A Modest(y) Proposal

Challenging the overrepresentation of elite institutions.
By Eva-Maria Swidler

An article detailing some stark facts about social inequality within academia made a small blip in higher education three years ago. According to Aaron Clauset, Samuel Arbesman, and Daniel B. Larremore in their February 2015 Science Advances article, “Systematic Inequality and Hierarchy in Faculty Hiring Networks,”  prestige has come to predominate strikingly over merit as the primary consideration in the selection of tenured and tenure-track professors. Examining three disciplines, the authors found that “faculty hiring follows a common and steeply hierarchical structure that reflects profound social inequality,” showing a strong preference—unaccounted for by any measure of merit—for appointing faculty members with degrees from prestigious universities. They reported that in my own discipline of history, more than half of all tenured or tenure-track professors in 144 surveyed institutions had received their PhDs from only eight institutions. The authors also pointed out that the greater the importance of non-meritocratic factors in hiring, the weaker the correlation between prestige and merit. In other words, the prestige of the university where you received your PhD has replaced consideration of your actual qualification or worthiness as defined by knowledge, wisdom, skill, or work. In Sarah Kendzior’s words in her 2015 ChronicleVitae piece “Academia’s 1 Percent,” “The fate of aspiring professors is sealed not with job applications but with graduate-school applications. Institutional affiliation has come to function like inherited wealth.”

While faculty hiring seems to be increasingly less merit-driven, simple calls for some kind of return to the principles of meritocracy are not a fully satisfactory solution. As French sociologist and anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu has observed, class privilege is handily transformed into merit through the “social alchemy” of education. Thus, even well-functioning hiring meritocracies are not immune from the broader processes that reproduce social inequality; the candidates that a meritocratic hiring system rewards with jobs have been produced as scholars of particular merit, worthy of hiring, by an unequal educational system that specifically works to groom students from the social elite. Yet for the vast majority of PhDs, a chance to be evaluated primarily on the basis of their work rather than the prestige of their university would represent a revolution.

Peer review is not an innocent process either. Even when the review process itself is blind, prestige-sensitive editors choose whether to assign articles to reviewers in the first place or dismiss the submissions out of hand while reviewers themselves are products of a system in which the theories and views of elite institutions hold sway. In their Chronicle of Higher Education article “How the Academic Elite Reproduces Itself,” Andrew Piper and Chad Wellmon demonstrate that academic publication patterns are even more concentrated than hiring patterns, with less than 3 percent of PhD-granting institutions accounting for over half of all articles in the four prestigious humanities journals that they studied. Thus, not merely the selection of teaching personnel but the content of intellectual life itself is shaped by elites.

What the concentration of intellectual power in both faculty employment and publishing shows us is that the issue of cancerous inequality in higher education affects much more than just the careers and lives of the unfortunates who earned degrees from the bottom 90 percent of doctoral institutions. Clauset and his co-authors argue convincingly that this top-heavy pattern has profound implications for the free exchange of ideas. The anointed faculty have the power to train and evaluate the next generation of academics, as well as the ability to set research agendas and academic norms in a self-reinforcing cycle of ideas about what constitutes scholarly quality or excellence. Additionally, they explain that network theory, when applied to maps of institutional connections, implies that ideas originating in the elite institutions, regardless of their merit, spread more easily than ideas originating from low-prestige institutions. Noting the closed nature of this academic ecosystem, we might wonder what it means that under the current regime of intellectual hiring and assessment, the scholarly notions of excellence that reign are quite literally and specifically the products of elites. What kinds of knowledge will prestigious institutions, as bastions and reproducers of the elite and of elitism, necessarily produce, spread, and defend?

It is a commonplace among historians to observe that the subfields of social history, immigration history, and African American history blossomed only in the wake of the greatly increased access to higher education after World War II that brought historians from working class, immigrant, and African American backgrounds into the academy as faculty. What kinds of history will be written in the next decades by the graduates from the handful of elite universities that now dominate our institutions?

If we believe that a diversity of intellectuals from the widest possible variety of social, cultural, and economic positions brings insight and vitality to any conversation, then the tightening noose that elite programs have on faculty positions and the production of research must be loosened.

Wealth concentration and economic inequality have hit levels not seen since the 1920s and continue to increase, and it behooves us to acknowledge that in its concentration of power, as in so many other social phenomena, academia mirrors society at large. For instance, all current Supreme Court judges hold law degrees from one of only three Ivy League schools, while in the twentieth century justices included graduates from historically black Howard University and the flagship public universities of California, Colorado, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, and Texas. In this social context, the academy must consider how its fixation on branding, image, and prestige is part of a larger cultural trend toward obsessive self-presentation that privileges those who are able to “curate” their careers by acquiring degrees from the “right” institutions.

Meanwhile, what can academics do to disrupt the corrosion of intellectual life that results from widening stratification between academic “haves” and “have-nots”? Some, such as Piper and Wellmon, suggest an expanded use of the methods of data science to maximize the diversity of authors’ home institutions or to assess the novelty of a publication’s citations rather than using conventional citation rankings while others recommend using open-access publication of pre-prints, adopting open-discussion review processes, and eschewing impact assessments. Commendable initiatives—such as the expansion and improvement of double-blind peer review (apparently unpopular so far in science disciplines) or the establishment of open-access research journals that do not require authors to pay to publish—are underway to challenge elite hegemony in discipline-specific ways. But these projects require time and intensive effort and largely offer opportunities for action to those already in positions of relative power and authority. What can and should the rest of us do when we get up tomorrow? How might we all participate in the creation of the everyday culture of mutual respect that must underlie and support any eventually successful challenge to a system based on the veneration of academic pedigree?

The modest proposal I offer is simple: academia must stop using the evaluative crutch of institutional identification. Why not bring the much-lauded publication principles of double-blind peer review to bear also on those interactions that are beyond the world of publishing? What, after all, is the point of flagging an alma mater or place of employment if not to signal a relative position in a hierarchy of purported legitimacy and respect, to communicate that what this person has to say should be received differently, by virtue of his or her institutional connections? I recently responded with a submission to a call for papers in the social sciences that requested that a curriculum vitae accompany each paper proposal. Why is it necessary to see where my degree and paycheck come from to decide whether my ideas are worth a fifteen-minute public audience?

We should do away with shaming conference name tags with the moniker “independent scholar.” Instead, we will have to listen to what independent scholars say in order to evaluate the merits of their presentations. No more authors listed with institutional affiliation in journals. Instead, we must read articles and engage with their content without prestige prompts to nudge our reception of the arguments. No more departmental websites announcing where faculty members received their degrees. Instead, we will be forced to consider research interests, publications, student advising, and other work in forming an opinion of a professor.

Of course, a label-less academe will not address structural inequality or undo that social alchemy that turns money into seeming merit, and abandoning identification by affiliation is very far from a sufficient step to true academic collegiality, but this is the kind of academe we need. And it is the kind we can all get up and work toward tomorrow.

Eva-Maria Swidler teaches environmental history and political economy at Goddard College and the Curtis Institute of Music. Her email address is [email protected].