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Ukraine Studio

There’s an old joke about how to secure a tenure-track academic job—perhaps you’ve heard it. The first step is: be born to parents who are academics. If this resonates with you, consider that there is truth to it: tenure-track faculty members are 25 times more likely to have a parent with a Ph.D. compared to the American population at large. If you’ve missed the opportunity to be swaddled in academe since birth, don’t despair, for there is a backup plan: earn your Ph.D. at an elite institution.

Over the past few years, a trove of data-driven analyses finally put the lie to the myth of meritocracy in faculty hiring. Astonishingly, if not entirely surprisingly, 20 percent of universities in the U.S. produce 80 percent of all domestically trained faculty, with just five institutions responsible for educating one in eight tenure-track faculty members at doctoral institutions. This 80-20 rule roughly holds across disciplines: natural sciences, engineering, medicine, education, humanities and social sciences.

Importantly, faculty from lower-ranked institutions who do land a job at an elite institution are just as productive as their colleagues, differences in pedigree notwithstanding. The hypothesis that elite institutions produce better faculty candidates is demonstrably false. Nevertheless, the conceit that academic success is driven strictly by merit is instilled since grade school and remains pervasive.

The institution-as-gatekeeper attitude that has imprinted onto the professoriate has pernicious consequences for underrepresented groups and other would-be faculty members from marginalized backgrounds. As Marybeth Gasman puts it, “attending the elite institutions and being mentored by prominent people is linked to social capital and systemic racism ensures that people of color have less of it.” Consider that historically Black colleges and universities remain important pipelines for Black Americans pursuing a Ph.D., yet even the top-ranked HBCUs are generally not considered among the elite institutions. Less often discussed is that the semiclosed academic ecosystem created by prestige-driven hiring impacts the research topics that are pursued by new faculty, potentially stifling innovation. In the social sciences, scholarship on minoritized groups is often devalued and is more likely to be pursued by scholars who are women or ethnic minorities.

Elsewhere, I have written a detailed critique of the meritocracy myth in academia. Here, I want to suggest one way to combat the use of academic pedigree as a screening criterion in faculty searches. During the 2022–23 academic year, my department conducted three faculty searches in separate subdisciplines, in which we attempted to remove this particular bias from the process by initially examining anonymized application materials. In practice, this meant that each search committee (composed of four to five faculty members) undertook a blind review of research proposals with the candidate’s name and institutional affiliations redacted. Anonymized teaching and diversity statements were included in this initial pass, but the primary focus was the research proposal: a five- to 10-page document that forms the heart of a tenure-track job application in the natural sciences. No CVs, cover letters or letters of recommendation were included in this initial screening; applications were placed in random order and numbered.

As the chair of one of those search committees, I asked my colleagues to send me the identifying numbers for candidates who they wanted to put on the short list. Without any guidance regarding the target size for that list, each of the four committee members (myself included) ultimately selected 12 to 15 proposals apiece. Taking the union of those four sets gave us 28 candidates for further consideration, out of an original set of 130 applications, meaning there was considerable consistency among our selections. We then examined the entire, unredacted application for each of these 28 candidates in order to determine who would be interviewed. Publication records and letters of recommendation were carefully evaluated, but only for this subset, and the remainder of the process proceeded as it normally has in my department. Crucially, we did not backtrack to consider any applications that were eliminated during blind review. To do so would be tantamount to introducing the very bias we hoped to avoid (e.g., “we weren’t impressed by your proposal, but that was before we knew you went to Harvard”).

From my point of view, this modified procedure accomplished two important goals. First, it forced every member of the committee to read every single proposal. Based on conversations with colleagues at my own institution and across the country, I am confident that many search committees conduct an initial screening of applicants based on CVs alone, and this is an obvious way in which pedigree bias enters the process. I have heard of search committees who divide up the effort of screening applications, such that many are rejected based on the opinion of even fewer than four or five faculty members. This is an appalling and unacceptable form of triage, in my opinion, especially given the continued prevalence of the meritocracy myth.

A second important consequence of our anonymized screening procedure is that it minimized the role of institutional affiliation. To wit, those affiliations were never explicitly discussed in my committee’s deliberations. While it’s difficult to ascertain what implicit role that information might have played, by culling the field to 28 candidates in the absence of that information, I found myself feeling that there was no psychological need for a rapid screening criterion. We had a manageable number of applicants to consider in detail, whose individual merits could sensibly and feasibly be compared.

Are there disadvantages to this approach? It certainly involves a greater commitment of time from the search committee, who must read every proposal. That said, selecting the next generation of tenure-track faculty is a critical service obligation and should not be undertaken lightly. Department chairs need to recognize that fact, assigning this responsibility only to those who can be trusted not to lapse into bad habits. At the same time, if I’m being honest about my own habits, then the brutal reality of proposal review is that the writer has only about two pages in which to draw me in and to convince me to consider the rest in detail; otherwise, it gets skimmed. At some level, what I’m advocating is simply that every applicant—regardless of institutional affiliation—be given that same two pages’ worth of consideration.

This procedure is also entirely compatible with the use of rubrics to evaluate both the initial set of applications and the smaller set that is read in full. Carefully constructed rubrics are another means to prevent committee members from subconsciously redefining search criteria on the fly in order to align with their implicit biases. An anonymized proposal prevents institutional affiliation from subconsciously affecting how the committee scores a given proposal, at least on the first pass. The effect might be that a more diverse set of academic credentials makes it through the first stage.

Was our experiment successful? We hired four assistant professors in two (of three) successful searches. In the search that I chaired, there were indeed applicants on the short list whose Ph.D.s were not obtained at the top faculty-producing institutions, consistent with our goal, though it’s impossible to say how those candidates would have fared in a more traditional process. In describing our anonymized protocol to a colleague, I was asked, “How many ‘diamonds in the rough’ are you expecting to find?” by which he meant top candidates who might otherwise have been eliminated based only on their CV. My response, which is only a guess, is that in any given search the answer is likely to be zero or one. The enormity of the diversity problem in academia is such that there is no “one neat trick” that is going to accelerate the next-century timeline to parity. What is required is a compendium of incremental solutions, deployed in a widespread way. Eliminating pedigree-based bias right at the university’s front door ought to be one component of that toolbox.

As we move into faculty hiring season, I strongly encourage everyone to consider anonymized proposals as a means to screen applicants in a more equitable manner that is better insulated from implicit bias.

John M. Herbert is a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Ohio State University.

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