Only five universities have produced one-eighth of the professors at America’s doctoral institutions, and 80 percent of such professors have earned doctorates from only 20 percent of the nation’s universities.
This is according to a striking new study published in 2016 nature, which analyzed the academic employment and doctoral education of more than 295,000 tenured or tenured faculty at 368 doctoral-granting universities in the United States between 2011 and 2020. Researchers found “extreme inequality” in faculty hiring across academic fields.
While the effect of prestige itself is well documented—faculty at prestigious institutions write more papers, receive more citations, and win more awards—the authors of this study wanted to focus on how faculty hiring practices maintain prestige over time.
The researchers found that the University of California at Berkeley, Harvard University, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, the University of Wisconsin at Madison and Stanford University contribute nearly 14 percent of the nation’s faculty.
These institutions are part of a small group of universities that exchange professors with each other and “export” them to institutions that are considered less prestigious. However, institutions in the higher prestige group rarely hire candidates from lower-reputation universities.
Prestige “seems to dominate the way faculty hiring committees actually choose who to hire,” said Aaron Clauset, a professor of computer science at the University of Colorado at Boulder and co-author of the study. (The researchers defined prestigious institutions based on their place in the faculty recruitment network — in other words, “their graduates can get jobs at many other prestigious places,” Clauset said.)
Basic institutions “in some sense supply ideas to a large part of the whole intellectual system,” Clauset said. “The magnitude of inequality suggests that we are almost certainly missing out on many extremely talented people and innovative ideas.”
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Texas at Austin, Cornell University and Columbia University rounded out the top 10 faculty-producing universities.
Three other Boulder researchers worked on the study: lead author Hunter Wapman, a doctoral student in computer science; Sam Zhang, PhD student in applied mathematics; and Daniel Larremore, professor of computer science.
Illusory earnings for women
The study also examined the situation of gender representation in academic studies. “We’ve all seen these numbers or heard the statistics about how women’s representation is improving over time,” Clauset said.
But because the researchers analyzed nearly 10 years of data, they were able to look at who was hired and who left their faculty jobs over a fairly long period of time. And they found that while the gender ratio is becoming more balanced, the trend is driven by the fact that the majority of retirees are men; female representation among new hires has remained flat, and newly hired faculty are still more likely to be men.
“Unless we change the way academia recruits and retains women as faculty, the gains in female representation will disappear,” Clauset said.
The study also identified another important, yet understudied, piece of the faculty representation puzzle: retention. “It’s not just about hiring people,” Clauset said. “It’s about keeping them.”
Professors who earned their higher education in the United States, Canada, or Great Britain were more likely to stay in their positions, while people who earned their doctorates at institutions outside those countries were more likely to leave their positions. The same is true for faculty who earn PhDs at less prestigious universities.
“Those two things create a mystery as to why,” Clauset said. “How is it that academia can’t keep these people? They are highly trained, highly educated. They won the lottery and got a professorship. Why did they leave? Why can’t we keep them to ourselves?”
Because the study looked only at doctoral students in the United States, it is possible that these professors left to take jobs at liberal arts colleges or institutions abroad. Or they could have switched to a non-working position.
“I don’t think our results suggest that any department or university should decide to cut their programs because of our results, because academia is not the only market for PhDs.” Clauset said.
Still, Clauset said the study is a sign that colleges need to rethink how and where they recruit and retain faculty.
“If we’re going to pursue the ideal of meritocracy,” he said, “it’s certainly useful to think about how to expand our understanding of what ideas are interesting and valuable and likely to have impact in the future. It actually advances scholarship.”