Turning a blind eye to the University of Alaska: Academic entitlement and survivor bias

On my daily 6 AM walks, I have been contemplating why there has been no surge of support for faculty and students in the University of Alaska system. The anger makes for an energetic walk and the walk serves as a cooling mechanism on the anger. The answer I loop back to is elitism.

Twitter, unlike Facebook, is mostly liberal and its users tend to have completed or at least had some higher education. I have felt, in the past, that Twitter was a positive professional networking tool and generally supportive of real issues faced by minorities and the growing problems in neoliberal academia. Now, I realize it is not so simple and only selectively supportive.

I think I started to understand how elite the vocal academics on Twitter are when I saw a thread on whether it is OK to ask a graduate student to pay half the open access fee. The replies were visceral and unpleasant, smacking of entitlement in their assumption that anyone publishing with a student has resources the student doesn’t have such as a funded lab, ICR to spend on publications, and/or disposable income to support students out of pocket. Come on, even in the sciences, not everyone has a lab let alone lab funds and some universities do not distribute ICR to PIs (UAF Fisheries only gives $500 flat to PIs). So, check your entitlement and realize that the 99% have different experiences that might justify a PI and a student talking through the costs for open access–high citations but great personal cost. Some profs are just as poor as the students. I have colleagues who are crippled with student loans and personal debt accumulated from career investments in the hopes they would pay off someday. They have old cars running on the hope they will last because taking on a car loan is too much. Many are at universities that have been faced with draconian budget cuts and receive no support for conference travel. In my own experience, six years of teaching intensive positions not only handcuffed my early career research efforts but cost me dearly in terms of personal finances.

To compound the myopic view from the top is their unchecked survivor bias. A moaning tweet from a student who was critiqued in a grant application for productivity was accompanied by a clip of his CV. There are many reasons the critique may have been valid. The first that comes to my mind is that if you are born of a rich lab with massively-authored papers flying out the machine at a rate of 10/year, 9 papers in 5 years is unproductive. Another is that the quality of the papers is low (quality is not assessed by a ‘lab’ name or a specific journal). Another is that the contribution to authorship is not clear–what did the student actually do? A long list of publications doesn’t mean you actually were heavily involved in any of them. One angrily supportive response to this student was that the one Nature-fill-in-the blank was enough to show productivity. Sorry, it’s not. That’s like saying, ‘my daddy drives a Porsche’ so give me a Porsche. I know nothing about this student nor do I care other than to use it as an example of how, to put it bluntly, a student in a well-funded lab is expected to do more because they have more of everything. Sadly, a student struggling in an under-funded program is then compared against this rubric. The context of the work used to matter, not the metrics that surround it. The 1% of academia have internalized the neoliberal message that there are certain hallmarks of success that can be neatly summed in numbers, such as the impact factor of a journal, the number of citations you have, or the amount you earned in funding. Contemplate Gregor Mendel. His work was not cited or appreciated or valued in his time. He was told to give up his science and get back to his ecclesiastical work. Hell, even Darwin didn’t bother to cut open the journal that contained Mendel’s answer to the problem of heredity. By modern academic standards, and certainly according to our 1%, Mendal was an academic failure at a backwater institute who was unproductive with low citations on one article in a low impact and obscure (e.g., not English language) journal–he didn’t even have a grant to do his work! The father of genetics as viewed by the neoliberal academic.

The last example of elitism that has been badgering me for months is how many people are humbled and honored to be starting new jobs, got promoted, got this award, and the list goes on. You are not humbled because you are bragging about it on social media. You are not honored because you secretly feel it is the pay-off for your hard work. What you are is excited and relieved to escape the terror of the alternative pathway in life. Just stop. Announce a new job without the passive-aggressive emotions. Bear in mind that the other half of your Twitter feed are your opposite numbers who can’t get jobs and are leaving academia. You didn’t make it because you earned it or deserved it and you arguing otherwise is saying that those who haven’t made it don’t deserve it–just like you didn’t until you had your break. Luck and possibly knowing the right people (if you are in the UK) are the keys to your success. This is not a meritocracy and no one has a boot-straps story that isn’t simply survivor’s bias. My career trajectory is luck, just as much as anyone at the 1%. We ALL work hard and we all deserve stable and steady employment. We all have our academic strengths but many of us have never been given the opportunity to develop a competitive portfolio and will not likely make it. Hard work doesn’t pay off for everyone and that’s where luck and entitlement come into play.

In the midst of all this, there has been no voicing of concern about how to stem neoliberal assaults on higher education or even expressions of sympathy for the white-knuckled months UA faculty must now live through before learning whether they will be retained. Everyone knows about it–ignorance is not the problem. What happened to the solidarity expressed for UK academics who were taking a hit on their pensions? As a point of comparison, we don’t have pensions at UA and our system opted out of social security leaving us with only our savings in retirement. So, it isn’t the scale of the problem–Alaska is bigger than the UK but less populated and our educational system is more vital as it is the only one (in the UK, there are ~130). 2500 people have already been forced to take 10 days of unpaid leave to deal with immediate budget shortfalls. While our scholarship money has been given back and there is a bill to pay us enough to get through the year (assuming no governor veto), that is a short-term measure. The outcome is the same–we will be one UA Fall 2020 and that one UA will see a huge reduction in faculty and therefore student services. The University will shrink by selling assets and buildings and cancelling educational efforts. Enrollments, our only source of revenue, will drop because there is no point investing your education in a dying system. And, to be clear, grants (which we awash in) are not revenue but offsets to research costs. How will we maintain costly research with infrastructure reduction? Not very well and granting agencies may be leery to invest in those who have Alaska-based research needs.

The nuclear winter of neoliberal values projected onto higher education in Alaska is coming. We have been living under severe budget cuts for about five years now and it has changed us. There are emergency counseling sessions across campus with dial-in available. There are emergency financial planning sessions available as well. Many people have fled to other jobs (some lateral moves, some steps down from full to assistant professor, and some out of academia entirely). The escape routes are not well lit and there is no support at the other end. The tone on the ground is like a back-alley black market with secrets and rumors being traded as rapidly as deals are made that provide a false hope X department will be saved or Y faculty will be valued high enough for retention.

Why is this happening? According to the elite of Twitter via their messages of support to other academics , it is because we didn’t work hard enough, we didn’t earn it, we aren’t good enough. One of the few reactions to the crisis in Alaska I received is one that I pass on to you should you ever face anything near to what we are currently facing: good luck with that.


Published by Kara C. Hoover

I am a bioanthropologist living in Alaska studying human olfactory variation and prehistoric human health and diet.

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