Academic Politics Are So Vicious Because the Stakes Are So Small

Henry Kissinger? Wallace Sayre? Charles Frankel? Samuel Johnson? Jesse Unruh? Courtney Brown? Laurence J. Peter?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following saying is often attributed to the prominent U.S. foreign policy figure and Nobel laureate Henry Kissinger:

Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.

But I have also seen it attributed to the political scientist Wallace Sayre. Could you examine this adage?

Quote Investigator:
There are many different ways to state this basic idea. Here are some additional forms to help depict the range of possible expressions:

Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.

Politics on the university campus are the worst of all kinds of politics because the stakes are so small.

Campus politics are so nasty because the stakes are so small.

The republic of learning and letters works by especially bitter squabbling because the stakes are so small.

This exploration begins with a fascinating precursor in 1765 from the pen of the lexicographer and celebrated man of letters Samuel Johnson. In the following excerpt a “scholiast” referred to an academic commentator: 1 2

It is not easy to discover from what cause the acrimony of a scholiast can naturally proceed. The subjects to be discussed by him are of very small importance; they involve neither property nor liberty; nor favour the interest of sect or party. The various readings of copies, and different interpretations of a passage, seem to be questions that might exercise the wit, without engaging the passions.

But whether it be, that small things make mean men proud, and vanity catches small occasions; or that all contrariety of opinion, even in those that can defend it no longer, makes proud men angry; there is often found in commentaries a spontaneous strain of invective and contempt, more eager and venomous than is vented by the most furious controvertist in politicks against those whom he is hired to defame.

Another precursor was delivered in 1964 by Robert M. Hutchins whose long career included service as Dean of Yale Law School and President of the University of Chicago. Hutchins called academic politics “the worst kind”, but he did not include the sardonic explanation given in the full version of the saying: 3

Though I do not know much about professional politics, I know a lot about academic politics — and that is the worst kind. Woodrow Wilson said that Washington was a snap after Princeton.

The earliest direct evidence known to QI of a full statement that fits in the grouping above was printed in the transcript of a speech given in February 1969 at the annual convention of the American Association of School Administrators. The speaker was Charles Frankel who was a Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, but his phrasing indicated that the adage was already in circulation, and he provided no attribution: 4 5

It used to be said of politics on the university campus that it was the worst of all kinds of politics because the stakes were so small. We should be able to take at least minor comfort, then, from the present situation in the educational world: The stakes today are not at all small.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1970 the Syracuse University political scientist Dwight Waldo published an essay in a collection titled The American University: A Public Administration Perspective. Waldo indicated that the expression was already being disseminated: 6

We can no longer use our little joke that campus politics are so nasty because the stakes are so small. They are now so nasty because the stakes are so large.

In 1971 sociologist Reece McGee published the book Academic Janus which attributed an instance of the saying to a person named Courtney Brown: 7

In academic power struggles (which, as Courtney Brown once remarked, are terribly bitter because the stakes are so low) the students sometimes pull down the administrative aristocracy for the eventual benefit of shrewd faculty politicians.

In August 1972 the publishing executive William Jovanovich, CEO of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, testified before a Senate committee. He attributed the saying to Jesse Unruh, a powerful Californian politician: 8

…it reminds me of what Jesse Unruh once said. Somebody said, “Why are campus politics so nasty?” and he said, “Because the stakes are so low.”

In 1973 a humorous collection of sayings titled Issawi’s Laws of Social Motion was published by the economist Charles Issawi. The book described a general law for discord and applied it to academia: 9


In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the stakes at issue—that is why academic politics are so bitter.
(Wallace S. Sayre, late Professor of Political Science)

In December 1973 the Wall Street Journal also attributed a similar law about academic conflict to Professor Sayre: 10

Not surprisingly, academics love to lay down laws. One of the more famous is attributed to the late Wallace Sayre of Columbia University. Sayre’s Third Law of Politics—no one seems to know the first two, or whether there even were a first two–holds that “academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.” A later variant says they’re the most vicious form of politics “because the fighting is over issues decided five years earlier.”

In 1976 a textbook on political science included a version of the dictum without providing a precise attribution: 11

One professorial cynic has said: “The reason why campus politics are so dirty is that the stakes are so small.”

In July 1977 a book reviewer in the New York Times presented a version of the saying without giving a specific attribution: 12

Someone once told me that the reason the infighting in academia is so fierce is that the stakes are so small.

In August 1977 an editorial in The New Republic ascribed an instance of the saying to Henry Kissinger: 13

The republic of learning and letters works by squabbling—especially bitter squabbling, Henry Kissinger used to say, because the stakes are so small.

The Autumn 1977 issue of PS, a journal of the American Political Science Association, published a letter from Herbert Kaufman who was a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. Kaufman was reacting to the comment listed above that had been printed in The New Republic; he ascribed the saying to Sayre: 14

Actually, it is a version one of Sayre’s Laws, observations on the worlds of academe and politics pronounced from time to time by the late Wallace S. Sayre, who was professor of political science at Columbia University. Professor Sayre’s formulation was, “The politics of the university are so intense because the stakes are so low.” A more general statement of it appeared, correctly attributed, in Charles Issawi, Issawi’s Laws of Social Motion (Hawthorn, 1973), p. 178.

The paternity of such laws is frequently ambiguous and disputed, but this is one of those rare cases in which I am sure scores of people will verify my statement of its origin. Many of them have known it as Sayre’s Law for decades; I myself first heard it from his lips more than a quarter of a century ago, and that was not the first time he had enunciated it. It has been around a long time.

