received. Others become embittered when credit for research findings is not shared out properly, or when promotions go to noisy self-advocates or to weak performers with friends in high places. Others are turned off by the astonishing arrogance of many elite academics who have no time for those who are not their formal peers or their proteges.

Both the intellectual excitement and the backstabbing and parochial atmosphere are part of what can be called academic culture. This culture can best be understood in relation to the structure of academia, including the formal and informal hierarchy of power and position, the division into disparate disciplines, and domination over women and students. In this chapter I focus on the factor of hierarchy.

The academic hierarchy

Universities are hierarchical. Overall control in most decentralised educational systems is vested in governing bodies - a board of trustees, a council or a senate - which includes representation from groups such as business, government and the professions as well as from the university itself. The governing body usually acts as an overseer: the details of administration are left to the officials in the university itself. It is mainly these officials who are of concern here.

At the top of the pyramid are the chief executive officers. The top person is a president or vice-chancellor, and then there are various deputies. Also high up are deans. These top figures are usually full-time administrators. Their power comes from their influence on allocation of money and resources, and on appointments: which departments can appoint new staff and obtain extra travel funds, which individual academics are appointed to powerful committees, which applications for promotion or for teaching initiatives are granted. Individual academics who make enemies within the administration can look forward to a life of frustration.

Next in the line of power are the professors or heads of departments. Individually these figures have a major voice in departments, and collectively they have a strong say in many wider decisions. The major professors often have a major input into decisions about salaries and grant applications, and have a strong influence over curriculum decisions and the allocation of teaching.

The rest of the tenured academic staff fill the next level of the hierarchy. They have considerable control over the details of their own research and teaching. Collectively they may have a voice concerning curriculum and appointments, especially at the level of the department and sometimes at the level of the faculty (a grouping of related departments).

Below the tenured academic staff lies a weaker and more splintered group, the untenured academics. This includes academic teachers on fixed term positions or paid on a per-hour basis, and researchers supported by research grants ('soft money'). The untenured academic staff have less power because they are more vulnerable to the cutting off of their positions or funds. Their careers depend sensitively on the good graces of powerful tenured academics.

This pretty much exhausts the list of those with significant power inside academia. In the minds of some academics, the top administrators and professors plus the academic staff are about all the people there are in 'academia'. But actually this group comprises only a small fraction of those in the academic system. Three groups in particular have been omitted: non-academic staff, students, and outside services.

Non-academic staff usually outnumber the academic staff. The category of non-academic staff typically includes librarians, clerical workers, secretaries, technicians, research assistants, counsellors, typists, maintenance workers, gardeners and cleaners. In most cases, such workers are not treated as part of the intellectual community: their jobs are little different from similar jobs in other sectors. The non-academic staff exert little power within academia in spite of their essential contribution to scholarly endeavour. When the non-academic staff are unionised, they may be able to press successfully for better wages and conditions, but this is about the extent of their collective power.

Students form the bulk of the university population, yet they have little power within the system. Sometimes there are student representatives on departmental committees or on governing bodies, but the numbers are seldom large enough to sway major decisions. Students may have a small impact on course offerings and methods of assessment. But to have a significant impact for example on the syllabus requires a major student initiative, which even then may be unsuccessful. Organised boycotts of particular subjects or teachers are rare events! Essentially students are consumers who have little say in what is produced or how.

Actually, it is the students which are one of the major 'products' of Academia, Inc. Who ever heard of the goods on an assembly line telling the workers or management what to do?

There is yet another powerless group tied to academia, which I call the 'outside services'. These are people who provide support for members of the academic community or for their activities, but who are not seen as members of the community itself. The most important members of this group are spouses of academics and parents of students. They provide material and emotional support, and often specific aid in academic efforts. Also in the category of outside services are workers in businesses near academic institutions, local health and welfare workers, and children and other family members of staff and students. Most of these people have little or no influence within the academic community.

The actual details of academic hierarchy vary quite a lot from country to country and from institution to institution. For example, professors and heads of departments in universities in the British system are much more powerful than other academics, whereas in the United States the academic staff within a department are commonly more equal. Likewise, the power of the chief executive officer depends a lot on the configuration of deans and heads of committees through which decisions are formally made. The point here is not to describe the details of the internal power hierarchy, but to emphasise some of the consequences of the existence of such a hierarchy.

Two roads to power

The academic hierarchy, like other hierarchies, is a system in which people exercise power not by virtue of their personal talents but by virtue of the position they occupy. In some cases respect for an academic's views will give that person influence even though she has no commensurate position of power. But by and large the hierarchy is built on the exercise of power based on formal position and informal alliances, not on respect for the individuals in the positions. I say more about this later.

Since power, prestige and income of academics are derived mainly from their positions in the formal and informal hierarchies, there is keen competition for appointments and promotions, for positions on advisory committees and editorial boards, and as well for gaining the ear of powerful figures. (This competition is often subject to the constraint that academics must not be seen to be too ambitious.) There are two separate but interconnected ways to rise in the academic hierarchy. One is based on the local political system and the other on the wider research community.

