Just a Handful of Universities Control the Flow of Ideas and People in Academia, Lacking Diversity and Equality

Just a Handful of Universities Control the Flow of Ideas and People in Academia, Lacking Diversity a ...

New research shows that only a handful of universities seem to be in charge of academic innovation and people. One of those universities is the University of California, Berkeley, shown here.

According to new research from the University of Colorado at Boulder, only five US universities have trained 1-in-8 tenure-track faculty members serving at the nation's institutions of higher learning.

The research is the most comprehensive yet comprehensive look at the American professoriate's structure. In fact, it includes data on nearly 300,000 tenure-track faculty (including where they obtained their own graduate degrees) at more than 10,000 university departments at 368 PhD-granting institutions from 2011 to 2020. The paper will be published today (September 21) in the journal Nature.

The research found that in all fields of study, most professors come from a small number of institutions.

"We all know that academic pedigree is vital—it's the first thing professors include in their bios—but it's difficult to measure how severe the inequality in higher education is until you actually analyze the data," said Daniel Larremor, who is a co-author of the new research and assistant professor at the BioFrontiers Institute.

Take the five colleges that have the most U.S. professors: the University of California, Berkeley, Harvard University, the University of Michigan, Stanford University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. According to Larremore and his colleagues' estimates, these institutions trained more U.S. faculty than all universities outside the United States combined. Across academia, 80% of tenure-track faculty nationwide earned their doctorate degrees at only 20.4% of the nation's universities.

According to a new University of Colorado Boulder study, just five U.S. universities have trained 1-in-8 tenure-track faculty members serving in the nation's institutions of higher learning. One of these universities is Harvard University.

The team's findings paint a potentially bleak picture of student diversity across US universities. For example, they concluded that while women faculty members are becoming more common in a wide range of academic departments, these advances may soon plateau.

Hunter Wapman, PhD student in the Department of Computer Science, believes that gender parity in academia will not be achieved until further steps and changes in hiring policies are taken.

“Identifying and revealing these patterns will help us transform the system,” said Larremore, who earned his doctorate in Applied Mathematics from CU Boulder in 2012.

Wapman, Larremore, and their colleagues used data from the Academic Analytics Research Center to help them understand the interactions between universities.

Sam Zhang, a doctoral student in applied mathematics at CU Boulder, and Aaron Clauset, a professor of computer science, were among the co-authors of the study.

"We may see that Aaron Clauset is working in the Department of Computer Science at CU Boulder," Wapman said. "We may also see where he obtained his doctorate, in this case, the University of New Mexico."

Like a spoke in a bicycle wheel, this datapoint connects CU Boulder and the University of New Mexico, only one of the teams' hundreds of thousands of people.

Explore interactive diagrams of the research findings.

Researchers discovered that in the hallowed halls of academia, some halls are more hallowed than others: academics who received their degrees from less prestigious schools almost never got employment at more prestigious institutions.

For example, in computer science, only 12% of faculty were able to work at recognized institutions where they studied, compared to 6% in economics.

According to Larremore, these strict hierarchies extend beyond the hiring process. Academics who received their doctorates from less prestigious institutions also seemed to leave the field a lot more often than their counterparts from more prominent institutions. So did professors who studied outside the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada.

"Many inequalities in the system are rooted in hiring, but they're also exacerbated by attrition," said the author.

According to the study, women faculty are becoming more common in a wide range of university departments. However, schools aren't hiring more women than they did a decade ago—men in academia are just growing older, on average, and retiring more often.

Larremore, Wapman, and their colleagues have not discussed how universities might use their findings. In a system where only a small number of universities train the vast majority of academics, it's harder for innovative theories and fresh research to emerge and spread from less well-known institutions. On the other hand, those same, prominent institutions may also have an enormous capacity to address the inequality of academia's past.

“Inequality in academia have consequences that we don't always notice,” Wapman said. “For researchers to research identities, we should need a wide range of academics.”

Nature. DOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-05222-x: Quantifying hierarchy and dynamics in US faculty members' hiring and retention

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