Professorial elitism

An interesting study undertaken recently in the United States found that over half of all tenured university lecturers in a very large sample were graduates of just ’18 elite universities’ (which in the US would be a tiny proportion of the university sector as a whole). The study concluded that access to higher education was firmly established across the country, but:

‘… Most universities are not very successful at generating professors, and most people only get doctorates because they intend to go into academia. Should these lower-prestige institutions even bother granting PhDs at all?’

There are various observations and assumptions in all of this, and they are worth analysing. First, the assumption is that people who do PhD research are generally intending to be academics. Secondly, the study observes that a small number of elite universities educate most academics. Finally, this means that the academy, as distinct from the population it teaches, is hugely elitist.  If these assumptions are correct, and moreover if they are also correct for other higher education sectors beyond the United States, they should give us some cause for concern.

I am not aware of any similar study in the UK or Ireland, but it would not be excessively difficult to undertake. I would not claim to have done anything scientific, but I have taken three universities, two in the UK and one in Ireland, and have looked at a sample of their academic staff to see what the position might be. My initial impression (and I can hardly claim more than that) is that we don’t have the same phenomenon this side of the Atlantic. All three universities would be considered to be in the middle range rather than ‘elite’; in all three a significant proportion of academics are graduates of the institution they now teach in, followed by a group who are graduates of what one might call similar institutions. Of the 100 academics I sampled across the institutions, only three were graduates of Oxford or Cambridge. In fact Harvard and Stamford were better represented.

What am I concluding? First, that it might be interesting to do a more scientific study of our universities. Secondly, that if the higher education sector is to have any kind of cohesion and if it is to be successful at underpinning a reasonably egalitarian society, there should be a reasonable spread of universities whose graduates teach and research across all institutions. This is so in part because any move towards elitism will not just stay as intellectual elitism, it will quickly be social (or socio-economic) elitism also.

This is an issue to watch.

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8 Comments on “Professorial elitism”

  1. no-name Says:

    “… in all three [`universities [sampled], two in the UK and one in Ireland,’ … `in the middle range rather than “elite”‘,] a significant proportion of academics are graduates of the institution they now teach in …”

    Do you think it is healthy for departments to be so prone to hiring their own graduates?

    • Vincent Says:

      Well who else then.

      • no-name Says:

        Some would argue that a university department that has for academic staff mostly its own graduates is so public in flaunting its dysfunctionality that it should be shut down, and therefore have no further hiring responsibilities.

        Some would argue that a purge would suffice, creating opportunities to develop diversity of thinking such as is encouraged by hiring staff educated in a wide range of universities.

        Gary Snyder once said that his greatest fear was depletion of variety from the gene pool. The intellectual equivalent of such depletion is homogeneity of thought.

        • Vincent Says:

          Mostly what occurs is one or more higher degrees are outside in a sister institution. A quick glance at the NUI will show it’s not just seasoned but pickled with Oxon, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, KUL, UL, what-have-ya.
          But to get to your point. If the home won’t sponsor its own why should anyone else. Using your logic, if someone is training a wheelwright they should be taken up by another wheel company not by their own. Where I believe if they can form the wheel, they can form the wheel at home as easily. The trim and piping may be different but the thing is meant to roll.

          • no-name Says:

            Indeed, the same logic applied within apprenticeships gave rise to the notion “Journeyman”.

            A wheelwright who is a victim of intellectual incest is unlikely to invent hovercraft.

  2. Ian Says:

    One difference is, of course, that in the USA, almost no one gets appointed to teach in a University unless they already possess a PhD. In the UK, especially in the Humanities and Social Sciences, working towards a PhD while teaching is much more common.

  3. Al Says:

    In essence it is a form of inbreeding!
    And the jury has been in for a long time on that…..

  4. James Fryar Says:

    Interesting article …

    I do agree with some of the points in the no-name/Vincent exchange above. In Ireland (and probably the UK) our universities simply do not have the funding to allow them to have large departments with a wealth of disciplines; even ‘focused’ institutions in the US, like MIT, have more research groups and broader range of subjects than most Irish/UK universities.

    Therefore departments are under pressure – yes, you may be a fantastic researcher and yes, you may apply for an academic position in an Irish/UK university, but if your research is not within the rather narrow confines of the ‘strategic interests’ of the institution or is not suitably aligned with an existing research strand, then you’ll have little chance of permanency.

    I suspect we would find a high degree of ‘nepotism’ in Irish universities simply because our research focus is so narrow that our own graduates will fit the criteria.

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