Visiting Professor Robert Oprisko thinks Butler students are good enough and smart enough to engage with any mind at any university. So when some students in his “Introduction to International Studies” class suggested that he’s too demanding—that they shouldn’t be expected to be able to do what their peers at the so-called top-tier universities do—he was incensed.
“How are you suddenly inferior when you’re at one of the best liberal arts universities?” he said. “This mindset that they’re somehow less than students at other schools drove me absolutely batty, and I had to do something about that.”
What he did was to begin a yearlong research project that has been highlighted in The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education—and perhaps has confirmed the source of his students’ feelings of inferiority: Where you come from plays an important role in where you are likely to get hired.
Working with Natalie Jackson and Butler student Kirstie Dobbs, Oprisko found that 50 percent of the political science academics hired at research-intensive universities in the United States graduated from 11 schools.
Writing in the Georgetown Public Policy Review (an article that’s soon to be reprinted by The International Political Science Association), Oprisko reported that, among the top three private universities, Harvard has successfully placed 239 political scientists at 75 institutions—including 12 at Harvard. Princeton has successfully placed 108 political scientists at 62 institutions—including five at Princeton. And Stanford has successfully placed 128 political scientists at 51 institutions—including three at Stanford.
The highest ranked public university, The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor (ranked number four overall), has successfully placed 141 political scientists in 61 institutions—including seven at Michigan.
These four schools contribute 616 political scientists, roughly 20 percent of the total tenure-track lines in the discipline at research-intensive programs, Oprisko’s research found.
Meanwhile, “Excellent or not, students from less prestigious institutions are less likely to get an opportunity to showcase their talent,” he wrote.
To Oprisko, this is a mistake.
“We as an academy are doing the absolute wrong thing strategically when it comes to hiring,” he said. “And we’re reinforcing the idea that, if you come from Butler or Purdue – where I got my Ph.D. – that you’re inherently inferior. We see it all the time – people hire individuals from highly ranked institutions because they’re expected to be better.”
The solution, he said, is for schools to consider diversity from a number of standpoints and perhaps do a blind review in hiring, as is done in publishing, that focuses on personal excellence and achievement, rather than where someone went to college.
Oprisko is in his third year at Butler – and hoping for more, he said. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Indiana University and his master’s degree and doctorate from Purdue. As good as those schools are, they’re not considered top tier when it comes to hiring, he said.
“In hiring, we value this affiliated honor to a substantially larger degree than individual prestige,” Oprisko said. “That’s a problem, because that’s too much focus on where you came from, not where [instructors are] at or what they’ve accomplished. But it should matter less where you come from than what you do. Good research should always trump being from a good pedigree.”