Is there a monopoly over the nation’s tenure-track professors?

80% of tenure-track faculty earned their doctorate at just 20.4% of the nation's universities, allowing elite universities to "sit atop steep hierarchies of prestige."
By: | September 22, 2022
©Susan Young for Harvard Business School

“We all know that academic pedigree is important—it’s the first thing professors put in their bios—but it’s hard to measure just how extreme the inequalities are in higher education until you actually analyze the data.”

That’s according to Daniel Larremore, assistant professor at the BioFrontiers Institute at CU Boulder and co-author of a recent study that addresses how the majority of the country’s tenure-track professors are produced by only a handful of institutions.

The study, published this week in Nature, is the most detailed analysis of the structure of the American professoriate, capturing data from nearly 300,000 tenure-track faculty at more than 10,000 university departments from 2011 to 2020.

The findings

80% of tenure-track faculty in the U.S. received their Ph.D. at just 20.4% of the nation’s universities. Furthermore, only five U.S. universities have trained one in eight of those faculty. The data suggests that the University of California, Berkley, Harvard University, University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin-Madison and Stanford University have produced more U.S. faculty than all universities outside the U.S. combined.

“As a whole, by domain and by field, U.S. tenure-track faculty hiring is dominated by a small minority of U.S. universities that train a large majority of all faculty and sit atop steep hierarchies of prestige,” the study reads. “As we expand our view from fields to entire domains, inequalities in faculty production further increase, reflecting elite universities’ positions at or near the top of multiple correlated prestige hierarchies across fields.”

The researchers also found higher rates of attrition among faculty who were:

  1. Trained outside of the U.S.
  2. Trained at institutions that have produced a smaller number of faculty overall.
  3. Employed by the institution at which they earned their doctorate.

Those who earned their degrees at less prestigious institutions are also less likely to be hired at more prestigious schools. Among computer science faculty, for example, only 12% were hired at more prestigious institutions than where they earned their degree. “Identifying the causes of these elevated attrition rates is likely to provide insights and opportunities to improve retention strategies for faculty of all kinds,” the researchers wrote.

Diversity across the nation’s professoriate is another matter of concern, the findings suggest. Current hiring and retention practices are contributing to “stalled progress towards equal representation,” according to the study. Women continue to be under-represented, especially in STEM. Among newly hired faculty as a whole, their representation has neither increased nor decreased over the past decade.

“The continued increase in women’s overall representation can instead be attributed to the disproportionate number of men among retiring faculty, across all domains,” the study reads. “Continued increases in women’s representation among faculty are therefore unlikely if the past decade’s pattern remains stable.”


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