Inside Graduate Admissions: Merit, Diversity, and Faculty Gatekeeping
reviewed by R. Jason Lynch & Monica C. Esqueda — March 09, 2017
Title: Inside Graduate Admissions: Merit, Diversity, and Faculty Gatekeeping
Author(s): Julie R. Posselt
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0674088697, Pages: 272, Year: 2016
Search for book at Amazon.com
During the 50 years following the civil rights movement, education scholars, policy makers, and practitioners have paid considerable attention to matters of equity and diversity within the U.S. education system. For example, the past decade has seen a reemergence of this topic, particularly as it applies to access to education as examined through the intersection of gender, race, and socioeconomic status. Some educational researchers have pointed out how current K12 institutions are as equally segregated as they were before Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954). In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on the latest groundswell of debate regarding affirmative action in higher education. It upheld the affirmation by the Texas Court of Appeals regarding the race-sensitive admissions policy at the University of Texas in Fisher v. University of Texas (2013, 2016). While having a vigorous discussion regarding access to undergraduate education has appeared to become the norm, little focus has been given to graduate admissions. In her book Inside Graduate Admissions: Merit, Diversity, and Faculty Gatekeeping, Julie R. Posselt sheds light on systems that perpetuate inequality of access to U.S. graduate education.
To gain a better understanding of the complexity of the graduate admissions process and the structures that potentially inhibit graduate cohorts that are representative of U.S. demographics, Posselt conducts an extensive set of case studies. Using her positionality as a respected scholar from an elite institution of higher education, she obtains permission to observe graduate admissions committee meetings. She is also granted interviews with faculty members who are involved in the selection process. Posselt then uses the results of her investigation to provide a narrative that begins to illustrate the tensions between faculty pragmatism and faculty idealism as they apply to diversifying graduate student cohorts in the U.S.
Each chapter of Inside Graduate Admissions provides a colorful exploration of six key themes that emerge from Posselts study. She compares and contrasts observations from admissions committee meetings across several institutions and many disciplines. The author also includes individual interviews with admissions committee members. The first three chapters explore themes that apply to broader organizational and disciplinary contexts, while the final chapters explore themes that are more concerned with individual faculty member contexts.
Posselt begins her narrative from the perspective of organizational theory. She describes the emergence of deliberative bureaucracy as an organizational adaptation to [a] rising number of applications and associated demands on faculty time and attention, through which they strive to maximize efficiency while upholding the deliberative, democratic norms that lend legitimacy to their work (p. 21). The author explores the pros and cons of this concept, citing it as a way to quantify the subjective nature of the application process. However, at the same time, this creates barriers for students from non-traditional or underrepresented backgrounds. Ultimately, Posselt explains deliberative bureaucracy as a paradox that unintentionally perpetuates inequality in academia.
In the following chapters, Posselt unpacks the idea of merit and how selection processes decide who is worthy of assuming the mantle for the future of specific academic disciplines. She brings up an interesting consideration in this section that deals with how discipline-specific epistemologies and personal epistemologies measure academic merit. As may be inferred from her introduction to this idea, the author illustrates the positivist nature of STEM-related disciplines and the constructivist nature of arts and humanities disciplines.
Ultimately, Posselt's work intends to provide a springboard for future conversations to address systemic inequalities in graduate admissions policies. Along this line, she successfully presents a series of interdisciplinary explanations, each of which is ripe for exploration by future scholarship and commentary. Although a number of academics have weighed in on the intersection of diversity and graduate admissions, few have translated their scholarship into a narrative that may be widely accessed and easily translated into practice. However, readers should be cautious in generalizing the themes found throughout this book. Specifically, the programs she investigates are all considered elite and only represent a handful of academic disciplines. Given that most students earning graduate degrees will not graduate from top-ranked institutions and study a diverse range of subjects, policy makers and education leaders may wonder what role these programs could play in diversifying future generations of professional academics. Additionally, in her recommendations for action, Posselt neglects to explore current literature written by higher education scholars who specialize in diversity and access. Admissions practitioners and diversity scholars have already applied many of the suggested changes in policy and practice that are found in this book (e.g., reframing what constitutes merit and revisiting recruitment practices). However, perhaps in her role as a fellow academic, graduate admissions officers may place greater value on the author's recommendations.
While reading this review, it is important for readers to know that it was written as a collaborative effort between a junior faculty member and a current doctoral candidate. By writing the review in this manner, we hope to provide a unique juxtaposition of two academic perspectives at different points in the graduate preparation process.
From the perspective of a current doctoral candidate, Inside Graduate Admissions is eye-opening, but sometimes frustrating to read. As a first-generation student from a working class family, I often find myself having an emotional reaction to the graduate admissions processes described in the book. For instance, Posselt's discussion on homophily and its perpetuation of class-based norms to define merit brings up memories of peers who study abroad or attend specialized opportunities requiring significant financial backing. Additionally, I find myself appalled at the attitudes and presumptions that participating faculty members hold against international students, in particular learners of southeast Asian descent. This level of racial bias seems to be taboo, although it is not unheard of in other areas of the academy. However, Posselt's anecdotes indicate the overt racialized opinions faculty members may use to inform admissions decisions. After reading this volume, I am left with a sour taste in my mouth, but also grateful for the author's candidness regarding this problem.
Conversely, from a faculty perspective, the need for critical reflection and intentionality in American admissions practices at graduate institutions becomes readily apparent through reading Posselt's book. Given the multiple responsibilities that faculty members must balance, it becomes easy to perpetuate systems of discrimination without taking the time to thoroughly vet their processes. As a part of this reflection, admissions committees must take the time to ask tough questions regarding who may be unintentionally excluded from current processes, but still could be successful within a graduate program.
Inside Graduate Admissions is a must read for faculty members, policy makers, and students who wish to pursue graduate education. To address the problem of inequity in higher education, these stakeholders must first acknowledge that a problem exists. Posselts book achieves this goal. By pointing out the paradox of faculty members who have benefited from institutionalized racism, sexism, and classism by being the gatekeepers to graduate education, stakeholders may begin the work of restructuring graduate programs to meet the needs of a rapidly changing world. This volume may serve as a means for dialogue, common language, and initial strategic planning to ensure that the future of the academy reflects the growing diversity of the United States.
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, 570 U.S. ___ (2013).
Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, 579 U.S. ___ (2016).