Academic Feudalism

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Since joining academia I have struggled to understand how it works. I quickly learned that my behavioral expectations based on 30 years in business were no longer applicable, and as a result I had several small mishaps where my expectations did not match the norms of the institution.

As an engineer, I work largely with models, and I found that I did not have an effective model of the academy. Finally, after a period of some years, I found one: The University does not behave like a business, but instead behaves like a feudal society.

In this short essay I shall expand on this model, and by this essay I hope to share this model with other colleagues who may have also struggled to understand why things are the way they are.

What is the difference?

The major difference between the feudal society and industry regards the distribution of power and allegiance within those societies. In industry there is at least a single unifying vision: make money. In the academy there is no such vision, and instead there are fluid alliances based on perceptions of power and mutual benefit.

This difference manifests in some of the different agendas I see in the professoriate: My agenda of "serve the needs of my industry" is often denigrated as being ignoble, not sciency enough, not research oriented. It also manifests in the interpersonal and interdepartmental relationships within the university. In brief, my 'feudal' model of the academy is:

  • Professors are knights, armed and armored
  • Might makes Right
  • Alliances are Temporary
  • Allegiance to higher authority is based on power, not law
  • The Church is a shadow government

My Learning Process

In order to better understand the Academy, I of course begin by looking at my experiences. I am, after all, trying to construct a mental model that will help me predict the results that will occur for a given course of action, so the first database that I draw upon is my own personal "training set" of experiences. But I also chose two readings to help inform my model.

First Reading: Academia

I first chose to look at what the Academy rewards: Let me read about the leadership role of the academic nobility - the professoriate.

This lead to my reading of Linda Evans' "University professors as academic leaders - Professorial leadership development needs and provision." Evans studies the preparation and development of academic leaders in the UK. Now, with my industrial background I can quickly describe, not necessarily the training, but at least the measurement of industrial leadership: Industrial leaders are rewarded for generating money. This may be because of excellent client-facing skills, or it may be because of excellent project-leadership skills, but the metric is the same in both cases: Profit.

Academic "excellence" (the concomitant of leadership of UK professorial rank) is nowhere near so simply measured. Evans quotes "magnificently opaque" is the measure of excellence. In an effort to ameliorate this opacity she asks Professors to describe the preparation and development that they both received, or wish they had received, and to describe their understanding of the leadership expectation they labor under.

Reading with my particular lens of interest, I extracted the following key conclusions:

  • Leadership has a significant component of mentorship, collegial development, etc. (This accords nicely with the military definition of leadership found in e.g. US Army FM 6-22.)
  • Teaching per se is not as important as meta-level activity such as curriculum development (NB: I have extrapolated a fair distance here. This interpretation may be optimism on my part and not data on Evans'.)
  • Beyond the above, "Leadership" is ill-defined and (consequently) not supported by a mature infrastructure.

Second Readings - Feudalism, and The Model

The more I study it, the more I find my feudal analogy to be apt. In my career as a naval weapon designer I was exposed to the formation given to naval officers. I above alluded to the Army Field manual "Leader Development" (FM 6-22.) The modern army is infinitely more efficient than the feudal army of the middle ages. Barbara Tuchman in "A Distant Mirror" paints a graphic picture of the feudal army, which all too often had individual knights pursuing individual battles because they wanted to, and not as a consequence of a coherent strategy.

In the university the "knight" is a Professor. Counts and Dukes are Heads and Deans, and there is - nominally over all but with very constrained powers - a King or President. And the shadow government of the Church is present in full force, in the Permanent Staff. The alignment of purpose between the various power centers ebbs and flows according to their individual external and internal forces. Alliances are built - permanently or more often temporarily - in order to buttress a structure against an external force.


Nobility is a prerequisite for knighthood. Let us recall the scene in Arthur Conan Doyle's "The White Company" wherein the various knights appear before the Prince's herald and scrivener Sir William de Pakington. There they are interviewed as to their identities and their patents of nobility. And there a few are turned away as being insufficiently noble to be enlisted in the Prince's force. Indeed, the pecking order within the force is related largely to the degree of nobility of the knight.

In the academy the patents of nobility are the PhDs held by the members of the force. And the relative ranking of those PhDs is based on the name of the school that awarded them: A PhD from Oxford is vastly more noble than one from Slippery Rock.

Knights are not welcome to be knights based solely on prowess. The academy has a very hard time admitting seasoned professionals to the Professoriate - we have separate grades for that. By contrast, the only time I have been asked to show my transcript was when I was hired as an academic. In all my other professional positions it was my track record that mattered, not my Letter of Nobility.

