Sayre’s law: required wisdom for all academics

In my time as Associate Dean: Students and Program in the Yeates School of Graduate Studies, I have addressed a wide array of student academic issues. These range from student appeals, to separations between supervisors and students, to complaints emanating directed from or towards students or faculty members.  These are delicate matters that could not be resolved at the program level, and it is my job to explore options that move towards a resolution.

The experience working with these cases has been eye-opening and sometimes startling. I learn from each new case, and while handling them never becomes routine, I am learning slowly to better navigate the various channels available at the University. One critical point I have learned is that the issues never resolve over-night; they need methodical care, and sometimes multiple meetings with stakeholders to put things right. While a satisfactory resolution is the best possible outcome, often neither party really obtains all the things they want.

A colleague made me aware recently of a principle that is pervasive in academia, but it applies to all human interaction. It is called Sayre’s law, after the late political scientist Wallace Sayre.  It says:

In any dispute, the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the importance of the issues at stake.

In other words, the more trivial the matter, the more intense the dispute. The law seems paradoxical, and it seems to fly in the face of common sense. But in my experience, time and again the law applies. Even predictably so. For whatever reasons, the law applies solidly in the academy, where relatively minor issues can quickly grow out of proportion.

E-mail, in particular, is one part of daily work life that is rife with challenges, and can often lead to unfortunate situations. If you are not sure you should say something, then don’t!  I think that every time you send an e-mail, you need to first solve a simple arithmetic problem. If nothing else, this will remind people of the implications every time they click “send.”

At some point, there has to be ownership on both sides of academic problems between students and faculty. We have to recognize that there are always two sides to every story. Sayre’s law should be a guiding principle in such disputes. If you find yourself losing a debate over some topic, or not getting your way, ask yourself: What is your ultimate goal? How valuable is your time? What would a compromise look like?

Realize that administrators such as myself have limits of what we can achieve. We have limits to our authority, and can only resolve so many issues.  In the rare occasions, we can correct a real inequity. Usually, however, we can provide an objective setting for the sides to talk it out.

I am thrilled at my unique opportunity to interact with professors and students from across campus. Even as Chair of Mathematics, I never had the chance to learn so much about the programs on campus, or the amazingly talented faculty and students we have at the University. Conflict is inevitable in graduate education as anywhere else in the academy, and our common goal should be to work collectively, guided by compassion and fairness, to find solutions. My hope is that academics should learn from the wisdom inherent in Sayre’s law.

-Anthony Bonato

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