April 17, 2003

James McPherson on the "Old Boy Network"

"My own path to Ivy League employment, by contrast, was ridiculously easy. One day in 1962 the chairman of the history department at Princeton phoned my Hopkins adviser, C. Vann Woodward, and asked him if he had a 'young man' to recommend for an instructorship (then the first rung on the tenure-track ladder). Woodward recommended me -- I don't know if he even had to put it in writing -- and Princeton offered me the job, without a real interview and without having seen any dissertation chapters. This was the infamous 'old boy network,' surely the most powerful instrument of affirmative action ever devised."

-- James McPherson, "Deconstructing Affirmative Action," Perspectives, April 2003

Damn. We used to joke about this kind of thing in graduate school. But I thought the stories were fictions, or at least grossly exaggerated and highly embellished accounts that did express a fundamental truth about the differences between the generations, and more specifically about the diminished expectations of our own. Turns out at least one of the stories that circulated was factually true.

McPherson is a history professor at Princeton and current president of the American Historical Association. His reflections on affirmative action are worth reading.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at April 17, 2003 04:59 PM

I firmly believe that this is why some are so awful in helping their fledgling Ph.D's out in the current situation.

Some of them got their jobs exactly the same way McPherson did. Some, in the past, got their students jobs this way. Simply make a phone call and rely on the personal connection.

But in this glutted marketplace, this practice has broken down in a vast majority of cases.

This inability to effectively "sell" one's graduates, in a glutted and arbitrary market, is a tragedy. And it isn't being publically acknowledged, as far as I know.

The other galling thing is how people who are making the choices about who of us are qualified to get interviews or jobs are people who were hired without impressive qualifications. You or I have better qualifications now than they did when they were hired. What is wrong with this picture?

Posted by: David at April 17, 2003 06:43 PM

It's not a myth. I heard a story just like this--of all places--at a panel of old alums convened to give advice about the job market to us newminted PhDs. One woman was there to provide a perspective on what a certain kind of school looks for (maybe it was the small liberal arts school, I don't remember) but in passing she remarked somewhat sheepishly, "of course, it was different for us. I didn't even have to compete for my first job; I was visiting at some conference with my husband, and it came up that they were looking for a professor of [whatever she was], and after some talk they hired me." The details escape me, but the upshot was that they hired her with a handshake. No interview.

This was late 60s, maybe '70. And it was a woman (albeit vouched for by her husband, as I recall).

I appreciated the candor of this story. And I've come across several instances of the same narrative since. I think there are a lot of stories like this that remain secret because the prior generation are embarassed at their own ease of entry compared to the current meatgrinder which they help to oversee.

Posted by: T. V. at April 17, 2003 08:31 PM

I believe this is the third column that McPherson has written as president of the AHA, and the second one in which he has addressed the painful contrast between past and present. In his first column (I cannot find it online, or I would link to it), he speaks of the sadness he feels when he sees very well-qualified people -- some of them better qualified, he writes, than he was when he started at Princeton -- reduced to year after year of postdoc, visiting professor and adjunct teaching positions.

I don't hold it against McPherson's generation that they had an easier time of it. What makes me angry is the refusal on the part of some senior faculty to admit that they were the beneficiaries of forces beyond their own talent, drive and sheer brilliance (eg., demographics). And yes, it is galling indeed to encounter mediocrities who sit in judgment of candidates according to standards that they themselves were never subjected to and which they themselves could not possibly meet.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at April 17, 2003 10:11 PM

I guess this depends heavily on the field, but I am surprised this isn't the standard way for people to get jobs in academia. I would guess that personal connections still account for a significant proportion of interviews. It may not be a handshake-and-your-in, but really it seems that getting to the interview is affected in some part by how well a hiring committee knows your Ph.D. committee--by reputation if not personally.

A friend went through the cattle-call of unsuccessful AHA interviews--something like 12 one year--only to be offered positions through a more networky process.

Not to say that extraordinary talent is not recognized regardless of the school you attend or the contacts of your advisor, but I also don't think it is a meritocracy, by and large.