Position in the Lists

Not all knights are equal, of course. The tourneys exist to demonstrate that. I believe it is White who suggests that seats at the round table be allocated according to a knight's standing in the lists, with the highest standing knight accorded the greatest honor (by being seated nearest the King.)

In academia the tourneys are academic journals, and at least we don't defeat one another in those journals, but we cite on another instead. And the more cited you are, the higher your esteem in the eyes of the Round Table. Note the inherent irony in this: The purpose of the Table being round was so that it didn't have a head, and all those invited to sit were to be equal. Ah, frail is mankind's altruism!

Power Unchecked

T.H. White tells us the Arthur's main battle in life was against power unchecked. At his ascension to the throne it was very clear that Might Makes Right. It was his life's work to try to invert that relationship, and put Might into the service of Right. I will leave it to White to tell the tale.

My finding in academia is that Might still carries tremendous freedom of action, regardless of Right.... Merciless killing of rabbits or peasants for sport... public attacks on colleagues...

A knight is a self-contained fighting force

Implications of The Model

As I learn about what recognized Educational Leadership is, I find that it lies in subtle alliance-building successes. One alliance is that between me and the industry that hires my graduates. But it is clear that my success will also require me to offer benefits to other fiefdoms within the academy, and to other knights in my own Duchy. And their values may be financial (Does my activity generate research funds for their program?) or it may be couched in terms of Gentility (Does my teaching lead to an expansion of the global body of knowledge?) An alternative analogy was provoked by remarks from Dr. Dan Pratt during his lecture on Teaching Perspectives. This is to realize Educational Leadership as a Systems Engineering activity. Whereas most engineering focuses upon one or more component sciences (structural mechanics, power transmission, etc.) Systems Engineering emphasizes the integration of these components into an optimum structure whose form will depend upon many external contexts.

(viz: )

Thus the optimal construct will depend upon whether we are building a ship or an airplane. It will depend upon whether we have the advanced infrastructure of North America or if we are implementing in a developing nation. And it will depend upon the wide range of stakeholders who have an interest in our project, whether these be the financial investors or the regional environmentalists.

In the same way the ideal assembly of components into a portfolio of education leadership depends upon myriad external forces and constraints.

Applying The Model to the UBC NAME Program


Position in the Feudal Hierarchy

Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering (NAME) is housed primarily within the Department of Mechanical Engineering, in the Faculty of Applied Sciences. However, officially, NAME also lies within the Departments of Civil Engineering and Materials Science. This means that the educational vision of NAME is pressured to match the educational vision of the host department (s).


Alliances within the Duchy (MECH)

Within Mechancial Engineering (MECH) there are several important alliances that bolster the NAME program. In terms of supporting NAME's Educational vision and leadership, the most important of these alliances is the MECH Department's pursuit of a strong "design" curriculum within the undergraduate program. Since the NAME program is also 90% design-oriented, this gives us a body of allies who already have pillar positions within the Department.

Conflicts within the Duchy (MECH)

The sister to the alliance with the design curriculum, is the conflict with the research curriculum. There exists a party within MECH who appear to believe that the proper role of the University is research. Up to present the NAME program has had zero research activity (both instructors being "teaching stream") this has lead to the program being viewed as "not real engineering"...or at least "not real academics."

Now, at this point my reader may say 'This is supposed to be about Educational Leadership, not office politics. How is this relevant?' The relevance is strong however: If the NAME program attempts to demonstrate leadership to MECH - and let us acknowledge that leadership implies followers - then it is possible for the research party within MECH to respond "They have nothing to teach me. They don't even publish."

Of course, this then provides a clear pointer to one element of a plan of action: To mitigate the lack of esteem, we need to show our worthiness in the only way that counts: Publications. This of course matches perfectly with the teaching within the SoEL program that acknowledges dissemination as a vital element of SoEL.

Alliances within the Principality (APSC)

Conflicts within the Principality (APSC)

Alliances with the Church (Administrative Staff)

NAME Enjoys excellent relationships with the permanent staff of APSC and MECH. Some of this is natural: We sincerely appreciate their service and their wisdom. Some of this is artifice: My years in the Pentagon taught me that while politicians come and go, the staff are permanent.1

Conflicts with the Church (Administrative Staff)

Summary and Conclusion

1: Every four years or so the military heads would rotate jobs, and a new crop of Admirals and Captains would roll into our hierarchy. Each brought with him new ideas, and the proverbial new broom. Among the civilian staff this rotation was called "The dance of the elephants" and the accepted wisdom was to simply keep your head down and keep doing your job until the dust settled. In four more years the elephants will dance again, and we'll still be here.

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