Laws of the academic jungle

What’s it all about? The winner of the THE Lord Dearing Lifetime Achievement Award has distilled ten facts of university life to share

October 28, 2009

It was Wallace Stanley Sayre, a political scientist at Columbia University, who reportedly came up with the most famous law of academic politics: the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the stakes at issue.

Anyone involved in sorting out university car-parking will recognise the law’s truth.

Now Sir David Watson, professor of higher education management at the Institute of Education and winner of Times Higher Education’s 2009 Lord Dearing Lifetime Achievement Award, has condensed his observations of the sector into nine rules of his own.

Watson’s “Laws of Academic Life” are:

* Academics grow in confidence the farther away they are from their true fields of expertise (what you really know about is provisional and ambiguous, what other people do is clear-cut and usually wrong)

* You should never go to a school or department for anything that is in its title (which university consults its architecture department on the estate, or – heaven forbid – its business school on the budget?)

* The first thing a committee member says is the exact opposite of what she means (“I’d like to agree with everything the vice-chancellor has just said, but…”; or “with respect”…; or even “briefly”)

* Courtesy is a one-way street (social-academic language is full of hyperbole, and one result is the confusion of rudeness – or even cruelty – with forthrightness; however, if a manager responds in kind, it’s a federal case)

* On email, nobody ever has the last word

* Somebody always does it better elsewhere (because they are better supported)

* Feedback counts only if I agree with it

* The temptation to say “I told you so” is irresistible

* Finally, there is never enough money, but there used to be.

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