The local political system consists of the formal academic posts and the myriad of committees through which institutional decisions are made. The way to get ahead through this system is to be a proper politician or bureaucrat in the local institution and to build up support from others in the system. Sitting on committees is essential. An aspiring young academic might volunteer for membership on the library committee, help to organise departmental seminars and perhaps become active on the local branch of the staff association. These positions might be replaced after a few years by others, to gain experience (and contacts). Later, after a promotion, the keen aspiring power-broker might become involved in a staff training programme, become appointed to a powerful faculty resources committee and perhaps if lucky take a turn as acting head of department. After further experience and another promotion, the future might hold a deanship or some other full-time administrative position.

The local political system is built on service (putting in time) and on cementing alliances. Power in the political system centres around control over resources, in particular allocation of money to departments and to individuals, and hence control over the working lives of other academics.

Modern academia might not be much different from some other bureaucracies except that there is a competing system through which people may rise to power: the research system. An academic who publishes in respectable journals and who becomes known to leaders in the discipline through conferences and visits can thereby gain access to power. This power is power based on credit for academic contributions rather than based on control over money and resources. It involves things such as refereeing papers, editing journals, organising sections of conferences, consulting for government and corporations, serving on grant-giving bodies, sitting on publications committees, training many students and obtaining membership in prestigious societies.

The research system is based on advancement within an academic discipline. The system of disciplinary power cuts across the individual institutions. Productive researchers are sought after, at least by the more research-oriented institutions. By concentrating on research and building up prestige and contacts in the discipline, an academic can look forward to research funding, lucrative consulting and promotions.

An important factor in the research system is the status hierarchy of different institutions. Most academics have a fairly clear idea of whether one campus is 'better' than another. This status hierarchy ranges from elite research-oriented universities down to vocationally-oriented technical colleges. The status of academics depends as much on where they obtained their PhDs and where they are working as on their actual performance in research. (Teaching of course is irrelevant.) Progress in the research system usually requires moving to a more prestigious institution.

The local political system and the research system inevitably overlap. Many locally-oriented academics publish at least a bit of research, and most research-oriented academics are involved in some administrative duties. Nevertheless the basic difference remains. One system is based around the local hierarchy and the other is based around the worldwide (or at least country-wide) group of researchers in a discipline.

Sometimes the interaction of the two systems causes difficulties. From the point of view of research performance, the local hierarchy often is seen as an obstacle. A productive but individualistic researcher may rub the local elite the wrong way, and hence be faced with a heavy teaching load, petty hindrances to research efforts and slow advancement. The solution for the researcher clearly is to escape the local hierarchy by seeking a job elsewhere through the research system. The result is that some institutions become rigid with time-serving bureaucrats.

The other side of this process occurs when a successful researcher is brought into a department over the top of the local candidates. In this case the research system serves to undercut entrenched hierarchy, and a shift in the basis for local advancement may occur.

This account may give the impression that local hierarchies are necessarily narrow and rigid while the research system is open to 'pure talent'. It's not quite that simple! Local hierarchies may indeed be the scene of sordid intrigue, but they can also be tolerant to some degree of diversity, and allow academics to get on with their ordinary teaching and research without too much disturbance. The research system is competitive and contains its own share of power plays and nastiness.

It is revealing that the only two real roads to academic power are research and administration. Teaching holds no prospects for gaining significant power. Furthermore, to be acceptable, research and administration must fall within fairly narrow bounds. Research must be academic research within the discipline, oriented to the needs of the profession and its most influential patrons. Doing research linked to the interests of unemployed action groups is not a road to power. Administration must be carried out within the hierarchy as it exists. Initiatives to increase student power are excluded.

Some consequences of hierarchy

The prize is advancement: power, prestige, a high salary. A small fraction of academics obtain the top prizes. Many others only rise to, or prefer to settle for, some middle-level position. Others lose out entirely. But aside from individual success or failure in progressing through the hierarchy, the consequences of hierarchy itself are felt by nearly everyone.

Conformism. To get ahead in the local hierarchy, an academic needs to conform to the basic features of the system: the hierarchy itself (including the hierarchy of knowledge), the standard routines of administration and the social niceties needed to keep on the good side of influential individuals. A bit of academic eccentricity is all right, but any challenge to the basics of the hierarchy is a prescription for being marginalised.

Advancing in the academic hierarchy depends on fitting in socially. An academic's personality, interactions with colleagues, and spouse are all scrutinised. Anyone who doesn't fit in - often women, singles, lesbians and gays - has extra difficulties. Loyalty to colleagues, especially those in powerful posts, is expected.

A junior academic would scarcely think of openly questioning the competence of the departmental head, unless influential support was at hand in the attack. The basic procedure is to suffer incompetence quietly. The alternatives are to manoeuvre to outflank the incompetents or, less daringly, to use their good favour to get ahead.

Advanced degree students, for example, are very dependent on the good graces of their supervisors. If they refuse to defer they risk the destruction of their whole careers. (I have been told of numerous cases of victimisation of advanced degree students, including taking credit for students' work, bias in examining theses and the circulation of damaging rumours.) Most academic staff are afraid to do anything which might offend the administration and get them into the administration's dossiers, thereby jeopardising their prospects for promotions and perks. The result of the hierarchy is conformism. Most academics after all have to live in the local hierarchy, and for most of them rocking the boat is not worth the unpleasantness it generates.

