Academic Inequality: A Problem of Ideas and Institutions

Yesterday, an article on Slate, “The Academy’s Dirty Secret”, showed the extent to which elite universities dominate faculty hiring. History was the study’s worst offender. It found that eight universities account for half of all history professors. Those few students from non-elite universities able to find university jobs usually did so by finding a job at an even less prestigious school than their graduating institution. It concludes with a warning that such a concentration of power in the hands of a few schools could stifle creativity and marginalize paradigm shifting ideas contributed by academic outsiders.

While the Slate article is effective in showing the scale of the current crisis, it fails to put its findings in historical context. This institutional disparity is nothing new. I have found in my own research that many of the same concerns and frustrations hindering less prestigious schools today were expressed decades ago. The creation of the Institute of Far Eastern and Russian studies at the University of Washington in the mid-1940s is a useful case in point. It’s founder, George E. Taylor, was up against a field defined by elite, Ivy League programs at Harvard, Yale, and Columbia. Despite success attracting funding to his Institute, he routinely lost promising faculty to Ivy programs and struggled to place Washington graduate students at top universities. By contrast, John K. Fairbank, Harvard history professor and Taylor’s biggest competitor, used his connections to other Ivy institutions as well as powerful government officials to secure placement for his graduate students at top schools like Stanford and the University of California – Berkeley (Harvard also employed several of Fairbank’s students). He was so well connected with university administrators at other institutions that he often knew about job openings before the hiring departments, giving him an additional advantage pressing that institution’s hiring committee to take on one of his students. By 1950, Taylor and his staff at Washington were fed up. Convinced that there was an Ivy League conspiracy against their program and animated by the early Cold War’s anti-communist hysteria, Taylor along with his colleagues Karl Wittfogel and Nicholas Poppe became witnesses for anti-communist loyalty committees chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy and, later, Patrick McCarran who investigated the China studies community during the Second Red Scare.

As the episode above illustrates, there is continuity in the concentration of academic power in the hands of elite institutions between the mid-20th century and today. This continuity is relevant to intellectual historians for two important reasons. First, it shows the central role institutions play in shaping ideas and intellectuals. A recent post by Audra Wolfe on the S-USIH blog laid out the wonderful recent studies by historians like Harold Isaacs and Jamie Cohen-Cole on the way university institutions shaped work done in the social sciences. There have also been fruitful (if somewhat limited) forays into the ways funding either through the government or private grants has influenced American ideas in the 20th century. Still, there is much more work to be done in exploring the relationship between ideas and institutions. Much of the recent scholarship recapitulates institutional inequalities by only examining elite institutions. There has been little work done on less prestigious schools and how lack of connections and funding shaped their intellectual production. There has also yet to emerge much research on recent developments in the relationship between university scholars and institutions after the collapse of the New Deal coalition in the 1970s. Olivier Zunz has shown how the emergent New Right devised its own forms of private philanthropy during the Reagan years, but its impact on intellectual production has not been explored.[1]

The second important function such continuity serves intellectual historians is contextualizing ideas and intellectuals into longer durees that show how funding and institutional mantras perpetuate strains of thought. Institutions have long lifespans, often outlasting generations of scholars. They are also not value neutral. The Rockefeller Foundation, for example, has had the same mission (“to improve the well-being of humanity around the world”) since 1913. This mantra has been interpreted in different ways over the hundred years it has been in use. Again looking at China, in the 1930s Rockefeller sponsored large development and education programs in China with particular attention paid to agriculture and medicine. War, hot and cold, compelled Rockefeller to channel money for China away from direct investment in Chinese development and into American university programs devoted to studying Chinese history, culture, and society. Despite changes in practice, Rockefeller continually promoted Chinese development and democratic institution-building. Their investment in university China studies ensured that intellectuals who shared their vision would have the financial resources to pursue their work, which was of no small significance in a new field with limited connections to sources of funding.

It is tempting to idly despair at stories of institutional inequality particularly when taken together with news about the perpetually shrinking academic job market. As paralyzing as the prospect of future unemployment can be, it does little to help understand or address the problem. Like the parallel problems of race and gender inequality, using history to contextualize institutional inequality will both help us better understand how these disparities were created and undermine arguments that these inequalities are natural or inevitable products of the higher education system. But if historians are going to properly contextualize our current plight we need to be more sensitive to the role institutions play in shaping ideas. Addressing inequality involves stripping away harmful mythologies about meritocracy and “great thinkers” to get at the institutional roots of their creation and popularization. Only by understanding these roots can we properly adjust the discipline to create fairer and more egalitarian hiring practices.

