Competition and the culture of academe


In my academic research, I look at the governance of universities and implementation of new policies that are described as “neoliberal”. This involves trends such as privatization of funding (including increased tuition), treatment of students as consumers or customers and of education as a “private good”, and the marketization of education. These policy changes are related to forms of communication such as marketing and advertising aimed at parents and students, and the careful cultivation of relationships with funding sources, and to the overall economization of higher education. They are also related to the culture of universities as organizations, and to the education and mentorship of those who will inhabit and create the universities of the future–Ph.D. students and early career researchers.

A market-based logic is being applied and the driver of markets is competition. It’s hard to deny that graduate students who seek the tenure track are competing against each other, and that this has become more the case as Ph.D. enrollments have increased. The availability of permanent academic positions isn’t improving, at least not to the extent that it could accommodate all those who seek one.

A persistent contradiction exists to a greater or lesser degree across fields: from the earliest stages of their careers, academics are assessed as individuals in this increasingly competitive environment, yet they are expected to cultivate collegial relationships with colleagues who will share their discipline in the long term.

The contradiction can lead to extreme behaviours. There are plenty of stories about professors taking credit for students’ work and exploiting their labour, and about the “stealing” of ideas (and indeed, their objectification, engendered by a need for “ownership”); the opportunities afforded to some students that are not “shared” with others, and even explicit sabotage of others’ work. Ph.D. students are applying for the same fellowships and scholarships, the same programs, and later, the same jobs and research grants. They are now competing for faculty time and mentorship as well, and the outcomes of this process inform the stratification of Ph.D. education through the networks of relationships and resource distribution that emerge over time.

This is the contradictory experience that helps shape the end “results” of Ph.D. education.

Future academics are expected to work amicably with colleagues while knowing they’re competing for scarce resources. This shapes not only actions but also self-presentation and psychological state. For example, academe as a culture of expertise retains much of its inherited masculine emphasis on reason and detachment. To reveal vulnerability (of either a professional or personal nature) is not considered appropriate to the traditional academic “ideal”. It shows that non-professional issues can impinge on professional “performance”, which changes the opinions of colleagues, who have massive influence over one’s prospects. This relates to the way that issues like depression and anxiety are so often concealed even to the detriment of students’ health.

In an environment that’s always been “elite”, the cultivation of expertise is part of the performance. The emotional and psychological aspects of learning are tied up with the kinds of fears and insecurities that can hinder learning and development. “Imposter syndrome” and “pluralised ignorance” have long been part of the psychological landscape of graduate education; in a more competitive environment, these issues could increase in significance.

I understand that many academics would argue the “right” sense of professionalism should make these concerns null and void; or that those who’ve felt hurt by competitive dynamics should learn a lesson, bind up their wounds, and move on without rancour. But hyper-competitive behaviour can become destructive and it should not be rewarded in organizational culture. We need to walk a fine line, encouraging a welcoming peer culture while being realistic about what is required for academic “success”, demonstrating feedback that is both critical and productive, providing a professional challenge in a space that supports creativity and rigour. I know there are PhD programs where faculty are mentoring young scholars and encouraging them to develop a healthy sense of professionalism. But that’s something we need to foster, to reward and cultivate explicitly, not something we can assume as a pre-existing condition.

Melonie Fullick is currently a Ph.D. student working on research in post-secondary education, policy, and governance. She can be found in virtual space on Twitter [@qui_oui] and at Speculative Diction at University Affairs.


Leave your comment