Snobbery. Perceptions of what academics say and do are shaped by what position they hold. Contrary to the ideal of the academic community of scholars, formal status deeply affects the informal status system. A friend of mine, a tutor for several years, became a temporary lecturer one year. Suddenly he was 'somebody': academics in nearby offices began talking to him. Then he went back to being a tutor, part-time at that ... and a 'nobody'.

In seminars, I have observed academics in high positions make critical comments and be listened to carefully (if not agreed with). But when a junior staff member or student makes a similar criticism, this generates considerable hostility. How dare she say that!

Formal status is very important to academics. Having a degree from Cambridge or Harvard is a great advantage. A colleague with the same teaching and research performance but with a degree instead from Southwest Texas State or a London polytechnic has nothing like the same status or prospects.

Local intrigue. The local hierarchy generates an enormous amount of gossip, backstabbing and denigration of those in opposing cliques. Some academics gain a great deal of satisfaction in putting down others in petty ways. For example, a department head may write a bad reference for a staff member who is seen as an upstart (namely, someone not suitably deferential). A faction within a department may ensure that its supporters have larger chairs in their offices. An enemy may be denied the full amount of a request for equipment. A department may design its courses to undercut the effectiveness of a rival department's offerings.

Local intrigue is often seen as due to the defects of individuals, and academics will readily point to the obstinacy and bitchiness of certain others which cause the whole process to proceed. But the problem is much more fundamental than this. The academic power system is hierarchical, providing resources to those in power. Yet it is not a rigidly bureaucratic system. Rather than subordinates being kept in their place, there are many cross-cutting avenues for influence. In particular, a key element in academic power struggles is scholarly status, which is related to one's discipline, one's speciality, one's supporters, one's personal bearing and presence, one's formal position and one's achievements. Scholarly status is 'negotiated' to a considerable degree. It can be enhanced by convincing others of its importance, and by organising others to support it. The uncertain and vulnerable nature of scholarly status combined with the systems of formal position result in an ongoing struggle for power and prestige. The struggle is often so petty that 'intrigue' is a complimentary description.

One of the standard ways in which academics exploit the power system is to prevent challengers getting ahead. For example, an academic who climbs to high posts via the local political system may enjoy getting onto appointment and promotion committees and obstructing the careers of those who are 'unstable', are 'too aggressive', do 'superficial' research, or are not 'committed to the department' - namely, productive scholars in junior posts who threaten to upstage their superiors.

It is possible to look at the bright side. One academic, after hearing several stories about pettiness, arrogance and backstabbing, commented, "But just imagine how bad it would be if they weren't all scholars dedicated to the pursuit of truth!"

Cheating. Stealing, fraud, plagiarism: these are seen as egregious sins for academics. Yet available evidence suggests that they occur much more often than generally recognised.There are quite a number of documented cases of serious cheating: stealing of credit for the ideas of others, altering experimental findings or creating them out of nothing, and copying the writings of others. These are the extreme cases. At a less serious level, a substantial proportion of scientists stated in a survey that work of theirs had not been given reasonable credit in the writings of other scientists.

It is easy to understand why cheating is considered a serious offence within academia. It is a threat to the careers of other academics. It challenges the legitimate processes for the licensing of credit for knowledge creation.

The question here is, why does cheating occur at all? One of the most important reasons is the intensely competitive atmosphere in branches of science and academia. Many scholars are caught up in beliefs about the necessity to publish and to be original, but are unable to achieve according to their own expectations or those of bosses. One result can be cheating.

Actually, cheating is only the most blatant result of competitive pressures. Another more pervasive consequence is shoddy research: work which is rushed into publication at a preliminary stage, without careful checking and often without adding much to what is already in the academic literature. The whole publication game, with the ever-cheapening currency of published work (in which quantity counts more than quality), owes a lot to the pressure to get ahead or simply survive within the academic hierarchy.

It would be easy to reduce cheating effectively, namely by providing mechanisms to investigate alleged cases and by publicising names and details about offenders and offences. But such mechanisms seldom exist, and this procedure is seldom used. Academics may oppose cheating, but they do not want it publicised widely, because that would damage the credibility and status of the profession as a whole. In one widely publicised case in the US, the cancer researcher Elias A. K. Alsabti built a career on copying other people's papers in full and getting them published. When he was found out at one institution, he was quietly let go, and he then moved on to another place. The individual researchers did not want to trumpet the message, "There is a plagiariser in our midst." Alsabti's amazing career was only halted after his exploits were widely publicised by science journalists.

The net result is that the combination of local hierarchy and research-based advancement leads to substantial amounts of cheating, but the protection of professional status limits open discussion and opportunities for redress.

It is common for supervisors to put their names as joint author on publications reporting work by their students, even if the student did most or all of the work. I have been informed of so many cases of this that I've lost count. Sometimes the student's name only appears in the acknowledgments, or not at all! This type of exploitation is a direct result of the hierarchy. Students are seldom willing to speak out about it because they depend on the recommendations of their supervisors. Also, what administrator would side with a student against an established staff member?

Secrecy. As I argued before, academics favour open publication of results because this prevents the profession being dominated by special interest groups. Scholarly work is kept most secret when researchers are most dependent on a particular powerful group, such as the military. The contrary danger to academics in open publication is that non-academic groups will be able to use the knowledge without dependence on the researchers. This is overcome, in part, by jargon and by orientation of the knowledge to the interests of powerful groups.

