> “Accepting that prestige is a good measure of excellence means that we’re not looking into the history of how things became prestigious,” Gonzales says. The founding of elite US universities is “intertwined with exclusion”, she adds. For instance, many institutions have a history of seizing land from Indigenous groups, or originally derived their wealth from or supported their infrastructure with the labour of enslaved Black people.

These are non-sequiturs. The research question here is whether faculty are hired from those prestigious schools above and beyond the rate at which they would have been hired based on other signals of their potential as researchers, which, presumably, are related to what school they go to.

I am not seeing how schools' historical relationships with marginalized peoples bears on that question.

I believe it was Gary King who said that nepotism and meritocracy are very hard to distinguish in academia. You would need a clever identification strategy [0] to tease out the effects of prestige on the margin. I'm afraid this article doesn't offer much on that front.


I don’t know why this is a problem or even surprising. There are few academic positions. Getting in and making it through the top schools is competitive and difficult. So why wouldn’t the best and brightest and most motivated and best networked beat everyone else out?

I’ve been to every kind of level of school (public, private, non-elite, elite). Whenever I’ve had someone from an elite background teaching at a non-elite place has made me feel better about the education I received, and was grateful for it! Relatedly, the expectations in the elite environments were substantially higher, which ended up producing better work from myself because of my peers, culture, and pressure than when I was lacking those in non-elite environments… despite the fact that I’m the same person.

I hate this trend perusing equality by lowering to the common denominator. That’s how you lose competitive edge in the world and end up with a mushy disinterested public. Talent is non-uniformly distributed… we should encourage and have ample mechanisms for the cream to rise to the top regardless of background. Finding ways to identify and prop up talent is what’s culturally lacking. I’ve seen it first hand countless times, and it’s saddened me each time because it’s so wasteful for society and the individuals. We need access to more elite institutions not less!

This is pretty much why I left physics, any worthwhile research career was over before it even started since I went to a lower-tier state university. Not saying that's indicative of all fields considering the difficulty of physics and few number of faculty and lab positions available for such skillsets, but that was my experience.

I looked around at my professors in undergrad and virtually all had come from Ivies or other institutions of similar caliber.

At least software pays well.

You cannot overstate the importance of "social proof" in terms of your access to education, work opportunities and even social status in American life.

This is really why you go to elite universities: to open doors. It's not just the people you meet and build relationships with while at those august institutions, it's the preferential treatment you'll get from former alumni as well as the perception of you being more capable by just having that name on your CV. You've gotten admitted to such an institution and graduated.

The tech world prides itself on being a meritocracy but "social proof" is just as prevalent. Going to an elite school will get you better access to internships, which will get you better access to jobs and so on.

Academia is just a more extreme version of this. A friend (who did manage to secure a tenure track position in the humanities against all odds as a non-Harvard graduate) once told me "you'll never be without a job with Harvard on your CV". Academic departments view prestige by how many Harvard graduates you have on staff.

The scandals in academic publishing are just symptomatic of this: trading on prestige, trading on connections, not wanting to rock the boat, etc.

It would be nice if this was because a few elite universities are so good at training academics but I think we all know that isn't entirely the case.

I'm hoping the research has more detail than the article, because the article seems to make the illogical conclusion that having 80% of professors come from just 20% of schools is in and of itself a bias towards "elitism".

Or, it could just be that those 20 prestigious schools are harder to get into (which is pretty provably true based on acceptance rates), and could thus have higher standards than other universities.

I've become tired of the argument that any distribution that doesn't follow the distribution of an underlying population is by itself evidence of bias, without any specific evidence of bias. Not saying this is always the case, but it's an extremely lazy argument that is easily disputed if people are actually being honest.

> 20% of PhD-granting institutions in the United States supplied 80% of tenure-track faculty members


The Pareto Principle at work. All these figures show is that universities have the usual distribution of quality.

>shows that just 20% of PhD-granting institutions in the United States supplied 80% of tenure-track faculty members to institutions across the country between 2011 and 2020

I feel like this is not the best representation here as they sorta switched what they are measuring. Imagine if every single PhD from every single university became a tenured professor at the exact same rate. We'd still see a pretty big imbalance because presumably there are some universities which give out 300+ PhDs per year because they have a ton of programs/departments and others that give out 30+ per year because they have very limited grad programs.

Surely there is a skew but it just seems like a very deceptive way to look at it.

Would be like saying that 50% of all Americans who become teachers come from just 20% of the states - but not adjusting for the fact that 50% of the population lives in the top 10 largest states.

