- Just 20.4% of U.S. institutions account for 80% of tenured and tenure-track faculty at Ph.D.-granting universities, giving prestigious colleges disproportionate influence over the spread of ideas, academic norms and culture.
- That’s according to new research published in Nature, a peer-reviewed journal. It concluded that academia “is characterized by universally extreme inequality in faculty production.”
- Just over one in eight domestically trained faculty were educated at five doctoral institutions: the University of California, Berkeley, Harvard University, the University of Michigan, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Stanford University. The same five universities trained more faculty than all non-U.S. universities combined.
A small minority of top universities trained most of the faculty at U.S. Ph.D.-granting institutions, essentially dominating the tenure-track hiring process, according to the research.
Even when researchers took field of study into account, 80% of faculty members were educated at only 19% to 28% of universities, depending on their field of study. Differences in university or department size didn't explain the inequalities in faculty production.
Researchers studied the educational histories of faculty members who worked at the 386 Ph.D.-granting institutions in the U.S. between 2011 and 2020, representing almost 300,000 people.
They found that faculty members tend to be employed at universities considered less prestigious than those that trained them. A department is considered prestigious if it produces graduates who are hired by other well-regarded departments, according to the paper. Depending on their field of study, only about 5% to 23% of faculty members worked for a university more prestigious than the one at which they earned their Ph.D.
While these trends enable colleges to hire teaching staff from highly respected institutions, they also limit the employability of faculty graduating from less prestigious universities. This ultimately weakens the value of most colleges' programs.
These patterns worsen over time. Faculty members who weren’t trained at one of the small number of institutions dominating the academy are almost twice as likely to leave their professions each year, the paper found.
The research generated pushback online. On Twitter, Chris Marsicano, an educational studies professor at Davidson College, criticized that the paper only covered colleges that confer doctoral degrees, even though many professors work at institutions that don’t award Ph.D.s.
The exclusion of colleges without Ph.D. programs stemmed from a lack of data availability, according to Hunter Wapman, a computer science graduate student at the University of Colorado Boulder and co-author of the paper.
"We would have loved to include non-PhD granting universities in the study, but we unfortunately didn't have data for that cohort of faculty," Wapman said in an email. "It would be wonderful if, in the future, we could report findings on that population — and, ideally, on graduate and undergraduate students, as well."
The Academic Analytics Research Center provided the data set used.