The academic hierarchy and the research system are further complicating factors in the complex of conflicting pressures for secrecy and openness. Individual researchers and research teams depend for their status and for their continuing access to research facilities on receiving full credit for their contributions to knowledge. Because of this, they fear the claiming of credit for their contributions by other researchers and groups. The result in many circles is a reluctance to speak freely about research plans and to circulate preliminary studies. For example, in one department I was told that most of the PhD students did not want to let outsiders read their theses until they had been granted their degree, for fear that their ideas would be used by others without acknowledgment. Such appropriation of credit for ideas may happen only infrequently, but often enough to make many students - who are at a very vulnerable stage in their careers - almost paranoid about the dangers. The same sort of closeness about research in progress is also found at higher levels on the academic ladder.

Secrecy also affects behaviour in the local hierarchy. Ideas for initiatives and plans for allocation of resources are often restricted to the 'in-crowd' in order to prevent widespread discussion and possible mobilisation of opposition. In political in-fighting, knowledge is an important resource. Ideas and plans may be limited in circulation until a decision is a fait accompli, or they may be publicised to set the agenda for a debate.

From the point of view of developing an intellectual culture in which ideas are freely exchanged and mutual intellectual stimulation causes the sparking of ideas and the creative consideration of decisions, secrecy resulting from concern over priority and fear of stealing is a terrible blight on the system. But the blight is not just an unfortunate aberration. It springs from the hierarchical system itself.

Motivation. Many students and academics believe that they seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge itself or because of how the knowledge can be used to help people. This is very noble and true in some cases. But the academic hierarchy provides a rather different motivation for the actions of academics and students. Knowledge provides a way for them to get ahead in life. Doing research on the origins of cancer or war may be a convenient way of building a career, a way which is easy to justify in terms of the highest principles.

Students accept the syllabus and the methods of teaching and assessment because that is the way they pass courses and obtain degrees. Very few students are willing to jeopardise their degrees and career opportunities in order to pursue studies contrary to the syllabus.

Academics also accept the dominant knowledge frameworks and the standard methods of teaching and doing research. Very few are willing to jeopardise their promotion prospects - or their jobs - to pursue studies which are poorly rewarded. Complaints about their salaries, and comments about how much money they could be making in business or government, are frequent in academia. How many academics would keep doing their teaching and research on the same salary as the cleaner in their building? All indications suggest that the answer is very few.

Salary and formal career position and future job prospects are key motivating forces for students and academics. The academic hierarchy does not promote love of learning for its own sake or for service to people. Rather, it promotes these things only in as much as they can be tightly linked to the career interests of students and academics themselves.

Burnout. The academic hierarchy inevitably creates losers: those students and academics who are less than fully successful. For example, many academics may work hard in the early stages of their career only to find that they have no further promotion prospects because they are in the wrong field, because they have concentrated too much on teaching at the expense of research, or because they are outsiders in relation to the local hierarchy. The result, quite frequently, is demoralisation and burnout. Quite a few academics lack incentive to do anything more than just enough to get by.

The burnout syndrome is quite pervasive. In many cases whole departments or institutions may suffer. This is especially true when economic contraction reduces opportunities for movement or advancement. In these cases the local hierarchy gains power, and those not on the inside channels may give up in disgust.

Usually the blame for lackadaisical student or academic performance is put on the individual. But the problem is really one of the hierarchical power system. When the primary motivation for learning and research is individual advancement and the channels for advancement are clogged, the result is predictable.

Reinforcement of hierarchy

With all these unfortunate consequences, why does hierarchy persist? The obvious answer is that it benefits the people at the top. This is pretty accurate as far as it goes. But the process needs to be analysed somewhat further. The processes causing the persistence and reinforcement of academic hierarchy can be divided into those growing mainly out of internal dynamics and those growing mainly out of relations with external groups.

In terms of internal dynamics, the power of the academic elite is used regularly to suppress challenges to the hierarchy. The members of the elite may be divided along the lines of disciplines or political views, but there is a strong affinity on certain issues of 'principle', namely their own power. Proposals to broaden staff participation in fundamental decisions about curriculum, to flatten the salary structure or to put significant numbers of students on governing bodies are opposed by most of the academic elite. It does not matter greatly whether the challenge to the hierarchy is from below, such as from students, or from above, such as the impositions of government.

Members of the academic power elite exert power through their roles in deciding the budget, choosing staff, deciding on promotions, allocating courses and research moneys, and permitting publication in journals. Critics of the hierarchy - whether critics by word or deed - may be ignored in the hope that they will give up or go away. If they seem to be effective they may find difficulties in career advancement and in getting their message published. This has happened to untold numbers of academics over many decades.

Whatever the current distribution of power, the immediate stimulus to defend the interests of the academic hierarchy comes from threats to alter it. This is illustrated by the campaign by honours history students at the Australian National University to obtain information about their marks through the year. The students were given only a single assessment at the end of the year; what they wanted were their intermediate marks on different assignments, to give them better feedback about their performance. This seems like a small request, especially considering that many departments at ANU and other universities routinely give such information. But the history department staff refused to give in. The students were forced to make a request through the government's freedom of information legislation in order to obtain the information. (The students succeeded.)

