The Grand Leviathan: The College Preference for Ivy League and Elite School Professors

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The National Road Staff.

Ten years ago, I returned to my alma-mater, Indiana State University, for the first of the three years’ worth of course work I would need to earn my master’s degree. My first professor was a recently hired man no older than myself, probably a few years younger. Soft spoken, discussion-oriented, and quick to energize the room when one of us raised a point which interested him, Dr. Corcoran quickly became one of my favorite instructors—so much so, that he was one of two profs I intentionally sought out when I signed on for later classes. Those of us who admired him (and any of us who took our degree work seriously did) respected him for the aforementioned qualities above, as well his depth of knowledge, and further for his willingness to engage in casual conversation about our own lives. For all intents and purposes, Corcoran had the tools a PhD needed to win over a room full of contrary graduate students. But he also bore one more medal on his chest: an elite educational pedigree.

Corcoran was a Yale graduate who then finished his masters at John’s Hopkins before garnering his PhD at Emory. To the good doctor’s credit he never pretentiously called attention to his background, but every time one of us learned about it, the discovery added an extra layer of respect: “Oh,” we would say, “he went there?”

A decade later my mind returned to Dr. Corcoran when I chanced to read a Slate article on the hiring practices of most universities. The article’s chief contention is that most schools prefer Ivy League and elite college graduates for professorships over applicants from state and land-grant institutions. The result, the article claims, is that the schools which do this are both stagnating the intellectual pool and slowly suffocating their own programs. As an example, the article (written by Aaron Clauset and Joel Warner) cites the story of Robert Oprisko: an Indiana State Master’s graduate who then earned his PhD is political science from Purdue and now works as a research fellow at Indiana University (meaning…he works on the cheap). Selected for the Slate piece because of his own published research on the topic, I spoke to Oprisko at length about both his research and his own personal experience in the brutal college job market.

Robert Oprisko.
Robert Oprisko.

DW: Describe the problem in academia right now. How have elite schools swallowed job opportunities?

RO: “What you’re finding is that Harvard is placing ubiquitously, and consequently everyone’s reaction is, ‘Oh, Harvard is the best. We have to hire from them.’ Because everyone goes to a PhD-granting institution, they’re indoctrinated with these beliefs about what the pecking-order really is. The result is that you’re finding that this hiring practice really goes all the way down. So prestigious liberal-arts colleges are going to select just like Research-1 universities, so that they can say that they hired ‘the best and the brightest’ and then charge $60,000 a year.”

DW: So what does this mean for someone such as you?

RO: “What this means is that there’s no expected market for a PhD from Purdue University in political science. There just isn’t one.”

DW: And this is what your research has shown you?

RO: “In my research I looked solely at PhD production in PhD institutions. The key to this is that [hiring institutions] are determining epistemologically who gets into the field [of study at R-1, PhD-level universities]. The people who produce professors are all at ‘Research-1’ PhD-level institutions, and they control who gets to claim membership. So, consequently, this trickles down. It’s no different that power politics in governance or economics…it’s all the same.”

“So among these peer-institutions…if you’re not ‘placing’ as many people as you’re ‘hiring’ then you’re essentially not a peer…you aren’t punching at your weight-class. Thus, when you get schools such as IU and Purdue—which are great, fantastic, wonderful schools—that are very hesitant to hire their own graduates…what they’re doing is they’re shutting out part of the marketplace to extraordinarily qualified people. But if you go to Harvard or Stanford, they don’t hold that hesitation. They’re happy to hire from within their own ranks.”

DW: Wouldn’t this hesitation to hire from your own program undermine the credibility of that very program? I’m not sure this hesitation makes sense to me.

RO: “Supposedly [the tendency to hire from outside institutions] has to do with the concept of ‘academic incest.’ The reason I went to Purdue for my PhD is that I was told that you shouldn’t seek your graduate work from the same institution where you earned your undergraduate degree. What I’ve learned is that this is an element of ‘common knowledge’ that is just dead wrong which has no basis in fact. It’s stupid, yet we keep telling [prospective students] this…people who keep getting hurt by this myth.”