[1] Olivier Zunz, Philanthropy in America: A History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012). For another book that effectively explores the relationship between conservative ideas and funding sources see, Angus Burgin, The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets Since the Depression (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012).

3 thoughts on “Academic Inequality: A Problem of Ideas and Institutions

  1. Matt, this is the best response to that study that I have come across. Thanks so much for your clarity on this, and for contextualizing the history of institutional inequality so nicely. Your last two sentences are absolutely spot-on. However, I fear that the underlying assumption of your very last sentence may not be widely shared. The fiction of meritocracy endures because it is useful, and those institutions for whom it has proved most useful — not coincidentally, those institutions that are best positioned within the prestige economy of higher education — are not likely, it seems to me, to put their weight behind a move to greater egalitarianism throughout the entire system. But history is filled with unlikely outcomes, so I will hold to my pessimism only provisionally.

    Anyway, this is a really good post. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. Well done, Matt! I agree with LD on your historical contextualization. One problem with your call, given the situation in which we operate, is that these same institutions have to be willing to sponsor and lead in studies like the one you suggest. You have to get buy-in from them because they hold the resources to sponsor a multi-institution study. – TL

  3. Great post! I agree that historical scholarship often reproduces hierarchies by studying elite institutions/figures and assuming they represent something larger, when in fact they may be exceptional. I also have found in my own research that despite advances in communication and travel, regions of the country were still pretty separate in the pre-Internet age in a lot of ways- West Coast professionals didn’t necessarily have a lot of personal ties or information about East Coasters in the same profession, etc. and so I think it is important for historians to get out of the Northeast.

    On the point about the need for studies into how New Right funding shaped ideas, there are some really useful studies on this in the legal realm:

    – Steven Teles, The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement, has two chapters on how foundation funding encouraged the rise of “law and economics” scholarship. Actually, one of the interesting themes in this book is how law and economics was not initially associated with prestigious schools, other than the University of Chicago where it began – precisely because it was initially seen as a non-mainstream mode of legal scholarship, its early evangelists, if they weren’t at Chicago, often ended up at non-elite law schools including Miami, Emory, and especially the new law school started at George Mason, where it still has many practitioners. (Also, although there are now many law and economics scholars at Ivy law schools my anecdotal sense is they tend to be more liberal than conservative, although I am not sure that would hold up empirically.) Yet, in part because of foundation funding for conferences, fellowships, faculty lines, etc. that helped to institutionalize and grow the field, law and economics has been very successful at becoming very influential not just in scholarship but also among judges and lawyers, and it is certainly now seen as a very mainstream type of legal scholarship.

    – Another article in this vein is Reva Siegel’s work on the Second Amendment, which shows, among other things, how the NRA funded (and basically created) modern Second Amendment scholarship, including paying scholars to research and write articles on the subject. This was part of the larger modern gun rights movement that eventually led to the Supreme Court’s recent decisions elaborating an individual right to bear arms.
    Again, this is an area where the ideas that eventually gained real legal power were previously seen as totally fringe interpretations and were not necessarily associated with elite institutions, and are now seen as ideas that have to be taken seriously.

    So, while I agree that more case studies are needed, these two case studies suggest that while money and influence does tend to reproduce itself in elite institutions, targeted infusions of outside money into non-elite institutions can also help more unconventional ideas move towards the mainstream and gain real power (and help adherents of those ideas gain jobs). Also, both of these case studies show how if you get enough scholars writing in a certain vein, it eventually forces more mainstream/established scholars to respond, and that in turn lends further legitimacy to what may have previously not been taken seriously.

    While these are strategies the right has perfected, I don’t see why the left (or any other political alignment) couldn’t use them as well. However, I think there is a tendency for left/liberal donors to support the big elite foundations and universities precisely because they are seen as friendly to liberalism (whether accurately or not). So, paradoxically, perhaps the “liberal bias” of the academy and big philanthropy can help explain why the left hasn’t been so good at generating new ideas and shifting policy in recent decades, and also why the academy reflects the patterns of hierarchy, exclusivity, and inequality that many of its members claim to disavow.

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