Similar obstruction to change has been encountered when students request more representation (or representation in the first place) on university committees, or when students demand new courses, changed syllabuses or different assessment methods. This suggests that the academic hierarchy is much more threatened by the development of a process of change than by any single shift in power, once established.

It can hardly escape notice that challenges to the academic hierarchy are not very common. Those in higher positions do not often have to come out in the open and oppose student participation or campaigns for more equal salaries or for abolition of promotion ranks. The reason for this is that the academic hierarchy mobilises widespread support for itself.

The hierarchy promises rewards of status and money for those who advance in it. For any individual, it is much easier to personally advance than to challenge the hierarchy itself. Combined with the pervasive individualism of intellectual life in undergraduate study and in staff research, the result is that most students and academics believe wholeheartedly in the necessity and virtue of a hierarchy of positions.

Naturally it is those who succeed in the hierarchy who come to subscribe to it most deeply and vehemently. Those who fall by the wayside in the struggle for advancement are more likely to become apathetic or bitter. The result is that loyalty to the system is greatest where it is most required, namely at the top. Among the unsuccessful students and academics there is little motivation to challenge the system individually or collectively.

In systems based on individualism, success and failure are claimed to be the responsibility of the individual. This causes a great deal of personal insecurity even in those who are successful for the time being. If the system were purely competitive, it would be incredibly threatening to individual egos. For insecure people, formal hierarchy is protective: it ratifies and affirms their roles, and reduces competition. This applies both to students who inch their way through the system of ranked courses and to academics who seek their maximum level of advancement and seek protection against upstarts.

Yet another way in which the hierarchy is reinforced is through the differences in knowledge and experience created by the hierarchy itself. There is no evidence to suggest that the average undergraduate - after some on-the-spot training and experience - could not perform as competently as the average head of department, dean or vice-chancellor. (A body transplant might be required for the student to appear sufficiently old - and male. Some building of confidence and arrogance would also be useful.) Elite positions in the academic hierarchy seem to require special talents, but the aura associated with these jobs results to a great degree from access to inside knowledge and from the prestige of the job itself. Deans, for example, obtain all sorts of confidential information about staff members. They sit on important committees, and have informal discussions with other members of the administration. The post may give the holder a great deal of power and responsibility, but that does not mean that it requires some special talent. The mystique of administrative elites is perpetuated by restricting open evaluation of their decisions. As in any bureaucracy, induction into the corridors of power and inside knowledge is restricted to those who have demonstrated their commitment to the system through long and loyal service.

In a number of ways, then, the psychology of students and academics is mobilised by the hierarchical structure of academia to suit the structure itself. As well as this, there are also external influences on academia which reinforce the internal hierarchy.

In relation to groups outside academia, the status of expert knowledge is linked to the position of the expert academic. A government which is establishing an expert panel on labour relations or on administrative reform is more likely to draw on top academics than on students - even if some students have more to contribute than the top academics. The academic hierarchy gains part of its power from connections with powerful outside groups, but this power depends on the maintenance of the academic hierarchy itself. Therefore the academic elite has an additional reason to maintain the hierarchy.

A position in the academic hierarchy as an administrator or researcher provides avenues for external influence because of the power exercised in relation to intellectual resources. Teaching on the other hand does not increase an academic's control over intellectual resources, unless the students form a cohesive community following the teacher's line. Hence teaching is seldom a path to external influence for an academic.

Maintenance of the hierarchy is also in the interests of the external powerful groups. In order to exert influence on the overall or specific directions of research and teaching, it is much easier to influence a relatively small academic power elite than to influence an entire academic community directly, since the academic power elite sets much of the agenda for the rest of the academic community.

In the public domain, the formal status of academic 'experts' often counts much more than what they have to say. For example, Bertell Ollman's court challenge to the blocking of his appointment at the University of Maryland - see chapter 9 - failed because the judge accepted the word of the university president over that of several other academics who testified. Essentially, academic status counted more than the quality or quantity of evidence.

Top academics who are willing to make public statements and talk to the press are avidly quoted and reported, even if what they say is banal or foolish (some would say especially when it is banal or foolish). Prestigious academics, with careers based on counting photons or rats, are treated as gurus on all sorts of topics, from education to poverty. Junior staff and undergraduates, not to mention nonacademics, who may have more well informed and insightful views, are seldom listened to with the same respect.

While it is true that academic elites are often beholden to outside interest groups, it is also true that a disproportionate number of prestigious academics are individualists or renegades: their commitment to the status quo is by no means guaranteed. This is another reason why joining public debates is frowned upon by the protectors of academic decorum.

Consider a law school. Normally the top law academics have personal and organisational connections with leaders of the local legal establishment. The law academics thereby are likely to be more or less in tune with the legal perspectives of dominant groups - the ones which provide the most high-paying jobs for lawyers. Now imagine a non hierarchical law school, in which courses were designed collectively by students and staff and in which the number of staff positions was much larger - with many part-time positions - and at a fairly low, flat salary. With such a system, outside powerful groups could still influence quite a number of the law school staff by offering lucrative work. But there would exist a much stronger base for at least some of the law school staff and students to align themselves with less powerful groups, for example by setting up special units and running legal workshops and other services for women, the poor, minorities, etc. A non-hierarchical system thus would provide for an easier realignment of academic knowledge to less powerful groups.

