I have always believed that the members of department admissions committees at elite graduate schools who choose potential students for history Ph.D programs honor good work and intelligence. I tell my students who want to pursue graduate school that they will be judged on their test scores, college work, and letters of recommendation, and not on the fact that they attended a religious-oriented institution.
When my top students get rejected from a graduate program I often wonder–I will admit it–if they were turned down because they attended Messiah College, a Christian college in the Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan tradition. I have never been able to prove this and have never really had any interest in doing so. I continue with my idealistic belief that Ph.D programs choose students based on test scores, college work, and letters of recommendation. Such idealism is also based on the fact that I have had many students get accepted to first-rate graduate programs.
But very few, if any, of my students get accepted to the kinds of schools that Julie Posselt writes about in her new book Inside Graduate Admissions: Merit, Diversity and Faculty Gatekeeping (Harvard University Press, 2016). In my idealism I have always just assumed that entrance into these schools was extremely competitive. And I continue to believe that the competitive nature of these universities is the best explanation for why my students have not been accepted over the years.
But Posselt also suggests that some of my hunches may be correct. Here is a taste of Scott Jaschik’s Inside Higher Ed article on Posselt’s book:
In most cases Posselt observed, the committee members used banter and “friendly debate” when they disagreed with one another. They didn’t attack one another or get too pointed in criticizing colleagues. She describes one discussion she observed — in which committee members kept to this approach — that left her wondering about issues of fairness.
The applicant, to a linguistics Ph.D. program, was a student at a small religious college unknown to some committee members but whose values were questioned by others.
“Right-wing religious fundamentalists,” one committee member said of the college, while another said, to much laughter, that the college was “supported by the Koch brothers.”
The committee then spent more time discussing details of the applicant’s GRE scores and background — high GRE scores, homeschooled — than it did with some other candidates. The chair of the committee said, “I would like to beat that college out of her,” and, to laughter from committee members asked, “You don’t think she’s a nutcase?”
Other committee members defended her, but didn’t challenge the assumptions made by skeptics. One noted that the college had a good reputation in the humanities. And another said that her personal statement indicated intellectual independence from her college and good critical thinking.
At the end of this discussion, the committee moved the applicant ahead to the next round but rejected her there.
Posselt portrays the members of graduate admission committees at the universities where she drew her samples as insecure, concerned with ratings (does this mean U.S. News and World Report-style ratings?), obsessed with prestige, lacking diversity (both in terms of gender, race, and ideology), engaged in the worst forms of elitism, and discriminatory (in a bad way).
I imagine that Posselt’s book will receive some strong push back from elite universities. Those who have served on graduate admissions committees will say that what Posselt describes in her book looks nothing like the way these committees are actually run. Fair enough. It does seem like Posselt has a small sampling.
But there seems to be enough here–at least from Jaschik’s summary (I have not read the book)–to confirm some of those unproven hunches.