The Academy’s Dirty Secret

The Academy’s Dirty Secret

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Harvard.
The top 10 universities produce three times as many future professors as those ranked 11 through 20. Above, Harvard University’s Kirkland House.

Photo illustration by James Emmerman. Photo by William B. Plowman/Getty Images.

The United States prides itself on offering broad access to higher education, and thanks to merit-based admissions, ample financial aid, and emphasis on diverse student bodies, our country can claim some success in realizing this ideal.

The situation for aspiring professors is far grimmer. Aaron Clauset, a co-author of this article, is the lead author of a new study published in Science Advances that scrutinized more than 16,000 faculty members in the fields of business, computer science, and history at 242 schools. He and his colleagues found, as the paper puts it, a “steeply hierarchical structure that reflects profound social inequality.” The data revealed that just a quarter of all universities account for 71 to 86 percent of all tenure-track faculty in the U.S. and Canada in these three fields. Just 18 elite universities produce half of all computer science professors, 16 schools produce half of all business professors, and eight schools account for half of all history professors.

While elite universities, with their deep resources and demanding coursework, surely produce great professors, the data suggest that faculty hiring isn’t a simple meritocracy. The top schools generate far more professors than even just slightly less prestigious schools. For example, in history, the top 10 schools produce three times as many future professors as those ranked 11 through 20.

One explanation for this skewed hiring system is that lower-prestige institutions are trying to emulate their high-prestige brethren. For a university, the easiest way to burnish your reputation is to hire graduates from top schools, thereby importing a bit of what made these institutions elite in the first place, while signaling to prospective students and faculty that you attract top talent.

Another factor could be that it’s not easy for schools to evaluate job applicants on merit alone, because merit can be difficult to define or measure. In the tenure system, a professor might work at the same institution for 40 years. But when hiring for tenure-track positions, schools often have to guess about lifelong productivity based on just a few years of experience. Hiring faculty is therefore a high-stakes decision; while you can always deny someone tenure, doing so means you’ve wasted years nurturing talent that you don’t want to keep. With so much uncertainty involved in the process, it may be natural to go with what seems like a safe choice: an applicant trained at a high-prestige school, even at the expense of exciting candidates from slightly less elite institutions.

At first glance, this hiring system may be seem like good news for college students at least. Whether you go to a prestigious or less prestigious school, you’ll be learning from the best of the best. But the situation isn’t so rosy for the students who dream of making ground-breaking discoveries as faculty members themselves. The elite schools are producing so many job-seekers on the faculty market that they can’t hire them all themselves, so the vast majority end up at less elite schools. That means that even if you manage to be admitted to a Ph.D. program at a prestigious university, the chances are slim that you’ll stay at that university, or even a similar university, when it’s time to get a faculty job. In fact, after graduating with Ph.D.s, only about 10 percent of faculty move “up” the academic prestige hierarchy as defined by the Science Advances study (with “prestige” being determined by the university’s ability to place faculty at the widest variety of other institutions). Most faculty instead slide 25 percent down the scale.

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Here’s further evidence that the current system isn’t merely sorting the best of the best from the merely good. Female graduates of elite institutions tend to slip 15 percent further down the academic hierarchy than do men from the same institutions, evidence of gender bias to go along with the bias toward the top schools.

Robert Oprisko is among those who believe the hiring system isn’t a meritocracy. He graduated in 2011 with a Ph.D. in political science from Purdue University. He had won a hefty number of awards, published articles, and had a book contract for his dissertation. But the best he could do on the job market was a one-year visiting assistant professorship at Butler University. Now he’s a research fellow at Indiana University, a position that doesn’t pay, but, as Oprisko puts it, “makes you appear that you are still in the system, so it gives you a prayer of getting a job within the academy.”

At the same time Oprisko was struggling to find work, he says his Ivy League political science colleagues, like a friend of his at University of Pennsylvania, had no problem landing elite postdocs and professorship opportunities. “He’s a wonderful guy, but he hadn’t actually done anything,” Oprisko says of his friend from UPenn. And Oprisko doesn’t think he’s imagining this bias against him; he says he’s been told by his mentors that, “There is an imprimatur of being ‘Ivy’ all the way down. You’re the cream of the crop if you can claim to be of a certain status from bottom to top.” He’s stopped listing his master’s degree from Indiana State on his résumé. He’s been told it’s better to have it appear as if he was doing nothing at all during that time than to be associated with a low-prestige school.

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