Posted by: Alex at April 18, 2003 03:11 AM

Actually, Alex, networks really matter very little now save for a handful of institutions that imagine themselves to be suitable only for the creme de la creme of the graduate student crop. Even then, I venture to say that they matter very little during the initial stage of the hiring process, the winnowing of hundreds of letters of applications to a group of 10-12 people who will be screened at a professional meeting. They may play some role in the final deliberation on 3 candidates, but can in fact play a negative role, both depending on which member of a department tries to speak for the pedigree of a candidate and of the obviousness of the attempt to be old-boyish. I was talking with a colleague about a search at another institution and she told me that an older colleague added parenthentical notes about the advisors and "quality of program" on the dossiers of the candidates he liked most and that this actually doomed some of the candidates since everyone was then determined not to be swayed by this advice (largely because none of them liked the colleague in question). Another example is the way that anthropologists coming out of the University of Chicago are treated: they're both regarded as intrinsic blue-chip candidates *and* seen with enormous instinctive jealousy by some non-Chicago anthropologists. I'm not sure whether that's an advantage or not.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at April 18, 2003 09:52 AM

Actually, to add one more thing, I'm not sure it's the old boys of McPherson's generation who are most awful in the hiring and tenuring process. Yes, occasionally you run into someone who is so obviously a mediocrity who got a job immaculately like McPherson did, and they lack the humility to admit it--which leads to ridiculous "standards-enforcement" in hiring and firing. But mostly I have to say that that generation--almost all retired or about to retire--is usually pretty open about how they got their jobs and at least notionally humble about what that entitles them to.

The real terrors, often, are the first generation of careerist, professionalized academics, the folks who surived the painful winnowing process of the early-to-mid 1970s. They *invented* the treadmill of the 2-book standard for tenure. They're what Turbulent Velvet has called "the dour machiavels" of academia.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at April 18, 2003 09:57 AM


I didn't mean these professors were "awful" in the sense of morally perverse. Rather, "awful" in the sense of "inept or ineffective".

Nor am I implying that people who got their jobs "immaculately" are thereby suspect in terms of their academic abilities.

I just think that, as you said, "networks really matter very little now".

As far as I can tell, when I graduated in 1997, my alma mater's department was still relying on this "old boy" network mechanism. To the class of 97's detriment.

The problem is that the level of competition in the academic market has made this sort of networking effective for only a few. Vastly more few than in years past.

Of course, none of this was on that flier sent out to us in the late 80's telling us how guardedly optimistic we all should be about the market.

Posted by: David at April 18, 2003 11:28 AM

I was speaking with a former committee member (who has also been a department chair and dean at various Private Research Universities) last night*, and he observed that the problem with many humanities faculty is that they don't understand the stages of networking.

For example, there's a relationship between "networking to get undergrads accepted as graduate students" and "networking to place graduate students in jobs." Given the appalling market in the humanities, only truly churlish or clueless faculty now abstain from trying to make calls on behalf of their graduate students. But what makes those calls effective is a prior relationship with colleagues in the hiring department--knowing what their undergrads are like, because you've accepted some into your program, or knowing what their graduate students are like, because they've accepted some of your undergrads. Many faculty treat these as unrelated, or only distantly related, when, this mentor insists, they're intimately connected.

In short, I guess, this is all just to say that the social and cultural conditions that facilitate networking are eroding. Maybe faculty (and graduate students!) need workshops in networking?

All the best,


*This was after a screening of Bulletproof Monk, which was less bad than one might imagine.

Posted by: Jason at April 18, 2003 11:34 AM

"The real terrors, often, are the first generation of careerist, professionalized academics, the folks who surived the painful winnowing process of the early-to-mid 1970s. They *invented* the treadmill of the 2-book standard for tenure."

Yes, I think this is exactly right. When I was in graduate school, I had some interesting conversations about this with a good friend, another graduate student in the same programme, and also female. We were trying to figure out why we often preferred to deal with the old guys in the department rather than the women that maybe we should have preferred. Not _always_ preferred the old guys, but often enough to make us wonder and worry.

