On the basis of this year’s partial hiring data, Marcus Arvan notes that the majority of tenure track hires (a whopping 88%) are from people of Leiter-ranked programs. Only 12% of hires are from people of unranked programs. Also, 37% of all tenure track hires come from just 5 schools, the Leiter top 5 list - this is amazing if one ponders it, and one may wonder at the direction philosophy is going to, if most of its future tenured workforce comes from just a few select programs.
This has caused a lot of debate: why would people go to grad school in unranked programs at all? Why attend an unranked program if you can’t get into a highly ranked one? But what is often overlooked are the many factors, such as class and ethnic background, may contribute to someone not getting (or, as I will examine in more detail below), even applying to get into top programs. In fact, going for pedigree may be a particularly effective way to screen out people who come from poorer backgrounds and of different ethnicities.
For instance, at Oxford, 13% of applicants for research/academic positions were black or other ethnic minorities. [update: the way I originally phrased this was less than clear] Of the shortlisted candidates, only 6% were of ethnic minorities, and of those appointed, only 3%. By contrast, 37% of applicants for these positions were white (note the remainder, 51% declined to state their ethnicity). The percentage of white shortlisted candidates is 46%, and 44% of appointments were white. So black and other ethnic minorities are substantially less likely to get to the shortlisting stage, and their odds of getting the job (compared to whites) drop even further when they are at the interview stage.
Gulzaar Barn writes
Perhaps another factor explaining the lack of black academics is the lack of black students at elite universities. In an increasingly competitive academic job market, one’s pedigree, in the form of university background, is highly important, with qualifications from elite universities serving as Pavlovian indicators of academic capability. And, it seems, black British young people are far less likely to attend the UK’s most selective universities, a factor which may make it harder to get academic jobs. The Independent Commission on Social Mobility pointed out that “there are more young men from black backgrounds in prison in the UK than there are UK-domiciled undergraduate black male students attending Russell Group institutions [research intensive top universities].” Despite black Britons (of Caribbean heritage) making up 1.5% of all domestic students attending UK universities in 2012-13, just 0.5% of domestic students at Russell Group universities are from black Caribbean backgrounds. Analogously, Black African students make up 4.4% of total domestic students, but comprise just 2.1% of students attending Russell Group universities.
The reasons for this are complex, but even taking into account grades, Russell Group applicants from Black and Asian ethnic backgrounds were less likely to get admitted in Russell Group universities. With an unprestigious undergraduate degree, it is hard to get into a prestigious graduate program, which may explain why ethnic minorities aren’t flocking to Oxford, Cambridge and their Ivy League equivalents in America.
So why would people choose to attend unprestigious schools? I can speculate, speaking from personal experience (the first in my family ever to attend university, and coming from a mixed-ethnicity background), getting into a prestigious program is not top of one’s list. One is already excited to get an undergraduate degree at any university (in my case in my home town, commutable from home). Just graduating at all was already a huge accomplishment. The homes of people outside of the upper and middle class are not welcoming or encouraging to academic success. Indeed, parents (and councellors at high school) advocate different things, such as finding a job quickly, or getting married.
I recently talked to a professor (not in philosophy) who was just promoted to the associate level. She works in a state school in a state in middle America. She comes from a working-class family where the income was 30,000/year, which supported 4 children. Her parents didn’t finish high school. As a straight-A student, she applied for and got offers from very good schools. But the tuition prices and long distances from her family made her ultimately decide to accept an offer from a closer-by and cheaper state school, which allowed her to be closer to her younger siblings, for whom she felt responsible. For the same reason, she attended a local graduate program, which was commutable. She feels lucky to have a good job now, and realizes that her choice of not going for the top may have hurt her chances to get even better positions (and in many close possible worlds, might have meant no decent job at all).
But, as she wisely observed, the obsession with prestige is an obsession of the white upper class, it is a choice offered to the privileged which isn’t open to many others. Even not taking account institutional racism, getting into a top university requires a careful career trajectory, help from middle class parents with middle class values. In an interview, Harvard philosopher Tommie Shelby recounts how getting into a good program was just not a priority in his milieu.
As difficult as it may be to believe, this well-groomed academic almost found himself at risk of not attending college, In the spring of his senior year, Shelby sat in a meeting with his guidance counselor who was understandably curious about his future plans—Shelby had yet to apply to schools. He says that he was simply unaware that he had missed the fall deadlines.
Luckily, his alma mater, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University—one of a group of Historically Black Colleges and Universities—had a second round of admissions in the spring.
“I went to Florida A&M by chance,” he says. “I’m a first generation college student, so no one in my family had really gone and knew the ropes.”
Shelby’s is a success story, but it is important to illustrate how many social factors can contribute to why someone would not just go for it and attend a top-5 Leiter program. There is a correlation between the prestige (or lack thereof) of one's undergraduate degree and one's graduate program, as Eric Schwitzgebel observes. Eric observes that just 19% of students attending top 10 Leiter-ranked schools come from "non-elite" universities.
One may wonder then, whether pedigree is really a reliable indicator of quality, rather than of careful coaching and planning during one's high school years, in a milieu that puts a premium on pedigree and recognizes its importance for future success.
Using pedigree as a “Pavlovian indicator of academic capability”, as Barn puts it, has the side-effect of screening out ethnic minorities and people from non-middle class or upper-class backgrounds in the future generation of philosophers. This is a very unfortunate result, and I think, it is an important reason for hiring committees to reconsider the importance they place on pedigree.