In practice, the choice is seldom between a fully hierarchical and a fully non-hierarchical system. Current academic systems are not rigidly stratified, and already contain the possibilities for redirection of research and teaching. But the basic point remains: hierarchy provides greater opportunities for external powerful groups to influence the overall direction of higher education.

The basic reason for this is that hierarchies mesh more easily with each other than with egalitarian systems. As argued in chapter 8, control by the state over higher education contributes to the bureaucratisation of university structures. As argued in chapter 5, systems of male dominance and internal academic hierarchy serve to reinforce each other.

Since World War II, large amounts of research funding in the United States have been in the form of research grants to individual researchers and their research teams. This contrasts with the traditional provision of research funds through departmental and university channels. The largest grants have gone to research elites: academics in powerful and prestigious positions, often with many friends and contacts in high places.

Direct funding for research has contradictory implications for the academic hierarchy. On the one hand, many of those in the top positions gain even more power and in return become more oriented to the interests of the funding bodies. On the other hand, outside grants sometimes give academics resources that they can use to gain leverage against the local hierarchy. So while external funding often meshes with internal hierarchy, contrary interactions are also possible.

The Spautz-University of Newcastle case

Dr Michael Spautz joined the Department of Commerce at the University of Newcastle in 1973, as a senior lecturer. In 1980 he was dismissed from his tenured position. His case illustrates several features of the power hierarchy of academia.

In 1977 Alan Williams took up a post as the second professor in the Department of Commerce. In Australia, professors are very much the elite of the academic system.

In the latter half of 1978, Spautz began questioning aspects of Williams's PhD thesis. Williams's thesis argued that the failure of small businesses was in many cases a consequence of the psychological deficiencies of their owners and managers. Spautz suggested that this could confuse cause and effect: it could just as well be that failure in business led to psychological problems. Spautz also alleged that the thesis contained inappropriate use of statistical tests. Spautz's basic challenge to the academic hierarchy thus was to question the credentials of a senior academic.

Spautz first brought his allegations to the attention of Williams and then other university officials, as well as trying to publish scholarly replies to articles reporting Williams's work. But when these approaches led to no response, Spautz slowly began making his allegations known more widely. In early 1979, Spautz introduced another charge about the thesis: that it contained plagiarised passages. Spautz thereby entered treacherous waters in dealing with the 'taboo' topic of plagiarism, which when publicised can be harmful to the image of academia as a whole. Spautz's challenge to the thesis was important scholastically, since Williams had only a very few publications.

The response of the University of Newcastle administration was to establish a committee to investigate the 'dispute'. The committee's focus was mostly on Spautz's behaviour, and the committee's report essentially told Spautz to stop his 'campaign' against Williams. Spautz's allegations about the thesis were not examined in any depth. Thus the response of the hierarchy was to attempt to suppress a challenge to one of its members rather than to deal with the charges of scholarly shortcomings.

Rather than halting his campaign, Spautz expanded it. He circulated numerous copies of memos to staff at the university, describing his allegations. This was a further challenge to the academic hierarchy: taking an issue to the wider academic community through channels outside the usual academic ones (which are normally controlled by members of the academic elite). The result was another inquiry into Spautz's behaviour. Without being given an opportunity to defend himself against formal charges of misbehaviour, Spautz was dismissed from the university by the Council ( the governing body) in May 1980 .

Spautz has repeated his allegations ever more widely in the years since his dismissal, and has mounted a series of court cases. The interesting point here is that Spautz's original allegations about Williams's thesis have never been investigated further by any official body. Essentially the university elite closed ranks on this issue. Opening an inquiry into the credentials of a professor could set a precedent very threatening to the hierarchy. Furthermore, if Williams's thesis were shown to be deficient, then this might raise questions about the competence of the academics who refereed the thesis and the academics who appointed Williams to a chair on such a limited output of publications.

Spautz has received little support even from junior staff in his campaigns. There are a number of reasons for this, including Spautz's deliberately provocative personal style. But there is another reason: many academics are simply afraid to speak out on the issue because this might hurt their own careers. This fear is realistic, in that in some other famous cases of staff-administration struggles, some of those who supported the critics were victimised themselves. The fear of most academics to speak out - even to demand an impartial scholarly inquiry into Spautz's original allegations - suggests an awareness of the power of the academic elite which belies the usual platitudes about academic freedom.

Age discrimination

In Britain in the 1980s, a large number of new tenurable university posts were created especially for young people: the so-called 'new blood' lectureships. This was a response to the funding squeeze on higher education and the lack of opportunity for aspiring scholars to obtain permanent posts. The question is, why did the response to the squeeze take the form of posts especially for the young? The answer in part reflects the interests of the academic hierarchy. But before dealing with the explanation, it is worth outlining the arguments against age discrimination.

* Chronological age itself has no relevance to a person's ability to perform a job and to contribute enthusiasm and new ideas. Age discrimination is contrary to academic merit, just like discrimination on the basis of sex, ethnic origin or political affiliation.

* Outstanding older applicants are ruled out of contention.

* Resentment and disillusionment are likely among those who have been working for many years in untenured posts and who now are too old for the new posts.

* Age discrimination is de facto discrimination against women. Women are more likely to have interrupted careers due to child-bearing and rearing, due to social expectations, and due to previous discrimination.

