Sayre’s Law

Sayre's law

Sayre’s law states, in a formulation quoted by academic economist and historian 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. According to historian 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 (Sayre’s former colleague at Columbia University) 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,’ Canadian educator 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.’


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