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January 16, 2005

The Democratization of the Academy

While news surfing the Web today, I came across an article on Slate about the decline of the real prestige that an Ivy League education garners within the business world. The article builds off of a recent paper by two Wharton School economists who chart the decline in the number of Ivy League degrees among the business executives in the Fortune 100 over the last 20 years. Although the Slate article is interesting, the paper itself yields some great insights:

"In 2001, ... executives were younger, more likely to be women, and less likely to have been Ivy League educated. Most important, they got to the executive suite about four years faster than in 1980 and did so by holding fewer jobs on the way to the top. (In particular, women in 2001 got to their executive jobs faster than their male counterparts -- there were no women executives in the Fortune 100 list in 1980)."

Although I'm less concerned in general with the business world side of this discussion, it closely mirrors an issue which sometimes seems painfully important to me as a graduate student at a public university that is not considered to be an elite institution. If the business world data supports an ending of the Ivy League hegemony, then one may wonder if the same is also happening within academia itself. Is the meritocratic, yet oddly idealistic dream coming true that one's worth in the academy will be based wholly on the work one has produced and not based on either the institution's name attached to one's resume?

Somehow, I don't think news of this revolution has reached the ears of the hiring committees at the elite institutions, but I'll leave that discussion for another entry. In a narcissistic article published in Physical Review, covered for popular consumption by the New York Times, documents the rise of scientific publications and Nobel prize winners coming from outside the U.S. The self-absorbed U.S. media reported this observation negatively, as being representative of the diminishing pre-eminence of U.S. science. I viewed it more optimistically: it would seem that the world community is becoming more active in science and that we may, in fact, be witnessing the forces of democracy assaulting the ivory towers themselves.

But what are the prospects of a talented, but non-prestigous degree-bearing post-graduate? My advisor frequently tries to deflect my concern about such prospects, saying that in the past 20 to 30 years, a significant trend in academia has been gaining momentum.

During this time, he sagely counsels me, a lot of great people have ended up at places that used to be not so great. And now, it's not so important where you went as much as who you worked for and what you produced.

In support of this egalitarian sentiment, when I served on the faculty search committee in my department in Spring 2004, I observed something surprisingly hopeful. Something which I can only hope is an ascendent practice among hiring committees, although given my own previous experience at a prestigous institution, I'm not sure the forces of democracy have done much to assail bastions of the elite. When we on the search committee looked at a candidate's resume, if they graduated from an elite institution, we applied more strict standards, and generally, considered the list of publications to be paramount to their value.

"Given that they had all these resources available to them, what did they do with their time?", we asked.

"This person was in a really good lab at a really good school, but look at this small/weak publication list".

"This person has great publications," someone would say, without ever mentioning the school they went to.

So, despite occasional bouts of prestige-envy of my fellows at MIT, Yale, Columbia, Berkeley and Stanford, I now nurture the slight optimism that the academy may be maturing into the meritocratic utopia that it pretends to be. Of course, the competing trends of the corporatization of universities and the down-conversion of tenure track positions to part-time adjunct positions may mean this positive note is ultimately squelched before it can become widespread.

posted January 16, 2005 12:35 AM in Simply Academic | permalink