Suckers of the world unite

June 25, 2004

Tim Birkhead's piece on the division of the academic community into egotists and suckers (Professional, June 11) was timely. Not least when, in the same issue, we see the reported rise of the "research-only" academic who, under prevailing conditions, is necessarily dependent on the presence of sufficient suckers doing the all-round academic job. Birkhead's identification of the symptoms of this problem was spot on, but his diagnosis of the causes was incomplete. The impression left by the article was too individualistic: the implication being that where one was on the egomaniac-sucker continuum was largely a matter of individual psychology or how nice one was.

A more trenchant critique would acknowledge that the opportunity to be an egomaniac is not evenly distributed among the academic population. Social dimensions such as gender, race and age also structure the continuum.

Junior colleagues are especially likely to bear the brunt of the research-only egomaniac being parachuted in - having little choice but to be a sucker and cover the teaching and administration they might have done.

As we know, minorities within the academic community are concentrated at the bottom of job hierarchies, predominate in part-time and fixed-term contracts and are least likely to be able to negotiate advantageous terms.

Instead of simply lamenting the existence of egomaniacs, we should construct a fully developed critique of the inequalities in employment and promotion practices that allow, and indeed encourage, them to exist.

Sarah A. Vickerstaff
Reader in employment policy and practice and self-confessed sucker
Kent University

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