* Academics who are appointed young are more likely to become stale. Appointing older applicants - especially those with significant experience outside academia - is a much better way to overcome staleness and inflexibility of staffing than to appoint young people. 'New blood' does not have to be 'young blood'.

In spite of all these disadvantages, 'new blood' appointments have not been opposed by more than a handful of elite academics. The reason is that age discrimination helps to reinforce the academic power hierarchy.

First, the fact that age discrimination is in practice a form of sex discrimination is no problem for academic elites who have never been enthusiastic about equal opportunity. Women are not a significant part of the academic power elite, and so are not in a position to promote appointment policies which would selectively help women.

Second, academic elites are mainly men who obtained posts earlier in their careers as they proceeded single-mindedly through specialist research without interruptions for outside employment, extended travel or child rearing. The 'new blood' posts allow the appointment of young men who appear to replicate the paths of their superiors. It is a great opportunity to sponsor 'golden-haired boys', namely the young proteges of elite academics.

Third, young appointees are more malleable. Because of their lack of experience, they are more likely to adapt to the power system as it exists. Older appointees might well be more qualified and experienced than existing staff in higher positions. How embarrassing to have an obviously superior and more experienced performer in a junior position! Older appointees are also more likely to have strong and well-thought-out opinions, and be less given to bootlicking. To appoint an older, experienced scholar to a junior position can only upset the academic pecking order. Age discrimination on the other hand serves to perpetuate it.

In short, the academic hierarchy is reproduced by appointing people who will follow the same careers as their elders. There are some alternatives to age discrimination, but they are less compatible with the academic hierarchy.

* More fractional appointments, with benefits and security comparable to full-time appointments, would open up more posts and also allow those with other commitments - such as people rearing children - to gradually enter the system. But this would undercut the mobilisation of loyalty to the academic hierarchy which comes from full-time work.

* More appointments could be made at lower ranks and fewer at higher ranks, thereby expanding the number of posts. This of course would reduce promotion prospects and hence reduce the rewards for academic competition and loyalty.

* More total appointments could be achieved by reducing or flattening academic salaries. Needless to say, this would never be supported by academic elites.

* The tenure system could be changed so that security is greatest for those in the lowest positions rather than those in the highest positions. This would overcome the problem of stale and unproductive staff sitting in perpetuity in high-level tenured positions, but clearly it also would undercut the hierarchy.

The lack of opposition to age discrimination illustrates how the priorities of the academic hierarchy shape the political assessment of policy options. Academic principles become a rhetorical device when they are convenient, such as defending against the impositions of outside controls. They can be quietly ignored when they conflict with the reproduction of the hierarchy itself. Academic administrations are quite ready to sacrifice academic principles if that is what is required to maintain their power.


Thus far I have mainly emphasised the ways in which academic hierarchy is reinforced internally and externally. But there are quite a number of forces opposing hierarchy, and also some severe internal contradictions in the system.

Intellectual equality. One of the prime difficulties with the formal academic hierarchy is that it does not reflect the distribution of academic ability in the conventional sense. In spite of the advantages held by academic elites - high prestige, access to inside knowledge, work done by subordinate staff - many of them do not shine very brightly in the scholarly firmament. Many junior staff, advanced degree students, or even undergraduates can hardly avoid realising that the mouthings of many eminent scholars are platitudes or worse, and that their own ideas and contributions are at least as worthy. A small number of the junior scholars make attempts to prick the scholarly balloons of elite staff, for example by asking embarrassing questions at seminars or by writing critical articles. Such attacks cannot but undermine the status of elite positions.

The most effective way to head off such attacks is to specialise and to become the expert in a narrow area, as the next chapter will show. But if academic elites are to expand their empires or to make their knowledge available to outside groups, they cannot easily remain in narrow research boxes. When they come out, they are vulnerable to attacks on intellectual grounds. Another way to reduce attacks is to rapidly promote the attackers. But the inflexibility of the hierarchy may not always allow this, not to mention personal animosities which may outweigh political shrewdness.

Competition in the research system. Advancement through the research system itself is often a challenge to the local hierarchy, as described before. One special case is worth noting: the blockage of advancement of new academics. This can happen when the system is contracting, for example, and few positions are opening up. When this happens, the divergence between position and performance can become especially blatant, and this can lead to resentment and sometimes radicalism by those whose careers are blocked.

Lack of flexibility. Many different groups have an interest in what teaching and research goes on in academia, ranging from corporations to social movements. If the hierarchy stultifies all initiative, academics will not be able to respond to new pressures, and this may lead to outside intervention. For example, if training of students is too academic and not sufficiently oriented to the labour market (that is, corporate and government requirements), the state may apply pressure for more vocational training by threatening to divert funds to vocational institutions. The women's movement has led to expectations for equal employment opportunity, and if academic hierarchies cannot accommodate this quickly enough, government intervention is again possible.

Negative consequences. The consequences of hierarchy and competition - such as cheating and burnout - sometimes lead to critical attention to academia, but not all that often. Usually the focus is on symptoms rather than underlying causes.

One student I know, inspired by the title of Hunter S. Thompson's novel, planned a research project on 'fear and loathing in the university'. It would have been a superb exposé. But she dropped it on the advice of her supervisor. He said there was too much material to cover even for a PhD, much less an undergraduate honours thesis.

