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.
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.
 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).