DW: How does a mindset like this get started?

RO: “The source of ‘conventional wisdom’ in higher education is to follow the stupid US News and World Report. It’s all based upon money and the difficulty of getting in (they call this ‘selectivity’), and the size of your school’s endowment, and whether you’re part of a large urban center like Boston or San Francisco.”

DW: You’re talking about ranking schools. Are you suggesting we shouldn’t rank them?

RO: “Rankings are going to happen regardless of what we want to do, but I think that—as is the case with many things—you need to take money right out of it and switch the nature of the conversation. I would rank graduate programs by the amount of support students get in terms of professional development. Are you guaranteed to teach in your field of research?”

“And things such as ‘honest to God mentorship’ which is something I haven’t seen at many schools, yet at the same time you have all these ‘professional conferences.’ Are these schools going to provide someone who is going to be a student’s point-of-contact? Are they going to teach students how to network at conferences? What to do? What not to do? Are they going to be there to do more than just find their old drinking buddies and smoke cigars, or are they really going to teach you the ropes? Are they going to be selfish, or are they going to be selfless for the students?”

DW: So, you’re saying that schools should focus more on teaching, per se?

RO: “This is less a debate of teaching versus research. It’s more a matter of ‘teach people how to research.’ There’s something about having to go through the peer-review process: it’s tough, it’s grueling, and it’s not very fun.”

“You don’t get good mentorship across the board. And if you’re going a large state research university, you’re constantly searching for funding…for yourself. The moment you get hired, you’re locked into effectively nine months of indentured servitude. And during that entire school year you have to accomplish something so that you can argue that you’re worth funding the next year. This becomes very divisive among and across the cohorts because everyone is locked in a vicious fight for what little funding exists.”

DW: Why doesn’t such a mentorship exist already?

RO: “Professors aren’t really paid to focus on their students, and that includes graduate and PhD students. The system operates under this premise that you can ‘boot-strap’ everything by yourself. So, what this really leads to is an environment where a very few people get a tremendous amount of help. They’re either the hand-picked exemplars—we call them the ‘anointed’—who are going to function as the centerpieces of their marketing strategy. So all of the funding will be thrown at these people…all of the awards will be thrown at these people. The end result is that, out of say 25 students in your cohort, you will have one—or in some cases one out every two or three cohorts—who will make it.”

DW: So, you’re talking about a Darwinian sort of natural selection, then.

RO: “Part of the problem is marketing. There’s this attitude which accepts that schools exist in tiers, and in the first tier exists the ‘best’ professors working with the ‘best’ students. Then there’s this next tier, and another, and so on. Out of these lower tiers, one or two people will work up or at least stay at the same level, but overall this process is going to naturally select all the way down. The bigger issue is that, if everyone is being ‘produced’ from the same 10-11 programs, then shouldn’t we have a leveling effect? The answer to that is ‘No,’ which means that students who are getting hired, they’re not being hired based on individual talent or achievements. They’re being hired based on where they went to school…and who they knew.”

DW: For example…?

RO: “If we look at the Southeastern Conference: as of this moment, Princeton University places more PhD candidates at PhD-granting schools in political science positions than the entire SEC. So this one small school is more powerful than the 14 much larger members of the Southeastern Conference.”

“And in Alabama…the state of Alabama, mind you…has placed two [political science] PhD’s in PhD-granting institutions throughout the history of time. One came from Alabama, and one came from Auburn. If I were to look at those schools, I would say that Alabama effectively has no PhD in political science. It is a dead system. So the SEC, as a conference, would be better saying, ‘We are going to go to each other as a market for PhD’s. It’s going to be a closed, mercantilist market.’ Every single university in that conference would benefit. They would all place something like 26.5 graduates in PhD-granting institutions as opposed to the current average of…you know…four.”

