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How the Academic Elite Reproduces Itself

This essay, written with Andrew Piperfirst appeared on October 8, 2017 in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Ten years ago, the Higher Education Funding Council for England decided to “assess” the quality of research in universities across Britain by putting in place a new system, the Research Excellence Framework. In 2014, the Council and its institutional partners released a report that included evaluations of almost 200,000 “research outputs” ­— including journal articles, books, and conference proceedings. Since then academics on both sides of the Atlantic have ridiculed the REF, as the framework is known, as a bureaucratic boondoggle that values quantity over quality.

Despite the derision, analytic exercises such as the REF or the use of commercial databases, such as Academic Analytics, by universities in the United States have come to stand for a basic truth about the contemporary research university: Publications are the most fundamental and visible coins of academic social capital and institutional legitimacy. You, and your university, are what you publish.

This wasn’t always the case. In Carl von Carlsberg, a German novel written by Christian Salzmann and first published in 1783, a young university adjunct complains that despite the admiration of his students and devotion to the university, his senior colleagues refuse to consider him for a newly available position. What should I do, he asks a friend, “bribe them?” There are easier and more legitimate paths to a university post, replies his friend. “We have pretty professors’ daughters. Marry one!”

Salzmann’s caricature of German universities as bastions of nepotism was only a slight exaggeration. Consider Balthasar Mentzer, a 16th-century theologian at the University of Giessen. His daughters were married to Giessen professors, and his son, grandsons, and great-grandsons held coveted chairs in theology. Patronage and patrimony were pillars of early modern universities.

Over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, the research university, whose authority was grounded in specialized, discipline-based forms of knowledge, gradually replaced its early modern predecessor. State ministers and rectors saw universities, like mines and forests, as economic resources to be cultivated and exploited for the state’s financial gain. Publications emerged as the university’s key commercial good, providing not just knowledge but prestige and financial benefits. As one state minister wrote of the University of Göttingen shortly after its establishment in 1734, the university was a “learned factory” where professors produced “individual works of excellence so that the University remains fresh in the minds of the public and they can see that talented and hard-working men are employed there.”

The founding of Berlin’s first university in 1810 under the guidance of Wilhelm von Humboldt, Prussian educational reformer and a founder of the field of comparative linguistics, institutionalized much of this ethos. Humboldt helped establish a system of norms and practices designed to constrain patronage and patrimony. As he wrote in one memorandum to King Friedrich Wilhelm III, candidates for faculty positions should have a publication record within an academic field. The legitimacy and authority of the modern research university, argued Humboldt and his contemporaries, should be grounded in the universal value of published scholarship, not the local values of a collegial body.

American universities would adopt such practices over the next two centuries. As Daniel Coit Gilman assembled the first faculty for the Johns Hopkins University in 1876, he sought scholars of “scientific and literary renown” — scholars whose reputations preceded themselves through publication.

Humboldt and Gilman helped turn the modern research university into a system of paper, print, and publishing — a consummate modern bureaucracy whose institutional legitimacy and authority rested on published knowledge. It was precisely this bureaucratic authority that helped loosen the hold of older structures of patronage and familial relations. It operated, as Max Weber described modern bureaucracies more generally, “without regard for the person.” Publications provided an objective, calculable, and impersonal form of institutional legitimacy.

And yet, publishing patterns in top humanities journals over the past half-century suggest that, despite its supposed rational organization, the university remains deeply marked by patterns of patronage and patrimony, and by the tight circulation of cultural capital. The very medium that was designed to correct for these imbalances, publication, appears to be equally adept at keeping inequalities largely in place.

Recent studies have shown a high degree of concentration in hiring from a small number of Ph.D.-granting institutions. One 2015 study of placement data on nearly 19,000 tenure or tenure-track faculty members in history, business, and computer-science departments found that just 25 percent of institutions produced 71 to 86 percent of all tenure-track faculty. The top 10 institutions produced 1.6 to 3.0 times more faculty than the second 10. A 2012 study of Ph.D.-granting programs in political science found that the top five programs placed 20 percent of all positions at the most research-intensive institutions.

How does institutional prestige carry on after new faculty members are hired? Are there similar patterns in publishing with respect to institutional affiliation? Do prestigious publications show similar levels of institutional concentration? More fundamentally, is the modern research university simply organized around a different kind of patronage and patrimony?

