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Sayre's law states, in a formulation quoted by Charles Philip Issawi: "In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake." By way of corollary, it adds: "That is why academic politics are so bitter." Sayre's law is named after Wallace Stanley Sayre (1905–1972), U.S. political scientist and professor at Columbia University.
On 20 December 1973, the Wall Street Journal quoted Sayre as: "Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low." Political scientist Herbert Kaufman, a colleague and coauthor of Sayre, has attested to Fred R. Shapiro, editor of The Yale Book of Quotations, that Sayre usually stated his claim as "The politics of the university are so intense because the stakes are so low", and that Sayre originated the quip by the early 1950s.
Many other claimants attach to the thought behind Sayre's law. The bitterness of academic life was memorably noted by Max Weber:
Academic careers are then sorely beset by chance. When a young scientist or scholar comes to seek advice about habilitation the responsibility which one assumes in advising him is heavy indeed. If he is a Jew, one naturally tells him: lasciate ogni speranza [Canto III, line 9 of Dante’s Inferno, sometimes translated as "Abandon all hope"]. But the others, too, must be asked with the utmost seriousness: "Do you think that, year after year, you will be able to stand to see one mediocrity after another promoted over you, and still not become embittered and dejected?" Of course, the answer is always: "Naturally, I live only for my calling." But only in a very few cases have I found them able to undergo it without suffering spiritual damage. These things have to be said about the external conditions of the academic career.
— Max Weber, Science as a Vocation (1918), translated by Edward Shils
According to Arthur S. Link, Woodrow Wilson frequently complained about the personalized nature of academic politics, asserting that the "intensity" of academic squabbles was a function of the "triviality" of the issue at hand. Harvard political scientist Richard Neustadt was quoted to a similar effect: "Academic politics is much more vicious than real politics. We think it's because the stakes are so small." In his 1979 book Peter's People and Their Marvelous Ideas, Laurence J. Peter stated "Peter's Theory of Entrepreneurial Aggressiveness in Higher Education" as: "Competition in academia is so vicious because the stakes are so small." Another proverbial form is: "Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small." This observation is routinely attributed to former Harvard professor Henry Kissinger. Justin Kaplan, editor of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, asked Henry Kissinger whether he had stated, "The reason academic politics are so bitter is that so little is at stake." According to him, Kissinger, "foxy as ever, said he didn't recall saying it but that it 'sounded' like him. In other words, he didn't say it but wouldn't mind if we thought he did." In fact, in a 1997 speech at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University, Kissinger said: "I'm going to say one thing about academic politics to which Mr. [Peter W.] Schramm referred. I formulated the rule that the intensity of academic politics and the bitterness of it is in inverse proportion to the importance of the subject they're discussing. And I promise you at Harvard, they are passionately intense and the subjects are extremely unimportant." Variations on the same thought have also been attributed to scientist-author C.P. Snow, professor-politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and politician Jesse Unruh.
Other adages by Sayre
Observing that the mayoralty of New York is often referred to as the second biggest executive office in the country, that U.S. Representative is the highest previous political office held by any incumbent, and that no New York mayor ever went on to other high domestic public office after leaving the mayoralty, Wallace Sayre declared: "The mayors of New York come from nowhere and go nowhere." He also remarked: "Generally speaking, the benefits of administrative reorganization are immediate, but the costs are cumulative." Likewise this postulate: "Business and public administration are alike only in all unimportant respects."
- Charles Philip Issawi, Issawi's Laws of Social Motion, Hawthorn Books, 1973. p. 178.
- Ralph Keyes, The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When, Macmillan, 2006, p. 1.
- Laurence J. Peter, Peter's People and Their Marvelous Ideas, William Morrow & Co., 1979.
- Nigel Rees, Brewer's Famous Quotations: 5000 Quotations and the Stories Behind Them, Sterling Publishing Company, 2006, p. 394.
- Wallace S. Sayre and Herbert Kaufman, Governing New York City: Politics in the Metropolis, Russell Sage Foundation, 1960.
- Fred R. Shapiro, editor, foreword by Joseph Epstein, The Yale Book of Quotations, Yale University Press, 2006, p. 670.