DW: Why then do people still sign up for these PhD programs if there are no jobs at the end of the journey?

RO: “The problem is that students who are going [to state and land-grant schools] don’t know. When I left undergrad I went to grad school at a Big Ten university. It’s a great school. I thought, ‘Why not?’ I also thought that you had to get your Master’s degree before you got your PhD, which is entirely not true. In fact, if I had just pursued my doctorate I probably would have gotten more funding. This is where conventional wisdom is simply incorrect and hurts a lot of people.”

DW: And we have state-funded schools cranking out grads they ignore in lieu of candidates from private schools.

RO: “I think it’s an absolute travesty that state-funded institutions—and I know that the funding from the state has declined, but it’s still not zero—is going toward propping up really well-endowed (they say they’re ‘non-profit’ but they’re effectively for profit) institutions of higher learning that are private and outside of state. I think it’s really important that universities open their eyes to what they’ve created, because it’s a monster. It’s almost a grand leviathan. These schools are destroying their own programs, and that’s sad.”

DW: The article in Slate claims that you were advised to drop Indiana State from your résumé altogether…that the stigma of attending ISU would damage your chances to land a job. Given that, do you regret going to ISU?

RO: “Well…yes…and no. I toyed with law school right out of undergraduate, and I hated it. After a semester I quit, and—since I was a ‘Hautian’—I returned to Terre Haute and went to ISU. To me it was a good school…it was a state school, and it was one where I could walk in and say, ‘Look, I ventured down the wrong path.’  And I did really well there. I finished with a 4.0 in my masters studies, my self-confidence returned, and I was able to study with really bright and intelligent people.  But I can definitely say that, at the end of my experience there, I ran into a problem. When I presented my Masters’ Thesis, my committee said, ‘The topic’s interesting, but there’s no empirical theory.’ And my reply to them was, ‘What’s empirical theory?’ So there was clearly a hole in the program because it didn’t get you ready. I ended up taking a Master’s of Science route and completing my degree that way.”

“The funny thing is, when I went to Purdue to work on my PhD, we never went over empirical theory there, either. I know how to do empirical research, but I still have no idea what empirical theory is.”

DW: I won’t lie to you. All of this leaves me conflicted. I absolutely loved my professor at ISU, but I feel as if, by giving him that support, I’m also in a way “propping up” this strange hiring system.

RO: “But would he have been less brilliant had he not gone to Yale, Hopkins, and Emory?”

DW: No. No, he wouldn’t, and besides Dr. Corcoran, I additionally worked with talented and dynamic professors with PhD’s from Indiana, Illinois, and Minnesota.

As the comments section below Dr. Oprisko’s publication suggests, he has both supporters and detractors. Like all job market issues, especially in a field such as college research, Oprisko’s findings raise controversy. But the debate is healthy enough to have out, and there are plenty of tea leaves lying around for even laymen to get some sense of the college hiring picture. Although I didn’t know the depth and complexity of the hiring dilemma, a few years ago I myself quickly figured out that giving up my current high school job for four or more years of stipend pay…only to find myself competing with sometimes over 100 applicants for openings…was an economically bad move.

But attending ISU or any school which gives someone the chance to work hard and improve their lives…that should never be a bad move. And a system which punishes people not for the quality of their own work, but simply because they came from the “wrong” school…? That smells like the sort of gentrification most Americans have always reviled.


Featured Image Attribution: The Old Campus of Yale University; a panorama of 4 photographs combined in Photoshop CS4. April 2009 by Jdbrandt at en.wikipedia is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

Donovan Wheeler
Author: Donovan Wheeler

Wheeler proudly teaches English to a horde of bright and lovably obnoxious high school seniors in a small college town. He has written in the past for Indiana on Tap and STATE Magazine, and is an occasional contributor to NUVO, Indy's alternate news website. Since picking up the guitar three years, he can now play a dozens songs while singing them quite badly.

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