We conducted a study to find out. We examined publication data from four leading journals in the humanities — New Literary History, PMLA, Critical Inquiry, and Representations ­— that, taken together, span over 45 years (1969-2015)drawing on metadata provided by JSTOR’s Data for Research service. Each author-article pair was then hand-tagged for the author’s Ph.D. institution, institutional affiliation at the time of publication, and gender. Together, our data encompass over 5,000 articles by more than 3,000 authors representing more than 300 Ph.D.-granting institutions and 700 authorial institutions — the author’s affiliation at the time of the publication.

We found that, as with hiring, there is a strongly unequal distribution of Ph.D.-granting institutions represented in the publication data. The top 25 percent of institutions account for 89 percent of the articles, while the top 10 (Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Berkeley, Chicago, Cornell, Stanford, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, and Cambridge), which represent less than 3 percent of the total number of Ph.D.-granting institutions in our data set, account for just over half of all articles published. Authors with Ph.D.s from just two universities, Yale and Harvard, accounted for one-fifth of all articles. The data on authorial institutions also reflect an overrepresentation of elite universities, if not quite as pronounced.

Addressing epistemic inequality will require us to rethink what universities are for in a digital age. Some of this is surely the effect of the hiring skew reported by other studies. Since so few institutions train such an outsized proportion of those graduate students who get jobs, it makes sense that we would see something similar when it comes to publication. And yet, broadly, our study suggests that the concentration of power and prestige intensifies as we move from hiring to publishing. (Our data also show that gender equality in academic journals is moving slowly toward parity, yet all four journals have a history of publishing articles primarily by male contributors. Patrimony and prestige have a way of going hand in hand.)

It appears that the hegemony of a few elite institutions continues well beyond who gets the prized tenure-track jobs right out of graduate school. If graduates from a few elite institutions account for an outsized proportion of high-profile published work, it stands to reason that their work will exercise more influence in the field. The result is that institutions like Harvard and Yale, which have unparalleled financial means to shape higher education, also have an outsized influence on what counts as knowledge.

In the 2015 hiring study, researchers concluded that such highly concentrated and unequal patterns have profoundly negative “implications for the free exchange of ideas.” By framing academic hiring in terms of intellectual equity, the study’s authors raise fascinating, confounding questions: What would a more equitable distribution in knowledge production look like? Is “epistemic equality” a coherent concept, and is it something that we should aspire to?

For many in the academy, epistemic inequality — understood here as disproportional institutional representation in publishing — would surely be as undesirable as economic inequality. In fact, most of us would presume a relationship between the two. The inequitable distribution of various kinds of goods tends to offend our egalitarian sensibilities. But the reflexive distaste for inequality of all kinds belies the very character of the modern university, and the central role that prestige plays within it.

It could be argued that prestigious universities are simply fulfilling their cultural role by filtering out inferior knowledge. In this sense universities are akin to institutional search engines: They produce the people who produce knowledge, and thus their, perhaps undemocratic, epistemic effects help organize and sort knowledge. Google’s search engine would be useless were it to treat all links equally. According to this line of thinking, the concentration of knowledge within elite institutions may even be a sign of the system’s health.

Harvard, Yale, and other elite institutions surely train talented and highly qualified academics. But the hierarchies that we observed in our study are so pronounced that it would be naïve to assume that elite institutions are so overwhelmingly, disproportionally superior at filtering knowledge, compared with all other universities. We suspect these levels of influence and control adversely affect the broader system of scholarly communication. By limiting the circulation of ideas to a precious few institutional frameworks, the academy’s potential to create and share different kinds of knowledge, new kinds of knowledge, and more diverse kinds of knowledge is necessarily going to be inhibited.

But how to evaluate the quality of university-based knowledge is both a conceptually and historically daunting challenge. How can we be certain that such imagined epistemic quality — judgments of value and worth — is not in some way contaminated by the very networks of influence and patronage that produce it? Scholarly notions of quality and excellence, which continue to perpetuate enormous institutional imbalances, are themselves products of the norms, practices, and values that organize the system.

