The Academic Mafia

A friend on Facebook shared this article from Slate, titled "Welcome to Our Tijuana Campus: How academia sometimes behaves like a drug cartel." The argument is that academia functions economically like a drug mafia, in which those in power enrich themselves through the unrewarded labor of minions who hope one day to be "the man."

This is undoubtedly true in the sense that the academy has created a vast churning cauldron of graduate students who will, it seems, do anything to gain recognition, acceptance, and employment. Could the research university system function in its present form without an army of poorly-paid GSIs—who recently went on strike in Cali—not to mention the reliance upon adjuncts and itinerant contingent faculty even among liberal arts universities?

In addition to the economic arguments, I am also struck by the way in which academia is similar to the mafia in its emphasis on reputation and personal connections over substance or merit. When faculty members are judged according to how well they are known, we have left the realm of knowledge and entered the world of the schoolyard or the gang. It doesn't matter how good my work is, only what kind of respect and popularity I have. And how do I get that respect? Intially by association with my teachers (godfathers), and then by assocation with my colleagues and collaborators (good fellas). Certainly there is "merit" evaluation along the way, but the parameters and standards of that evaluation are under strict cartel control.

The whole thing, of course, is run with the cool administrative efficency of Gus Fring. From the outside, it doesn't look nearly as vicious as it is. I am often struck by the envy and grasping for recognition among younger academics. To those, I quote a great man: "Just because you shot Jessie James, don't make you Jessie James."