The main thrust of the article seems to be as follows. A disproportionate number faculty at research universities in the US received PhDs from a small number of prestigious institutions, and hence (?) such hiring practices reflect profound social inequality. Is it just me, or does this appear to be utter bollocks? There is an obvious pair of hypotheses that would completely explain the data, namely:
- There is a hierarchical system of admission to graduate programs,
- Universities hire the strongest candidates they can, and admit the strongest graduate students they can.
Let’s examine these possibilities in the context of graduate school in mathematics. I have, on several occasions, been responsible for graduate admissions at my institution. I would say, on the whole, that prospective graduate students are among the most class conscious of anyone in academia. I would guess that, at least 75% of the time, a student will accept either the program that is the most highly ranked amongst those where they were admitted or a school within at most one or two places of their highest ranked option.
What about the second hypothesis? The worry here is that universities might view “undergraduate/graduate institution” as a proxy for “quality of candidate.” In my experience (being on hiring committees), this is utterly preposterous. I am not claiming that mathematical judgements are not a slippery thing — there are many variations which relate to matters of taste and inclination — but there are some reasonable objective criteria (GRE scores for graduate applications, publication record for job candidates) which would serve as a check against any implicit bias in this regard.
We here at Persiflage, however, are open to the idea that we may have missed something. So here are some other possibilities:
- You are talking about Mathematics, a field for which it is easier to make reliable judgements about the quality of research, and a field for which there is a more pronounced spike in talent at the top of the scale. Is this true? I honestly don’t know. Perhaps whatever field it is that produces papers like the one under consideration is not something for which talent of any kind is an asset, and so there is no real difference between graduates from Harvard or from Podunk U. Less sarcastically, suppose (say) I compare the English department faculty at the top ranked place (taking from this list) Berkeley and compare it to a place also ranked in the top 25 schools but closer to the bottom of that list, say UIUC. Then, if I knew something, could I confidently say that one department is much better than the other?
- You are talking about the experience of hiring/admitting students at a Group I university. Perhaps it is the case that, for lower ranked universities, there is insufficient expertise to hire on the basis of talent/output, and so PhD institution serves as a lazy way to evaluate the candidate. This seems to be a somewhat condescending argument, but it’s true that I don’t have any idea how hiring works at non-Group I universities. But surely the letters of recommendation would carry the most weight, and they would reflect the quality of research? At the very least, if you are going to claim this is what happens, you need to come up with a way to substantiate that claim.
Ultimately, I certainly don’t feel that I can rule out bias when it comes to hiring, but the fact that the paper under review uses “prestige” as a dirty word and doesn’t seem to acknowledge in any way that there is some correlation between prestige and quality of graduates is highly disturbing. Perhaps, as with this paper, the main goal is to substantiate the political beliefs of the authors rather than to undertake a serious academic inquiry. Still, even if the methodology is flawed, I would like people’s opinion on the conclusion.