There's many opportunities to go through one of these institutions - you could do undergrad there, grad school, or one of multiple post docs. There's lots of people that go state school -> ivy/prestige -> state school and end up professors. Or state school -> state school -> ivy/prestige. Or state school -> state school -> state school -> ivy/prestige. If you work really hard, chances are you end up somewhere prestigious eventually. Probably hard to avoid.

I was also going to say that there are plenty of less prestigious schools that graduate a ton of professors, like UC Berkeley, but it turns out it's on this list hah.

Both times I was in college (undergraduate and master's degree), it seemed like at least 90% of my professors were immigrants from foreign countries. I never really thought to ask, but I would have assumed that they attended a foreign university in their home country at least for undergraduate... does this mean they all went to the same 8 institutions for a U.S.-generated PhD before they could move into academia?
The headline didn't surprise me, but the five universities named actually did. I'd expected Harvard to be there but there's a few mid prestige schools in the list. I'd have thought the list would be dominated by the same old famous institutions such as Ivies and MIT rather than large state universities.
The most desirable jobs in the private sector are also filled by graduates of the same few elite universities, and this elitism is perpetuated by all of academia (not just the top few universities). The elite class has constructed this system to perpetuate itself. Academia (the core pillar of elitism) is the last place where this hiring inequality will be addressed (if it ever is addressed, which is highly doubtful).
Universities are efficient, they create many potential professors with a small number of professors. So every class of potential professors will have many who can't get jobs where they studied, and will apply to less desirable places.

This was very disheartening to realize in college. It was too late for me to attempt to become any of the role models physically in front of me.

That's due to how faculty is recruited. Ph.D's from tier-1 schools end up professors at tier-2 and tier-3; tier-2 Ph.D's end up being at tier-3 and tier-4. Professors at Tier-1 have better networks in terms of editorship at top journals, top conferences, members of NSF committees. So, their students have better chance of success.
I would be interested to see what would happen if they blinded professor interviews to alma mater. Because that might help determine how much of it is bias-- 100%?

The inverse correlation would be that people who end up being professors attended those colleges. Maybe they were more likely to get in or are more interested in academia so focused applying to those colleges.

> One in eight US-trained tenure-track faculty members got their PhDs from just five elite universities: the University of California, Berkeley; Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts; the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor; Stanford University in California; and the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

It's worth noting that 3 of these 5 are public — only 2 are private. I was expecting to see a list of Ivies, but there's only one on the list. Things are much more skewed among law professors, who are mostly from Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Chicago, and Michigan.

> This picture of elitism is bolstered by a study published last month in Nature Human Behaviour, showing that almost 25% of faculty members in the United States have at least one parent with a PhD (in the general population, less than 1% of people have a parent with a PhD).

What a silly comparison. University faculty are not selected from "the general population" — only people with PhDs (or JDs/MBAs/MDs, in certain fields) can get these positions. The relevant baseline percentage is: what percent of people seeking faculty positions (i.e., people with the requisite terminal degree) have a parent with a PhD?

Otherwise you're comparing (1) people who successfully got a job with tons of requirements with (2) Americans, generally. If you're going to do that, why not use the average rate worldwide, which would undoubtedly be even lower? Plenty of professors were born outside the US, after all!

A faulty comparison like this calls into question the seriousness of the article.

EDIT: another commenter linked to a list of the schools with the largest number of PhD graduates. [1] It turns out that all but one of the 5 schools listed here is on the top 10 list for volume of graduates. So the conclusion is: the schools with the most PhD graduates...produce a large chunk of professors? Not a huge surprise.


There are currently 449 PhD granting institutions in the United States. This means that 90 universities are responsible for 80% of tenured professors. There are not 90 elite universities in the United States, and 90 is not "few."
I feel like this is almost like... an intuitively good thing to be observed? I know there are a lot of complications around how admittance to such universities can be biased and exclusionary - but if we ignore that for a moment the pure fact that most university professors come from the highest ranked schools is a good thing. It means that the education you'll receive at any university (I myself am a UVM grad which is a wonderful but definitely not elite school) is likely being taught by adroit professors - I'd rather have the most educated graduates all be funneled into future teaching jobs than have lower tier universities stuck with less well educated teachers causing a perpetual cycle of that university being stuck as "low-tier".

Now, in our universe (bringing back all that baggage I initially eschewed) university "eliteness" is pretty stupid and meaningless - it's used as a status symbol which is irrelevant as soon as you have real work experience with the exception of academia which obsesses over degrees even into your 60s. I guess Harvard is probably going to get you a better education than Mass Bay - but a keen student at Mass Bay will get more out of their education than a trust fund baby at Harvard.

