Academic Inequality

When people talk about inequality these days, they typically mean economic inequality, disparities in income, assets, or other financial measures. But inequalities come in other forms as well, and the academy is home to some of the more entrenched and persistent ones. To those who think the democratizing effects of gender equality and digital technology had begun to erode the hegemony of the academic elite, a close look at hiring and publishing patterns might come as a surprise.

Several recent studies have shown a high degree of concentration in academic hiring from a small number of PhD-granting institutions. One study of political science programs in the United States found that the top five programs placed 20 percent of all academics at research institutions; another study found that graduates of eight universities were hired for half of all tenure-track jobs. In our study of long-term publishing trends in three leading humanities journals, the patterns were similarly striking.

In the first phase of our study, we surveyed publication data from those journals—Critical InquiryNew Literary History, and Representations—during the last forty-seven years. For each journal, we analyzed authors’ PhD-granting institutions, institutional affiliations at the time of publication, and gender. In sum, there were 1,984 total authors, 3,318 total articles, 273 PhD-granting institutions, and 504 author institutions. What we found was sobering.


As the graph on the preceding page shows, the top ten PhD-granting institutions account for more than half (56 percent) of all articles published. Authors with PhDs from Harvard, Yale, University of California–Berkeley, Columbia, Chicago, Cornell, Stanford, Oxford, Princeton, and Cambridge wrote 1,843 of 3,318 articles. Authors with PhDs from just two universities, Harvard and Yale, accounted for more than one-fifth (21 percent) of all articles. As indicated in the second graph (left), all three journals also have a history of publishing articles primarily from male contributors. Only five years had issues in which at least half of all primary contributors were women, all of which were from a single journal (Representations).* All three journals, however, did show a steadily increasing percentage of women being published annually.

Studies such as ours suggest that the hegemony of a few elite institutions continues well beyond who gets the prized tenure track jobs right out of graduate school. The influence and power of a few institutions also extends to publishing—and so to the production and transmission of knowledge more directly. This raises a basic question: If graduates from only a few elite institutions account for an outsized proportion of high-profile published work, then aren’t their ideas bound to have an outsized impact and influence? Do Harvard and Yale, which have not only unparalleled financial means to shape American higher education, also have the institutional prestige to determine what counts as knowledge?

*In a previous version of this article, one sentence in the essay was inconsistent with the graph representing gender distribution. Instead of saying that the graph represented “only one volume of one journal, Representations in 1990, had an issue in which at least half of all primary contributors were women,” it should have said that “Only five years had issues in which at least half of all primary contributors were women, all of which were from a single journal (Representations).”

By Chad Wellmon, Esther Vinarov, Anne Manasché, and Andrew Piper

[We’re working on a much larger data set that will include 40 years of data from the PMLA and much more. Stay tuned.]

Originally published in Hedgehog Review 17:3 (Fall 2015).

chad wellmon

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