Academia can be easily exploited

I’ve got to say, Irina Dumitrescu has the most cynical view of the university system I’ve read. I don’t entirely agree, but I can see where she’s coming from.

Universities sing the song of meritocracy but dance to a different tune. In reality, they will do everything to reward and protect their most destructive, abusive and uncooperative faculty. The more thoroughly such scholars poison departments, programmes and individual lives, the more universities double down to please them.

Universities are even willing to ruin their own reputations and alienate their alumni to protect bullies and abusers. They might think that reputation management demands that such behaviour be swept under the carpet, but they ought to know that the scandals will break eventually, and that the cover-up will make them look worse. Some universities even hire people in the full knowledge of abuse allegations against them, thereby becoming invested in keeping secret their decision to put their students in harm’s way.

On the whole, I’ve found universities to be broadly egalitarian and altruistic, but that the management tends to be more out of touch with our ideals. There’s a body of people at the top who see the educational system as a political tool to get power and influence, and we’re at their mercy.

That said, though, it’s also the case that a population dedicated to teaching and science is acutely vulnerable to individuals who can cut through our ranks like a hot needle through butter. I’ve known people who fit her formula for success…even though they are the minority, I imagine her formula for penetrating academia would work too well.

  1. Cultivate powerful friends. Gain power over as many publication organs and scholarly bodies as possible and use them to promote your clique.
  2. Do nothing for anyone unimportant.
  3. Find a less successful scholar who will fear and admire you. Flatter them into becoming your sidekick and count on them to denigrate your colleagues and defend your reputation.
  4. Crush the confidence of students with the potential to surpass you. Or sleep with them. Or both.
  5. Manipulate students and employees into feeling they owe you, long after you no longer have power over them. Make outrageous, unethical promises they will feel bad about accepting or refusing.
  6. Promote a zero-sum model of success. Anyone else’s gain is your loss. Claim your students’ work as your own and reassign their best ideas to your favourites. Collaboration is for losers.
  7. Systematically badmouth your colleagues so you can improve your own standing. Shut out the students of rival scholars. Mock those rivals for having less successful students.
  8. Gaslight and spread misinformation about anyone who stands up to you. Complain about the “rumour mill” and “witch-hunts”. Accuse your critics of jealousy.
  9. Ask loudly why no one is willing to come forward officially to substantiate the rumours of abuse against you. If someone overcomes their terror, call them crazy.
  10. Lie brazenly. Accuse others of lying.

Dang. I’ve been doing it all wrong. I think my academic mentors have been setting a bad example for this kind of behavior.

It’s strange, too, that we would attract these kinds of individuals at all. It’s not like we’re competing for huge rewards — this is actually not at all how academia works, sadly.

Maybe not “sadly”…while it would have been nice to buy my mama a house with my first academic appointment, I think it would be terrible to have such an over-inflated sense of worth, and it would have also led to attracting even more toxic personalities.


  1. Owlmirror says

    That said, though, it’s also the case that a population dedicated to teaching and science is acutely individuals who can cut through our ranks like a hot needle through butter.

    This sentence seems to be missing a couple of words after ‘acutely’.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    … a population dedicated to teaching and science is acutely individuals who can cut through our ranks like a hot needle through butter.

    Uh, does this make sense to anybody here, grammatically or otherwise?

  3. Owlmirror says

    @Pierce R. Butler: I interpolated the words “vulnerable to” after “acutely” and before “individuals” — but I don’t want to put words in PZ’s mouth.

  4. mikehuben says

    “It’s strange, too, that we would attract these kinds of individuals at all. It’s not like we’re competing for huge rewards — this is actually not at all how academia works, sadly.”

    Big frogs, little puddles. People don’t really need any more, especially if the puddles are very secure.

  5. stroppy says

    “Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.”

    On the Republican model however: Politics are so vicious precisely when the people are so small.

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    Owlmirror @ # 3 – I agree, something went missing right about there – but only our esteemed host can say what, or which nefarious conspiracy to blame!

  7. waydude says

    I think ‘acutely’ is a ‘covfefe’ and it was supposed to be ‘accruing’ maybe

    Also, I can’t stand watching sports so much I coudn’t even watch the K&P sketch which are usually brilliant

  8. garnetstar says

    I don’t know about the universities–some have better policies than she states.
    But sadly, I do know some professors who follow her advice for success rather closely.

    But she forgot the most important point: bring in lots of money. Then, the university will definitely tolerate almost any bad behavior from you, and all the nastiness you wish to indulge in.
    The higher “status” the university thinks it has, the more the amount of money you bring in becomes the sole factor, and your behavior can be as vicious as you want.

  9. bryanfeir says

    The way I put it back in University was “There are people out there whose primary goal in life is to find a pond small enough that they can be a big fish in it.”

    The corollary was “… which they will then defend against all comers out of all proportion to its actual value.” Which I would later discover was a restatement of what stroppy says in the next comment.

    Sayre’s Law. Sayre was a professor of political science, so he knew of what he spoke.

    (I was mostly thinking about SF fandom groups at the time. You don’t get much more ‘small stakes’ than that, and yet back in the 1980s there were two Star Trek fan clubs in Toronto that mostly refused to talk to each other. I don’t know the internal details, unfortunately.)

  10. seachange says

    I favor the cynic.

    PZ Meyers said (snip) but that the management tends to be (end snip)

    Universities are run by those managers. More and more of them overpaid more and more of them while tenure positions in the (alleged) purpose of University tenured professors are not any of that. Numbers matter, power structures matter and in a capitalist society money matters.

    The original LA Times (twenty years ago) was run by conservative racists. The reporters I ever knew who worked there were all liberal and non-racist. At the time the LA Times famously was a huge telephone book every day because they claimed they wanted to give you ALL the news. But the stories were either edited so, or the reporters were trained to write so, so that the racism and conservatism came first in the articles and buried six pages in was the real story which had nothing to do with the headline attached. If you wanted to know the news, you had to read the whole dang HUGE thing and then reinterpret it.

    A tenured professor might have time or inclination to do that. Most people don’t.

  11. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    While I was in grad school, I saw what the profs and post docs had to put up with. We grad students were fairly insulated in the bosom of the physics department from the bureaucracy of the university (unless you did something stupid like not pay tuition on time, get a parking ticket…). The faculty bore the brunt of a kafka-esque bureaucracy that really would have just as soon seen them dead as tenured.
    After I got my PhD, I ran about as far away from academia as I could–literally and figuratively. I subsequently tried teaching at a small college, but decided that unless I wanted to remain an underpaid, exploited peon with a PhD, I’d better get out.
    I went the applied physics route. I’ve had a good career, interesting work and about 2-4x as much pay as I would have made in academia. So my question is, in this day of exploitation, why would anyone want to go into academia.

  12. A Sloth named Sparkles says

    Why does this article reminds me of someone bog-standard, plucked and keeps doing hearsay?