loyalty to place in the age of jet-set academia

I grew up with Jason Stanley, who wrote a thoughtful post on the Leiter Report about changes in academia since our days as fellow faculty-brats. His father, Prof. Manfred Stanley (whom I knew well and miss) was committed to his institution and community, to such a point that the idea of moving “bewildered him.”

He tended to value conferences, reading groups, and the development of links between the university and the community at least as much as his own written work. … His own production clearly suffered from his other activities. For example, he spent years working with a poor town near Syracuse on a project concerning the responsibility of companies to the communities they abandon. A lot emerged from this project; a documentary, several town-meetings, and a civics class for high school students in that town. But very few publications emerged from it. He also viewed his obligations to his community as extending to his family. For example, he sent his children to Syracuse city public schools. As a professor at the local good university, he felt an extra obligation to be a member of the community, rather than a lesser obligation.

Jason believes that our “generation of academics is quite different.” We change institutions regularly, or hope to do so. We think of ourselves as “free agents,” willing to obtain better salaries, working conditions, and status by moving or threatening to move. Our communities are not composed of colleagues, let alone neighbors and fellow citizens, but specialists in our field whom we “see at conferences and talks, and chat with on e-mail and on the phone.”

I think at the deepest level what has happened is a form of Weberian rationization. (That seems a fitting theory to apply in a post that invokes Manny Stanley.) Increasingly, the whole population of college-bound students and faculty have in mind the same criteria of excellence. They rank all institutions on one great Chain of Being that has Harvard and MIT at (or near) the top, and the local community college near the bottom. Lew Friedland and Shauna Morimoto find (pdf) that all high school students in one midwestern town– including those who are struggling in school–envision the same status hierarchy and believe that their life-prospects will be determined by how high they can rise on it.

When everyone is trying to move up a single scale, certain practical consequences result. Actual, published rankings circulate and are influential. Rising in the rankings makes an institution more competitive, thus allowing it to admit better qualified students who are easier and more fun to teach. In turn, the rankings are affected by institutions’ international reputation for research. As in any Weberian system, quantifiable and generalizable criteria begin to count: e.g., the number of publications, or the rate of publication in the most competitive journals. Professors are highly aware of their institutions’ reputations and are very tempted to try to move up when possible. Hence there’s a lot of moving around. Building a local reputation (on or off campus) doesn’t increase one’s market value, so we put our energy into national publications for the people who might write us recommendation letters.


As Jason notes, there are advantages to Weberian rationalization. We always had a status system, but now it’s more transparent and more open to people (students and faculty alike) who play their parts well. Back in the 1980s, we faculty-brats knew the best colleges and how to get into them, while our peers in other regions and communities were still happy to attend local institutions. Now everyone reads U.S. News & World Report and tries to get into the “best” college that will admit them. If you get high SATs and grades and make sure to log some hours of community service, you too can go to Yale.

Jason fears, however, that “market forces [are] impinging on academia,” which should not be “just another way to be a success.” I agree and would elaborate his thesis by making the following points:

1. There is no reason of principle always to prefer generalized knowledge over local knowledge, yet the academic marketplace certainly values the general. Manny Stanley’s deep knowledge of a particular community near Syracuse would not help him to get a more prestigious job elsewhere or move his institution up the national rankings.

2. Engaging patiently with particular communities is often a way to learn. That is especially true in certain disciplines, such as sociology, which Manny Stanley professed. I’m not saying that a medieval art historian should spend her work time listening patiently to her neighbors, but some of the best social theory (from John Dewey and Jane Addams to Elinor Ostrom and Jenny Mansbridge) has emerged from such engagement.

3. When institutions are concerned about their national and international rankings, they tend to run away from their local communities, unless they happen to be located in glamorous spots like Greenwich Village. For instance, my university, which is extremely conscious of status and currently ranked 18 on the list of public research institutions, would like people to forget that it is located in the State of Maryland, let alone Prince George’s County, MD. It also hopes that everyone misses its land-grant charter. We want people to think of us as a global organization with programs in China, Nobel laureates, and convenient access to the nation’s capital. As a result, there is no serious investment in local work; and Prince George’s County suffers.

4. If being a successful college means being able to select a low percentage of applicants, and if attending a highly selective institution brings economic benefits after graduation, then there is no need for colleges to put resources into education. To demand good teaching might only drive away the faculty who have the best prospects elsewhere, thus making an institution look less prestigious. When experts investigate student outcomes from very different kinds of colleges (e.g., local state schools versus fancy private ones) they find differences in “career and economic attainment” after graduation, but few differences in what students actually learn. “These findings could be expected because in the areas of career and economic achievement, the status-allocating aspects of a college and what a degree from that college signals to potential employers about the characteristics of its students may count as much if not more than the education provided.”*

5. Belonging to communities is psychologically valuable and a great way to learn. At an institution like mine, which runs away from its geographical community, it is hard for students, faculty, and staff to belong to place-based organizations and networks. They participate in various dispersed (sometimes global) communities, and that is fine. But I think our students miss something like 40% of the opportunities for membership and participation that they would have if we were connected to our geographical area. Connections would be tighter if, for instance, faculty conducted research in the community. But that would be a bad strategy for advancement.

6. I think that competition for status is fundamentally unsatisfying. Friedland and Morimoto detect a hollowing-out of adolescence as teenagers spend all their time doing activities they think will look good on their resumes. Many adolescent volunteers cannot explain why they perform particular service activities, other than for career advantage. For faculty, constant jockeying for position makes you into the “man in the grey flannel suit.” There is no fundamental reason why you should publish more articles in competitive journals in order to receive offers from higher-status institutions. However, it can be profoundly rewarding to use one’s academic freedom and skills to improve the place you are. As Albert Hirschman showed,** we have two strategies for addressing shortcomings in institutions: “exit” and “voice.” When you try to use voice even though you could exit, you are loyal. And the best parts of life come from loyalty. I think the fact that modern academics prefer exit is what Jason means when he talks about “market forces.” And we’re the ones who lose.


*Ernest T. Pascarella and Patrick T. Terenzini, How College Affects Students, vol. 2 (Jossey-Bass, 2005), p. 591

** Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States (Harvard, 1970)

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One Response to loyalty to place in the age of jet-set academia

  1. LogicGuru says:

    This suggests that academics aren’t involved in the community because they’ve become uppity and don’t want to be involved. In my experience, having tried to become involved, the problem is that members of the community either don’t want us or don’t have anything suitable for us to do.

    Maybe it’s because I’m female, or because my university isn’t first tier–though it is a respectabile mid-range university with graduate programs–or because I just don’t have a suitably professorial demeanor, but when I’ve tried to do my civic duty there just isn’t anything for me to do that isn’t basically a waste of my time. I’ve done lots of donkey work–stuffing envelopes, helping with rummage sales, etc.–hoping that I could get a foot in the door so that I could get to do something that would use my professional competencies. But the more envelopes I stuff, the more envelopes I’m asked to stuff.

    All this work is important, and I’m happy to do it if needed. But it’s time and labor intensive and I don’t have a lot of time. And with the limited time I have I’d like to be able to do something that uses my professional competence–or at least the human capital I have as an educated, articulate, literate person. I’d like to be able to speak on my areas of competence, which are “relevant,” to do analyses of issues, to have some input about ideas and strategies, but I cannot get my foot in the door.

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