For many in the humanities, it is precisely the process of Weberian rationalization, embodied above all in counting mechanisms like the UK’s Research Excellence Framework or Academic Analytics that has contributed to the ills of the current system. But the history of scholarly publication tells a different story: The recourse to measurability in exercises like the REF is not something new. It is part of a much longer attempt to undo ensconced systems of patronage and loosen forms of institutional favoritism and cultural capital. The appeal to accounting for publication by Humboldt and his 19th-century epigones was carried out in the spirit of transparency and intellectual openness.

When contemporary academics, such as Terry Eagleton, resist this narrative and dismiss the REF and similar understandings as neocapitalist plots, they risk retarding attempts to redress longstanding patterns. The invocation of the “incalculability” of knowledge has served as a highly effective means of maintaining hierarchies and the concentration of power, prestige, and patronage — cultural capital of all sorts.

At the same time, our research suggests that historical and contemporary attempts to undo the effects of patronage and cultural capital through print and now digital publication have failed. The concentration of power and prestige within elite circles has continued, even if in different form, from the early modern republic of letters and family universities to the contemporary academy. The notion that ideas circulate freely and unconstrained — the idea of removing all filters from a system — overlooks the very clear ways that systems of publication encode forms of bias and selection within them.

Knowledge has never circulated freely. The “free exchange of ideas” requires things, concepts, technologies, practices, and institutions that intervene and get in between. Be it the patronage systems of early modern universities, the bureaucratic systems of the German research university, or the mixed systems of contemporary universities, systems of communication and transmission are never free from mediation.

So what is to be done?

In our view, the answer is neither a return to the ideal of incalculability nor a belief in the power of “free” knowledge. What we need is not less quantification, but more; not less mediation, but mediation of a different kind. It is not enough to demand intellectual diversity and assume its benefits. We need to articulate the kind of good that it is. And to do so, we need new ways of conceiving, measuring, nurturing, and valuing it. We need alternative systems of searching, discovering, and cultivating intellectual difference. We need platforms of dissemination that don’t simply replicate existing systems of concentration and patronage, just as we need new metrics of scholarly “output” and “impact” that rely less on centrality and quantity and more on content and difference.

The current system of double-blind peer review that underlies most academic publications is essentially an invention of the second half of the 20th century. Its failings have been well documented and numerous projects in the sciences as well as the humanities are now underway to change it. Almost all of these fixes, however, continue to rely on two basic principles: First, that communities of scholars still make intuitive judgments about quality (judgments which are rarely, if ever, made explicit); and second, that they largely rely on established publishing practices that essentially transfer content from one place (the lab or the desk) to another (the library).

What we are imagining, by contrast, is a new form of algorithmic openness, in which computation is used not as an afterthought or means of searching for things that have already been selected and sorted, but instead as a form of forethought, as a means of generating more diverse ecosystems of knowledge. What values do we care about in terms of human knowledge and how can we use the tools of data science to capture and more adequately represent those values in our system of scholarly communication? Instead of subject indexes and citation rankings, imagine filtering by institutional diversity, citational novelty, matters of public concern, or any number of other priorities. How might we encode these values to create smarter, more adaptable, and more open platforms and practices?

It is clear from our study and others like it that elite institutions continue to be the locus of the practices, techniques, virtues, and values that have come to define modern academic knowledge. They diffuse it, whether in the form of academic labor (personnel) or ideas (publication), from a concentrated center to a broader periphery. Using digital technologies to guide the circulation of knowledge does not inherently make one complicit in the “neoliberalization and corporatization” of higher education or a practitioner of “weapons of math destruction,” to use the data scientist Cathy O’Neil’s well-turned phrase. Wisely and openly used, such technologies can help us not only reveal, but potentially undo, longstanding disparities of institutional concentration. It is time we built a scholarly infrastructure that is more inclusive and more responsive to a broader range of voices, including those outside of the academy.

Over the course of the 19th century, universities adopted many of the norms of print culture and in so doing transformed themselves into modern research universities. We need a similar reinvention for our own universities as they enter a new age.

Addressing epistemic inequality, and not simply publication inequities, will require us to rethink what universities do and what they are for in a digital age. “Digitization” means more than just transferring print practices to digital formats. We need to integrate data science, knowledge of our past practices, and contemporary understandings of institutional norms to reinvigorate the intellectual openness of the university. We need to use all of our analytical and interpretive capabilities to rethink who and what counts. The university is a technology. Let’s treat it like one.

Three Responses to our Chronicle essay:

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