The rounds of interviews conducted by American universities that lead to new academic hires are less important than the reputation of the university at which candidates took their PhDs, suggests a new study published in the journal Nature in October.
The study shows that the prestige of a small group of American universities leads to a self-perpetuating hierarchy: a small minority of universities supply a large majority of faculty across a wide range of fields, and graduates of these schools who do not get jobs in the higher prestige universities move to faculty jobs in lower prestige universities.
“Quantifying hierarchy and dynamics in US faculty hiring and retention” also shows that with the exception of those educated in Canada or Britain, foreign-trained professors leave the profession at a much higher rate than do American-trained professors.
Additionally, it found that while the percentage of women professors in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields has gone up over the past decade, that increase is due less to recent increases in hiring of women professors than it is to the retirement of mostly male professors.
The study, conducted by a team led by Professor Daniel B Larremore and graduate student K Hunter Wapman, both from the department of computer science and the BioFrontiers Institute at the University of Colorado Boulder, involved almost 300,000 faculty members in 10,612 departments in 368 PhD-granting American universities.
“We analysed the academic employment and doctoral education of tenure-track faculty at all PhD-granting US universities over the decade 2011-2020, with the goal of understanding the factors that shape hiring and attrition in the US professoriate,” said Larremore and Wapman.
“Our analysis shows universal inequalities in which a small minority of universities supply a large majority of faculty across fields – inequalities which are created during the hiring but exacerbated by attrition, and reflect steep hierarchies of prestige.
“Our results also indicate that gains in women’s representation over this decade result from demographic turnover and earlier changes made to hiring, and are unlikely to lead to long-term gender parity in most fields,” says Larremore and Wapman.
According to Antonio Duran, professor of higher and post-secondary education in the division of educational leadership and innovation at Arizona State University, Larremore’s study of the composition of the US professoriate “certainly shapes the experiences that our college students have on campus, the outcomes they report and the ideas that they wrestle with”.
“Therefore, it is critically important that individuals understand patterns in faculty hiring, especially when taking into account social identities and the systemic barriers associated with these identities.”
How prestige structures faculty
Building on the findings reported in Larremore’s 2015 article “Systemic inequality and hierarchy in faculty hiring networks”, this study shows how ‘prestige’ structures American university faculty.
In faculty hiring, perceived prestige can be seen in the fact that 80% of faculty members were graduates of just over 20% of the nation’s universities. Even more striking is the fact that 13.8% (one in eight) went to a handful of elite universities: University of California (UC) Berkeley, Harvard University, University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin-Madison and Stanford University.
The next grouping, made up of 13 universities, trains another 20% of graduate students who go on to be professors.
To show how iniquitous this is, Wapman plotted these figures using the Gini coefficient. A measure of inequality developed by economists, the Gini coefficient is plotted on a scale ranging from zero to one: the higher the number, the greater the inequality. For example, the Gini coefficient for Brazil’s income inequality is 0.48, while the figure for the United States is 0.42. The Gini coefficient for Canada is 0.33; Ukraine’s is 0.26.