How Liberal Arts Colleges Perpetuate Class Bias

By Shott, Michael J. | Academe, September/October 2006 | Go to article overview

How Liberal Arts Colleges Perpetuate Class Bias


Shott, Michael J., Academe


WHEN YOU HIRE ONLY THOSE WHO HAVE ATTENDED SCHOOLS LIKE YOURS, YOU PRACTICE DISCRIMINATION.

My day job is teaching archaeology and researching North America's remote prehistory at a Carnegie comprehensive university, a euphemism that describes grown-up teachers' colleges. In my spare time. I study the factors that determine faculty placement in the higher-education firmament. In 1997, I compiled data on the more than seven hundred tenured and tenure-track archaeologists in the American academy, including details about their educational background and scholarly productivity. The data showed that the amount of archaeologists' scholarship bore little relationship to the status of the institution at which they taught. (Nor, arguably, did the quality of their scholarship, but quality is resistant to such an analysis.) Similarly, how much the archaeologists accomplished before hiring had little to do with who hired them, and where they worked had little to do with how productive or active they were. My findings led me to conclude that there is no academic meritocracy, despite the abiding popular belief in its existence. No one doubts that a hierarchy of institutions exists. But archaeologists are distributed in that hierarchy according to ostensibly extraneous factors, not scholarly merit.

This conclusion should surprise no insider to American higher education, although it may surprise students and parents. One factor that might determine academic placement is a preference among institutions for their own graduates. The historical tendency of Ivy League schools to hire their own graduates illustrates this inbreeding thesis. It is not just particular institutions, however, that hire their own. Whole classes of institutions are engaged in this practice. "Privileging History: Trends in the Undurgraduate Origins of History PhDs," a report released recently by the American Historical Association, finds that top ranked PhD programs in history are admitting PhD students from a narrow group of mostly private institutions and likewise hiring from a narrow range of doctoral programs.

A Class Above

Some observers of private liberal arts colleges have suggested that they favor their own in faculty hiring. If so, the preference may come from the assumption that faculty members who got bachelor's degrees at liberal arts colleges understand and appreciate their institutional mission better than others do-an "it-takes-one-to-teach-one" rationale. Before leaping to this conclusion, however, I consulted my data for possible inbreeding bias among liberal arts colleges.

Two disclaimers: first, my data are nearly a decade old (although my field has changed little in size or career prospects since I collected the data) and, second, archaeology and its encompassing discipline of anthropology comprise a minuscule fraction of the professoriate. Disclaimers acknowledged, my analysis distinguished archaeologists whose bachelor's degrees were from liberal arts colleges from those who graduated from all other institutional classes, public and private. After separating the two groups, I counted the number in each group who are employed by liberal arts colleges and by all other institutional classes combined, omitting only the Carnegie class of public liberal arts colleges because of its rarity. My results appear in the table on page 25.

Because research universities employ most archaeologists, they also employ most of the archaeologists who earned their bachelor's degrees at liberal arts colleges. But only liberal arts colleges appoint liberal arts pedigrees out of proportion to their numbers in the professoriate at large. That is, liberal arts collets employ many more liberal arts pedigrees than would be expected if professors were randomly apportioned among institutions. So the thesis is confirmed: at least in archaeology, the faculty at liberal arts colleges are inbred to some degree.

Unless you defend the dubious proposition that liberal arts colleges draw their students from a representative cross-section of American society, their fondness for inbreeding means that their faculties are as unrepresentative as their student bodies. …

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