Inbred Historians

Top departments criticized for admitting Ph.D. students and hiring faculty from narrow group of institutions.
September 26, 2005

Recent decades have opened up history faculties so that they include more female and minority scholars. But a new report released by the American Historical Association says that in key respects history departments are becoming "less diverse." Top doctoral programs are admitting Ph.D. students from a narrow group of mostly private institutions and top departments are in turn hiring from a narrow range of institutions, the report says.

The preference of elite institutions to admit graduate students from other elite institutions is, of course, nothing new. But the history report says the discipline -- having become more egalitarian -- is now shifting back with regard to its mix of public and private graduates.

In 1966, 57 percent of history Ph.D.'s had received their undergraduate degrees from private institutions, 37 from public institutions, and the remainder from international institutions. In the 1980s, public and private graduates had achieved parity. But in the 90s, the gap returned, growing to a 47-42 percent edge for private institutions, even though far more undergraduates attend public institutions.

Similarly, the report found a growing concentration of the colleges that produce the most Ph.D.'s in history. In 1968-70, 25 institutions supplied 25 percent of the students receiving Ph.D.'s. By 1983-85, the 25 colleges producing the most Ph.D.'s were only accounting for 21 percent of the doctorates. But that figure is now back up over 26 percent.

The top 10 institutions whose undergraduates go on to earn Ph.D.'s in history are: University of California at Berkeley, Harvard University, Yale University, Brown University, Columbia University, Princeton University, University of California at Los Angeles, University of Michigan, University of Chicago, and Cornell University. Most of those institutions have large student bodies, but a number of smaller colleges also rank high, all of them private liberal institutions, and exceed many of the top 10 on a per-capita comparison based on their size. These institutions include Wesleyan University, and Pomona, Bryn Mawr, Swarthmore, Wellesley, Reed, and Oberlin Colleges.

That concentration among institutions may also have a negative impact on graduates of historically black colleges. In the period of 1974-76, 43 percent of new history Ph.D.'s who were black had received bachelor's degrees at historically black colleges. But that figure has now dropped to 23 percent.

The issue of concentration extends to the job market, where graduates of top programs (as judged by the National Research Council) have much better job-placement records than do other programs.

The report was written by Robert B. Townsend, a Ph.D. candidate at George Mason University and assistant director for research and publications at the AHA. He closed the report by saying that its intent was "not to argue that the job market is closed to students from other programs," but to point out that "the beginnings of an academic career can play an important role in the way it ends."

In an e-mail interview, Linda K. Kerber, chair of the history department at the University of Iowa and president-elect of the AHA, said of the findings: "The results sadden me. The narrowing of the range of the background of the next generation of professional historians serves our profession poorly."

Kerber said that she feared an impact on the field. "Increased caution and less risk taking in admissions deprives us of late bloomers and of students who come to the academy by unusual paths. In my experience, some of the most exciting dissertations, the work that claims new territory, have been written by people who bring fresh perspectives."


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