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Academic Inbreeding: Academic Oligarchy, Effects, and Barriers to Change

Abstract

Most studies of academic inbreeding have focused on assessing its impact on scholarly practices, outputs, and outcomes. Few studies have concentrated on the other possible effects of academic inbreeding. This paper draws on a large number of studies on academic inbreeding to explore how the practice has been conceptualized, how it has emerged, and how it has been rationalized in the creation and development of higher education systems. Within this framework, the paper also explores how academic inbreeding shapes and maintains a powerful academic oligarchy, leading to the stonewalling of both knowledge and institutional change to maintain social and political structures somewhat akin to those of medieval societies. The paper shows that the key to mitigating academic inbreeding practices lies in ensuring that academic recruitment processes are open, meritocratic, and transparent. However, a more difficult task is to change longstanding mentalities and disrupt a system that serves the interests of certain groups but not the advancement of knowledge or the fulfillment of universities’ social mandates.

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Notes

  1. Berelson (1960) further argues that silver-corded academics are more competitive, research prolific, and networked than non-inbred academics are, and that the return to the alma mater is to some extent sponsored (i.e., based on their merit). These academics are likely to already have shown promise as early career academics by the time they begin working on their doctorates, and they affirm the expectations of this potential by thriving elsewhere, making them worthy and competitive enough to be hired by their alma mater.

  2. Academic inbreeding has also been referred to as ‘faculty inbreeding’ or ‘institutional inbreeding,’ with these terms used most frequently in North American contexts. As long as the same operationalization of the definition is used, this variance in terminology does not lead to differences in findings. Studies using the same definition to assess the relationship between academic inbreeding and research productivity have arrived at similar conclusions, regardless of whether they have used the term ‘academic inbreeding’ or ‘faculty inbreeding’ (e.g., Hargens and Farr 1973; Horta et al. 2010). However, studies making similar assessments using either ‘academic inbreeding’ or ‘faculty inbreeding’ have yielded different results for different operationalizations of the definition (e.g., Eells and Cleveland 1935; McGee 1960).

  3. It is important to acknowledge that the mixed findings concerning the association between academic inbreeding and research output and productivity are closely associated with the use of different operationalizations of academic inbreeding. In general, empirical studies using the narrower definition of academic inbreeding proposed by Berelson (1960) have found negative associations between academic inbreeding and research output or productivity. Studies relying on broader operationalizations of academic inbreeding have tended to find negative associations, non-statistically significant associations, or even, in rare cases, positive associations. The reasons for these mixed findings relate to the fact that broader definitions of academic inbreeding do not control for immobility; they control only for the fact that one is working at the same university where one completed one’s Ph.D. or other educational degree. For an in-depth discussion of this issue, see Horta (2013).

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Horta, H. Academic Inbreeding: Academic Oligarchy, Effects, and Barriers to Change. Minerva (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11024-022-09469-6

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Keywords

  • Academic inbreeding
  • Higher education
  • Academic profession
  • Academic hiring processes
  • Power relations