Superpowers: The American Academic Elite - By Robert Oprisko

Superpowers: The American Academic Elite - By Robert Oprisko

Publication date: Wed, 30 Jan 2013

Reprinted with the permission of the Georgetown Public Policy Review

On September 21, 2010, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas criticized the use of academic prestige in the hiring of law students after he was made aware that four of his clerks were called “third-tier trash” on Internet message boards. The students—who hailed from George Mason, Rutgers, George Washington, and Creighton—were considered inferior to peers with more prestigious academic pedigrees. This line of thinking is a clear indication that individual merit is in competition with institutional affiliation to determine future success. With the effects of the 2008 recession lingering and the job market still tight across the United States, institutional hiring practices have become a more prominent public policy concern. While there are protections against employment discrimination based upon race, age, gender, etc., there is nothing that protects against academic class.

In my book, Honor: A Phenomenology, I present a system whereby individuals navigate society based upon processes of honor that determine their value. My conceptualization of prestige (individual excellence) and affiliated honor (excellence granted based only upon membership in prestigious groups) presents a theoretical framework that my research partners and I use to explore hiring practices in academia. We compiled a database of the tenure-track and tenured faculty in all ranked research universities to determine which of those universities successfully placed candidates at peer institutions. We found strongly suggestive evidence that hiring based upon institutional excellence is ubiquitous.

We used the 2009 U.S. News and World Report rankings for political science graduate programs as a proxy variable to determine an applicant’s academic class, or affiliated honor, in order to determine if it significantly influenced hiring processes officially predicated upon individual talent (referred to as prestige). The aggregation of this data includes 116 institutions and 3,135 faculty members who are either tenure-track or tenured. We hypothesized that affiliated honor would directly correlate to employment success. We also hypothesized that a cascade effect would emerge where institutions would place within and immediately below their prestige level such that a prestige-based hierarchy would present itself. The results dramatically show that we were both very right on the first hypothesis and very wrong on the second. There is a group of highly prestigious universities that dominate the political science academic market, effectively shutting out all competition at multiple levels. The fact that these academic superpowers are so dominant and place candidates ubiquitously indicates that institutional prestige drives hiring practices in academia and, perhaps, other highly selective professions (such as law, as indicated in Justice Clarence Thomas’ remarks.)

Our research confirms that there is a direct correlation between institutional prestige and candidate placement. If we consider the highest ranked programs, the three tied at #1, we find that Harvard University has successfully placed 239 political scientists at 75 institutions—including twelve at Harvard. Princeton has successfully placed 108 political scientists at 62 institutions—including five at Princeton. Stanford has successfully placed 128 political scientists at 51 institutions—including three at Stanford. The highest ranked public university, The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor (ranked number four overall), has successfully placed 141 political scientists in 61 institutions—including seven at Michigan. These four schools contribute 616 political scientists; roughly twenty percent of the total tenure-track lines in the discipline at research-intensive programs. The median institutional ranking for the 116 institutions covered is eleven, which implies that eleven schools contribute 50 percent of the political science academics to research-intensive universities in the United States. Over 100 political science PhD programs are graduating students that will contest the remaining 50 percent of openings.

These numbers likely understate the impact of prestigious universities; the present study does not include the many liberal arts colleges and regional universities that also hire graduates of these programs and increase the network of advocates for graduates from highly ranked universities. Of course, this is somewhat expected given that the most prestigious programs are often also the ones that have the highest numbers of students. As we move forward with this project, we will control for institution size and output.

Hiring based upon institutional prestige disproportionately expands the network of the academic superpowers and increases their competitive advantage. In turn, this appears to diminish the institution at which one currently works. The evidence suggests that departments are more concerned with who is placed at their institution than in placing graduates from their institution. As time passes, certain graduate schools might be unable to place any candidates; not because they cannot produce good teachers and scholars, but because “the perception is that good students only come from a handful of schools,” according to Diane Rubenstein of Cornell. Justice Clarence Thomas takes issue with this perception, holding that graduates from schools ranked lower are not “third-tier trash.”

There are smart kids every place. They are male, they are female, they are   black, they are white, they are from the West, they are from the South, they are from public schools, they are from public universities, they are from poor families, they are from sharecroppers, they are from all over (Clarence Thomas, Univ. of Florida, 2/4/2010).

Excellent or not, students from less prestigious institutions are less likely to get an opportunity to showcase their talent.

As the academic market tightens up, there are fewer positions available and more graduates than needed. Many universities are losing the ability to place their own students within academia. The theoretical consequence of such hiring practices is that hiring committees often appear to favor people like themselves rather than candidates from schools like the ones in which they work. Therefore, when committees are made up of professors from prestigious institutions, they might be more likely to hire candidates from similarly prestigious institutions. This practice reinforces the perceived inferiority of their current institution. The prophecy of good academics graduating from a handful of dominant programs becomes self-fulfilling and the market landscape bleak for the vast majority of PhD programs. As we move forward with the project, we will collect data to assess the degree to which this pattern is occurring.

Robert L. Oprisko is a Visiting Professor at Butler University. The author thanks research partners Natalie Jackson, and Kirstie Dobbs, Research Assistant at Butler University, for their help with this piece. This article is based on their working paper “Superpowers: The American Academic Elite.”