Ideals. Many students and quite a few staff believe in and act according to the ideals of higher education: a concern for learning, service to the community, sharing of knowledge, and a commitment to truth irrespective of whom it serves. These ideals are of course the official rhetoric of academia, but they do not mesh well with the existence of a hierarchical power system. If the goal is learning, then why should students be given so little voice in designing their courses? If the goal is advancement of knowledge, then why are resources allocated to powerful departments rather than to the ones doing the most innovative work? If academia is a community of scholars, then why is criticism of the competence of students so readily accepted while criticism of the competence of administrators is taboo? Why are suggestions for change assessed according to who makes them rather than the quality of the suggestions? These and many other contradictions between the ideals and reality of academia provide a continuing source of challenges to the academic hierarchy.

In spite of all these sources of challenge, academic hierarchy is alive and well. Most of the challenges, if they have any effect at all, result in replacement of elites, not a change in the elite system.


Anthony Arblaster, Academic freedom (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974). An analysis and documentation of the exercise of power by academic administrators to suppress critics.

J. Victor Baldridge, Power and conflict in the university: research in the sociology of complex organisations (New York: Wiley, 1971). An insightful treatment of academia as a political system.

Bob Bessant, 'Corporate management and its penetration of university administration and government', Australian Universities' Review, vol. 38, no. 1, 1995, pp. 59-62.

Theodore Caplow and Reece J. McGee, The academic marketplace (New York: Basic Books, 1958). A sociological study of academic institutions, with many insights into the exercise of power.

Alvin W. Gouldner, 'Cosmopolitans and locals: toward an analysis of latent social roles', Administrative Science Quarterly, vol. 2, 1958, pp. 281-306, 444-480. A classic analysis of types of personal identities in academic organisations.

Jan-Erik Lane, 'Power in the university', European journal of education, vol. 14, no. 4, 1979, pp. 389-402. An argument that the department is the key to internal academic decision-making.

Lionel S. Lewis, Scaling the ivory tower: merit and its limits in academic careers (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975). A penetrating examination of evaluation of performance in academia and how it reflects the power structure.

Brian Martin, C. M. Ann Baker, Clyde Manwell and Cedric Pugh (eds), Intellectual suppression: Australian case histories, analysis and responses (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1986). Case studies and analysis of the suppression of intellectual dissent in academia.

Monte Piliawsky, Exit 13: oppression and racism in academia (Boston: South End Press, 1982). A potent critique of racism in US academia.

Logan Wilson, The academic man: a study in the sociology of a profession (New York: Oxford University Press, 1942). Things have not changed much since this study dealing with academic hierarchy, status and processes.

There are many exposés of problems in academia. Though these usually lack any structural analysis of the source Or the problems, they are very revealing and thought-provoking, and hence much more useful than most academic treatments.

Bernie Fels, 'The academy and its discontents', Telos, no. 40, summer 1979, pp. 173-176. A bitter attack on power-mongering in the university and especially the complicity of leftists in it.

Morris Kline, Why the Professor can't teach: mathematics and the dilemma of university education (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1977). A delightfully readable and myth-shattering attack on academia.

Richard D. Mandell, The Professor game (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1977). An incisive, witty, sarcastic and cynical view of United States university professors.

A. P. Rowe, If the gown fits (Parkville: Melbourne University Press, 1960). Trenchant observations about the Australian academic scene in the 1950s, from an elitist viewpoint.

Richard K. Scher, 'Academic macho', Educational horizons, vol. 61, no. 2, Winter 1983, pp. 83-87. A concise survey of pathologies of academic interpersonal relations.

Charles J. Sykes, Prof scam: professors and the demise of higher education (Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, 1988). A no-holds barred attack on the US professor's teaching, research and culture.

Jack Trumpbour (ed.), How Harvard rules: reason in the service of empire (Boston: South End Press, 1989). An excellent critique, covering governance, links with US government and corporations, ideology, social control and strategies for change.

Pierre van den Berghe, Academic gamesmanship: how to make a Ph.D. pay (London: Abelard-Schuman, 1970). A humorous and extremely biting satire of the myths and realities of academic life.

Arthur S. Wilke (ed.), The hidden professoriate: credentialism, professionalism, and the tenure crisis (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1979). A collection of case histories of internecine battles, exploitation, abuse and general nastiness of academia, showing especially the vulnerability of students, women and junior staff.

George Williams, Some of my best friends are professors: a critical commentary on higher education (New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1958). Indeed, "a critical commentary."

Professor X, This beats working for a living: the dark secrets of a college professor (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1973). An amusing exposé of university life from a relatively conservative viewpoint.

On the Alsabti case, see William Broad and Nicholas Wade, Betrayers of the truth (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982). On cheating see also Clyde Manwell and C. M. Ann Baker, 'Honesty in science', Search, vol. 12, no. 6, June 1981, pp. 151-160.

On the Spautz-University of Newcastle case see: Brian Martin, 'Disruption and due process: the dismissal of Dr Spautz from the University of Newcastle', Vestes, vol. 26, no. 1, 1983, pp. 3-9; Brian Martin, 'Plagiarism and responsibility', Journal of tertiary educational administration, vol. 6, no. 2, October 1984, pp. 183-190. [See also "A disastrous quest for justice," Brian's Comments, 29 August 2018.]