Big fish, small pond: Institutionalizing academic inequality



A little over ten years ago, two adequately eminent sociology departments swiped two of my colleagues. For years, I wondered why the then-dean didn’t try to stop those raids; I’ve finally decided that the answer lies in a tangle of college and interdepartmental politics and corporatization, as well as the fact that one of the swipes was a woman. (In the not so distant past, our then-dean seemingly sat by as several major universities raided women from several departments)

I know our dean felt that those raids had something to do with ambition and competition. Not only did he mutter, “We can’t compete;” but he also asked our department head about the quality of the departments that had poached our august colleagues. He wanted to know: Can we be proud that we were raided by the best? Are our people merely big fish in a small pond? Or do these raids indicate that some of us may be worthy of being classified as big fish in a big pond? (Little fish in a big pond did not seem to be an option then and probably isn’t now. Who wants to be identified as the guppy in Hudson Bay?)

I was reminded of the pond-fish competition, when the September 10, 2015, Times Higher Education affirmed that the size of the fish and the size of the pond matter. It summarized Anthony Kelly’s article, “Measuring research competitiveness in UK universities: introducing the Herfendahl Index to the 2008 and 2014 research assessment exercises,” which Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education published on-line August 6, 2015. Essentially, Kelly suggested, just as major corporations in the U.S. and the U.K. use the Herfendahl-Hirschman Index [HHI] to monitor whether they enjoy a monopoly in their market, so too should the top administrators of universities and national regulators use the HHI to gauge the status of a university department in its discipline.

The article reasoned: (1) An academic department that scores well against a large number of departments deserves funding more than a department that scores well against a small number of departments. The canny administrator should avoid both the big fish in the small pond and the guppy –wherever it may be. (2) The more competitive the field and the larger a department’s monopoly, the higher its quality. Ironically, this reasoning undercuts universities’ current desire to strengthen STEM departments.  Since there are more English departments than engineering departments, an English department that scores in the top ten will inevitably be a bigger fish than the engineering department with the same rank. Post hoc ergo propter hoc: fund English, not engineering.

There are other implications as well.  One is that research depends on neo-liberal (for-profit) competition. That is, it assumes that competitiveness rather than a passion for discovering and understanding drive scholars and scientists.  Were that the case, academic scientists might have succumbed to temptation and accepted the better pay typical of industry.  Another is that a monopoly on research, including findings and paradigms, is beneficial to all. Robert K. Merton called this institutionalization of academic inequality “the Matthew Effect.”  The principle is clear: Them that has, gets; or the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, while the middle melts into air.

The Big Fish: As Robert K. Merton demonstrated decades ago, historically research has often produced multiple independent discovery. The discoveries of calculus and of oxygen are two familiar examples. Nonetheless, neo-liberalism has enshrined the discoverer/inventor as genius/hero, the man (yes, the man) who has successfully competed against everyone else as well as the elements to gain his rightful recognition and reward. As William Deresiewicz put in the September 21, 2015, Harper’s Bazaar, neoliberalism in education is about monetary reward. In the age of neo-liberalism –“[c]all it Reaganism or Thatcherism, economism or market fundamentalism, neoliberalism is an ideology that reduces all values to money values. The worth of a thing is the price of the thing. The worth of a person is the wealth of the person. Neoliberalism tells you that you are valuable exclusively in terms of your activity in the marketplace.” In this context, the application of the HHI to university departments seems quite an ordinary exercise. How can a department have worth if it does not compete with the best and win? How can it have worth if it does not generate both marketable research and paying customers (also called students). From this viewpoint, use of an index that measures status in the marketplace seems merely logical.

Shrinking the Pond: The problem is that a monopoly on knowledge –including an insistence on the scientist and even the literary critic as enshrined hero– may very well prevent new knowledge, breakthroughs, and paradigms from emerging.  Funding only a monopoly without helping its aspiring competitors forces some departments and universities to abandon participation in research because of a lack of funds. Funding only those who have the most (recognition, status, money) stultifies innovation. To give some obvious examples, neither Darwin nor Einstein made their key discoveries as members of departments that enjoyed a monopoly on knowledge; neither did W.E.B. DuBois, inventive sociologist and one-time editor of The Crisis, the magazine associated with the Harlem Renaissance. By today’s neoliberal academic standards, when Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine and cited the common good in his refusal of personal profit, his behavior was downright un-American. For currently American administrators assume that the scientists should strive to invent, file a patent with the university, join with the university and a corporate partner to incubate the discovery, strike it rich and therefore local, state, and national citizens will be more economically secure.

American higher education has already imported too many disastrous practices associated with the British Research Assessment Exercise and its funding framework. The Brits rate departments to determine how much funding they should receive.  They do so not to improve them, but rather to extirpate them. At some universities, central administrators seem to kowtow to such corporations as Academic Analytics, which claims to measure the quality of departments across both universities and fields.

Increasingly teaching assistants and contingent faculty have unionized to gain better pay, decent fringe benefits, and academic freedom.  As they have succeeded, administrators who want to impose more duties on these temporary workers have remembered the unions and have been heard to say, “We can’t do that anymore.”  Let’s take our colleagues’ example and fight for the renewal of shared governance so we can banish unsound management practices, such as the use of HHI.

I appreciate the criticisms of my colleague Matthew Hughey.