Hiring Faculty: Diverse Candidates Need Not Apply


There’s an annoying slide show on Boston.com, the free online edition of the Boston Globe. Its headline pretty much tells the whole story: “Harvard Graduates in Congress.”  The brief text crows that eight more Harvard-affiliated men and women were elected to the House and Senate last month, a veritable crimson tsunami that has brought the congressional total to 42.  The Globe, of course, swiped the story from the Harvard Magazine.

If you are thinking that such a story isn’t really newsworthy in a major US daily, you’d be correct, as long as you do not live within the Route 128 (America’s Technology Highway!) belt that girdles the greater Boston area.

I, on the other hand, found the story of great interest, because it adds more lustrous vermeil qualifications to Senator-elect High Cheekbones Warren’s already considerable cv of half-truths.  Her Harvard “diploma” is from the Radcliffe Institute, a non-degree-granting research arm of the university.  Moving on.

The really interesting thing, though, is that the publication of this self-satisfied paeon to America’s greatest (well, oldest) institution of higher learning coincides with the publication of a truly fascinating research finding in the Georgetown Public Policy Review by one Robert Oprisko, Visiting Professor at Butler University.

Oprisko and his colleagues looked at where graduates of various political science programs around the country find work. They ranked these institutions based upon criteria established by US News and World Report.  The purpose of the study was to test Oprisko’s theory about “academic class” (as in “race, class, gender”).  His theory is an intriguing one that is best explained by the scholar himself.  We—including those in the Ivory Tower—live in a world governed by

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.

Got it?  Can you guess what Oprisko, et.al. found?  Sure you can:

We found strongly suggestive evidence that hiring based upon institutional excellence is ubiquitous.

Knock me over with a feather.

He elaborates:

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 conclusion Oprisko draws from is research confirms many of my fears about what’s wrong with contemporary US higher education:

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.

If that’s not frightening enough, Oprisko goes on to say:

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.

Shield your eyes!  The diversity is blinding!

Shield your eyes! The diversity is blinding!

I look forward to reading more of Professor Oprisko’s current research, as well as his book Honor: A Phenomonology.

In the meantime, I have been reading the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed, which both did stories on Oprisko, for comments by faculty.  Over at the Chronicle, faculty who sit on search committees whine, predictably, about how their severe workloads prohibit them from actually reading the many applications for a tenure-track job.  Never mind that membership on a search committee is a service commitment—part of a faculty member’s job and primary responsibility—reading applications is apparently too much work.  Says “Peter”:

If the hiring process in political science is anything like that in history departments, the results of this study may be explained, at least in part, by the process search committees use to sift through applications. For an opening in twentieth-century U.S. history a department like mine will see over 200 applications. The applications include cover letters, letters of recommendation, c.v.’s, and supplemental materials. How to reduce this body of submissions to manageable levels in order to compile a “long list” of likely candidates is a task that a search committee warily undertakes. Based on my 42 years of experience, I can say that more than one search committee member will  automatically drop applicants who do not come from top twenty-five programs. The assumption is that these programs only accepted top undergrads, that only the best grad students were retained in these programs, and finally that training in these programs was reliably top-notch. Thus 200 plus applications are reduced to 25 or 30. This is not really fair to applicants, but it may explain the skewing of hiring in Oprisko’s findings.

Meanwhile, over at IHE, Mark Jackson adds:

At the end of the day, when a search committee is hiring, its job is, in many cases, to search through a voluminous number of applications and end up with an amazing candidate.  When there are 400 applicants (which sometimes happens), it’s often possible to take extreme short-cuts, e.g., considering only the graduates of 7-8 departments, and still achieve the goal.

If anyone is surprised that a search committee would take a short-cut to achieve its goal, so that its members can spend more of their time doing the things that will actually help their own careers, then all I can say is that I’m surprised you’re surprised.

Jackson’s admission that faculty like to spend time doing things that might get them a better job than the things they have actually been hired and are paid to do should give you a sense of the fatuous arrogance of tenured faculty.

But the joke’s on all of them.  Not surprisingly, the lot of them miss the point.  Which, again, revolves around the fetid hypocrisy that envelopes our campuses in a stultifying miasma.  If you haven’t already figured out where I’m going with this, let me spell it out for you:  How many years have educators been extolling the merits of “diversity” on the modern campus?  How many colleges and universities sink untold resources into “enhancing diversity”?  How many times have we celebrated the election of women and minorities to Congress because they make those august chambers seem “more like America”?  We’ve been had–big time.

It’s time for the academy to cool it with the precious conceit of “diversity.”  Putting a bunch of men and women of different colors and predilections together isn’t promoting “diversity.”  Not when they are perpetually graduates of the same handful of institutions. Academics don’t really believe that diversity is an intellectual and social good. If they did, one assumes they would practice what they preach.  But they don’t.  So maybe you shouldn’t put too much stock in what they say is good for you or your child.

Unless, of course, it’s out of the mouth of a Harvard, Stanford, or Princeton grad.  Then you should believe every single syllable.

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3 thoughts on “Hiring Faculty: Diverse Candidates Need Not Apply

  1. I am happy you enjoyed my research. Although it’s in an early phase, I think that the aspect of diversity is the most salient to the profession of political science in particular and higher education generally. Please let me know what you think of the book when you finish it. I’m happy to sign it for you if you send me it. I think you’ll find that the theoretical structure is a perfect fit.

    • Thanks! I intend to collect my (well, your) autograph! I understand the specific application of your research to political science, but I do not need much convincing of its broader ramifications.

  2. Miss:

    Take the long view and be happy! The academic genetic isolation you’ve described guarantees the intellectual withering and ultimate demise of these institutions. It’s sort of like reverse eugenics, only the academic selectors are so smart they don’t even know it’s themselves and, oh my god, their legacies they’re consigning to the dust bin!

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