In the Summer 1979 issue of The Antioch Review an instance of the saying was again connected to the politician Jesse Unruh: 15

Thus the remark attributed to the California politico Jess Unruh that academic politics are the dirtiest politics because the stakes are so low.

In 1983 the influential quotation collector Laurence J. Peter printed an instance of the adage in his syndicated newspaper column: 16

Peter’s Theory of Professional Infighting; Academics in higher education are so vicious because the stakes are so small.

In 1992 the Boston Globe printed an instance credited to Harvard scholar Richard Neustadt: 17

“Academic politics is much more vicious than real politics,” Neustadt once explained. “We think it’s because the stakes are so small.”

In conclusion, the earliest citations for this saying in 1969 and 1970 do not point to a creator; the words were anonymous. Wallace Stanley Sayre died in 1972, and he was linked to the saying in a book published in 1973. In addition, Herbert Kaufman has claimed that Sayre used a similar expression in the 1950s. Perhaps additional information about this saying will be discovered in the future.

(Special thanks to Cynthia Schrage @pioneercynthia who inquired about this saying after it was used in a tweet. Great thanks to Fred Shapiro who thought additional exploration of this topic would be worthwhile. Many thanks to Bonnie Taylor-Blake for help with the August 1972 citation.)

Update History: On August 20, 2013 the citation dated August 1972 mentioning Jesse Unruh was added. On August 22, 2013 the citation dated 1971 mentioning Courtney Brown was added.


  1. 1765, Mr. Johnson’s Preface to His Edition of Shakespear’s Plays by Samuel Johnson, Page lvii, Printed for J. and R. Tonson, H. Woodfall, J. Rivington, etc., London. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1997, After the Death of Literature by Richard B. Schwartz, Quote Page 12 and 13, Published by Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, Illinois. (Questia: Gale, Cengage Learning)
  3. 1964 October, The Journal of General Education, Volume 16, Number 3, “Science, Scientists, and Politics” by Robert M. Hutchins, Start Page 197, Quote Page 197, Published by: Penn State University Press. (JSTOR) link
  4. 1969, Official Report of AASA (Your AASA), Report on the 1969 Annual Convention of American Association of School Administrators, (Convention held in Atlantic City, New Jersey, February 15 to 19, 1969), Speech: Education and the Barricades by Charles Frankel, (Speech by Charles Frankel, Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University; delivered February 17, 1969 during the Sixth General Session), Start Page 75, Quote Page 75, Published by American Association of School Administrators, Washington D.C. (Verified on paper)
  5. 1971, In Defense of Academic Freedom, Edited by Sidney Hook, “Education in Fever” by Charles Frankel, (Reprinted from Official Report of AASA, Report on the 1969 Annual Convention of the American Association of School Administrators), Start Page 35, Quote Page 35, Pegasus (Division of Bobbs-Merrill Company), New York. (Verified on paper)
  6. 1970, The American University: A Public Administration Perspective, Edited by Clyde J. Wingfield, The University in Relation to the Governmental-Political by Dwight Waldo, Start Page 19, Quote Page 31, Southern Methodist University Press, Dallas, Texas. (Verified on paper)
  7. 1971, Academic Janus: The Private College and Its Faculty by Reece McGee (Reece Jerome McGee), Section: Foreword, Quote Page xiii, Jossey-Bass Inc., San Francisco, California. (The misspelled word “somtimes” in the original text was replaced with “sometimes” in the excerpt above)(Verified on paper)
  8. 1972 August 2, Hearing Before the Committee on Foreign Relations of the United States Senate, Hearing title: Revised Universal Copyright Convention, Ninety-second Congress, Second Session, On Executive G, 92D Congress, 2D session, The Universal Copyright Convention, as Revised at Paris on July 24, 1971, Together with Two Related Protocols, (Date of testimony: August 2, 1972, Speaking: William Jovanovich, chairman and chief executive officer, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C. (ProQuest Congressional Record; Great thanks to Bonnie Taylor-Blake)
  9. 1973, Issawi’s Laws of Social Motion by Charles Issawi, Quote Page 178, Hawthorn Books, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)
  10. 1973 December 20, Wall Street Journal, Politics and People by Alan L. Otten, Quote Page 14, New York. (ProQuest)
  11. 1976, The Great Issues of Politics: An Introduction to Political Science by Leslie Lipson, Fifth Edition, Footnote 45, Page 120, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified on paper)
  12. 1977 July 31, New York Times, People of the Word by Daniel Stern, Quote Page BR4, New York. (ProQuest)
  13. 1977 August 20 and 27, The New Republic, A Humanist at the Humanities, Quote Page 8, Column 2, The New Republic, Inc., Washington, D.C. (Verified on microfilm)
  14. 1977 Autumn, PS (Political Science), Volume 10, Number 4, Communications, (Letter from Herbert Kaufman), Quote Page 511, Published by American Political Science Association. (JSTOR) link
  15. 1979 Summer, The Antioch Review, Volume 36, Number 3, “Academic Cowardice: Professors and Campus Power” by Lawrence E. Hussman, Jr., Start Page 315, Quote Page 321, Published by Antioch Review, Inc. (JSTOR) link
  16. 1983 September 16, Los Angeles Times, “Peter’s Almanac for Sept. 17, 1983” by Laurence J. Peter, Quote Page g9, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  17. 1992 July 13, Boston Globe, “Fighting for turf and soothing egos: [City Edition]” by Martin F. Nolan, Quote Page 9, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)