Were we "dupes of the patriarchy," as the saying goes? Was this some awful form of female self-loathing that we needed to work through? Had we jumped on the antifeminist backlash bandwagon without intending to and even without noticing? My friend had an insight that led us in the right direction: "The thing about the old guys," she noted, "is that they're not crazy." Aha! It was true: they did not seem driven and obssessive about their work, they did not tend to exaggerate the significance of what they did, they seemed to wear their identities as academics more comfortably and more lightly. And they weren't crazy because they had enjoyed a very different, and more comfortable, type of academic career, which had not subjected them to the crazy-making two-books for tenure treadmill.

It really was a generational thing, though it also intersected with gender: women were not part of the old guy generation, they first entered as part of that first generation of careerists. And these women didn't have an easy time: they didn't have wives (most of the old guys had wives in the older sense of that term), they faced subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination and opposition, and they had to fight to get where they were. I think they adopted professionalism in part as a kind of shield against the sexist crap that was thrown at them.

Anyway, just to be clear about this: Though the question arose as "Why the old guys instead of the women?," when we compared the first- and second-generation careerist women to the first- and second-generation careerist men, we realized there wasn't any real difference between the two. Basically, we often preferred dealing with the old guys to dealing with the careerists.

All of the above is obviously in the order of sweeping generalizations to which important exceptions would have to be noted. There are some old guys who are crazy as loons, there are some younger men and women who have managed to accomodate themselves to careerism while still maintaining their mensch-like character.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at April 18, 2003 01:38 PM

My partner's father got a tenure track position in English at a public university in the 50s. Like McPherson, he says that he was riding a demographic wave, and even says that there was a "boom" (!) in academic hiring.

What he doesn't say and what my partner had to tell me was that:

  • He was awarded his PhD without ever having to take his orals;

  • He never, ever published anything, not even a paper;

And he has the nerve to talk about declining standards.

Obviously, the old boy network exists. And it takes care of its own very, very well.

Posted by: Curtiss Leung at April 21, 2003 02:02 PM

I may be too late to get into a discussion on this, but in my job-hunting experience and that of my grad-school cohort, there is indeed still a strong networking element involved. While I hope that being the student of my (well-known) advisor is not the only reason I got my current job, I have several pieces of hard evidence indicating that it was a significant factor.

Also, thanks for mentioning the first/second-generation aspect -- I too had wondered why so many of my preferred mentors were older men, and it's a relief to realize that the "older" part was relevant. :)

Posted by: Naomi Chana at April 22, 2003 09:25 PM

No, not too late at all. Yes, I think the "older" is an important part of the equation, it's not gender but generation (I now refrain from making a bad pun:)

I agree that networks can still matter. Though the days of the "old boy network" that McPherson is talking about are long gone.

I don't think it's a question of the well-connected but incompetent winning out over the unconnected but highly competent. Rather a question of too few jobs for too many roughly equally competent candidates, with the well-connected (ie, the grad students of the well-connected) then having a real edge. Of course it doesn't always work this way, as Tim Burke points out.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at April 22, 2003 11:17 PM

*snicker* I like bad puns. ;)

Exactly -- networking isn't everything, and whoever pointed out that there's a question of quality as well as quantity is very right. If I had to place an imaginary graduate student tomorrow, I'd be near-useless, even though I'm a compulsive organizer for certain of my favorite conferences and so know someone in the relevant departments at a great many schools. But of my advisor's students for the past five years who've gotten tenure-track jobs -- all highly competent people, I should add -- easily two-thirds of them got their first job someplace where I can confidently state that my advisor had pre-existing connections. Sometimes those sorts of connections are institutional or purely professional; sometimes they're also regional or denominational. Networking isn't going to get you a job all on its own, but it can be a significant -- sometimes even a deciding -- factor.

Posted by: Naomi Chana at April 23, 2003 01:40 PM

You better believe that networking still matters! Don't be fooled for one moment! But what makes the real difference is having an extremely well connected mentor, something I and my fellow grad students never had back in the late 1990's. If you are in this situation, you have to hustle to create your own networks, and therein lies the hassle (to put it bluntly). It's a catch 22: you want to create networks, but folks won't network with you unless you are someone worth talking to (i.e. come with good network connections)! This is one reason I was never cut out for sales; networking sucks and I'll be damned if we're not doing it in academia, too!

Posted by: Cat at April 24, 2003 02:27 PM