I was explicitly told by my undergraduate professors that universities like to hire faculty members from universities ranked higher than them so take that into consideration for choosing your graduate school. Apparently universities have been using this hiring strategy for decades so the outcome does not seem all that surprising or jarring...
What would be more interesting is this: are the researchers in the 80% category as productive as the researchers from the 20% of elite institutions category (on average)? This could be studied and measured, and would go a long way toward dispelling the notion of prestige.

I see what they are getting at - yes there needs to be more diversity in academia and education needs to be more available, and widely distributed, across society. I don't see however, how this is going to motivate hiring committees to take an otherwise promising, and competitive person from a lower prestige institution, who is almost certainly competing with an equally qualified person from an elite institution. Making the case that this person would also be a very good bet might help.

Not sure in what context the word "elite" is used when it comes to claiming there is a hiring bias. It may be thought that those schools have very high fees to attend but I would argue/claim (with no data in my hand) if it was looked deeper into their background, it is very likely that majority of those professors attended those schools via a sort of scholarship to start with as a result of their success prior to universities they got accepted.

Therefore, although "elite" indicates mainly a social class, majority of those people are very likely coming from mid-class families and they just happen to have a good academic record. With that in mind, I wouldn't call this a bias but just a normal and beneficial outcome of the academic system.

Years back, there was talk of trying to leverage this concentration, to improve national science education. Professorial educational skills are often less than wonderful. Eg, physics education research's "if you think your lectures are working, your assessment also isn't". And creating change by improving current professors is hard, expensive, and failure prone. So the idea was, to lavishly fund education research, training, and education minors, at these few institutions through which pass, most graduate students who will eventually become professors. Make their instructional training really excellent, and then wait for it to propagate nationally. One obvious downside being reinforcing the concentration.
There should be a mandatory SAT style test that you take after graduation. With nothing on the line for the individual, but everything on the line for the school to prove they actually taught you something.

It would obviously need to be catered to each major. And it won’t exactly align with any one school’s curriculum, but it’d be great to see actual stats of who knows what after graduation across thousands of students.

Thinking about this a bit more, this is something the government could definitely do. Have schools submit students to these tests as a condition of receiving federal funding. Any student that graduates that doesn’t take the test counts as a zero for the schools numerator but still a one for the denominator.

There are professors who teach at community colleges and help students get 2 year degrees.

There are professors who teach undergraduates. There are professors who teach graduate students who are working on doctorates they will use in industry.

And finally, there are professors who get to mint new professors.

That final list SHOULD be an elite. Academia is done growing, which means if you're a full professor, you should expect exactly one of your advisees to make full professor. Out of the entire career's retinue of advisees. Some professors will get to mint more than that. Others will have zero.

The authors complain that graduate programs at elite universities rely on standardized tests as a key contributor of racial bias. I am surprised by this. I suspect this is a misapplication of the racial bias studies that relate in high school (and lower) standardized tests.

I would expect that strong undergraduate candidates to elite programs (e.g. 3.9+ GPA with letters of recommendation from professors) would not have statistically different GRE/LSAT/MCAT scores based on race. Has anyone studied high GPA students' GRE scores for racial bias?

This is a really ignorant question and I'm pretty sure I already know the answer. But say I wanted to become a teacher at some school, specifically teaching things like "how to organize and execute the operational side of a tech product", or "managing Enterprise IT". You have to have a degree (in something) first, right? They won't just hire someone with 25 years experience and no degree to teach a class?
Specifically, the study, published in Nature on 21 September, shows that just 20% of PhD-granting institutions in the United States supplied 80% of tenure-track faculty members to institutions across the country between 2011 and 2020 (see ‘Hiring bias’).

Nice pareto principle example

Finding an 80/20 rule (this one literally 80% from 20%) ought to be expected, not “jarring.” It’s natural and not sinister.

If something other than the 80/20 rule was found, that might be cause for alarm or further exploration

Love it when academia turns on itself. Interestingly Harvard and Stanford have no claim to the hottest idea in science and engineering right now (deep learning).

A worse issue is that Harvard and Stanford get all the grant money.

Fortunately the prestige and social currency among Ivies and "elite" universities is rapidly turning to a stigma among a large portion of the population.
What about Congress? And the POTUS / WH? And W DC in general?

Higher edu has far less power and hands on direct impact than Uncle Sam.

I wonder why it is surprising,

It is basically saying like "most rich people have a high resolution TV."

I would just recommend everyone read the actually research instead of the journalism.
Since when did "one in eight" qualify for "most"?
UW-Madison is on the list, but University of Chicago is not?
and if you check where they were before that last Ph.D step from elite university it would probably be all over the world, especially for STEM.
Antonio Gramsci is pleased.
What’s the point here? I want my professors to be educated at the best universities.