The menace of academic inbreeding is ubiquitous

A recent report noted the “menace of inbreeding” at Aligarh Muslim University or AMU. However, academic inbreeding is common to most Indian universities even though it is widely accepted that it has a negative impact on the academic environment and institutional performance.

India’s best universities – especially those which will soon count as ‘Institutions of Eminence’ – are advised against hiring their own if their aim is to become better institutions than they are.

A committee was constituted by the University Grants Commission at the behest of the human resource development ministry to audit 10 central universities. The aim was to probe complaints of financial, administrative and academic irregularities and the report highlighted the “menace of inbreeding” at AMU.

Quoting the report, a senior ministry official stated: “The university runs a number of schools and students passing out of these take admission in the university and in many cases they are then considered for faculty positions and end up getting absorbed too.”

The ‘menace of inbreeding’, according to the official quoted above, is about AMU’s preference for admitting students from AMU-run schools and subsequently hiring some of the same students to faculty positions if and when they obtain their PhDs.

The other nine universities escaped such criticism, some perhaps because they are relatively new institutions (or have been given the status of ‘central university’ quite recently) and may have at best produced only a handful of PhDs (if any) so far.

Systemic problem

The simple fact is that academic inbreeding has long been a systemic problem at India’s universities and the University Grants Commission has not only been aware of it but expressed serious concern about it as well, to the extent that it considers inbreeding to have “destroyed many departments at Indian universities”.

But academic inbreeding is not peculiar to Indian universities or to poorer countries. It is actually quite commonplace in many countries around the world. In many cases and under specific conditions, academic inbreeding is even considered necessary and-or beneficial.

However, while there are some benefits in hiring one’s own, merit is the most common casualty of academic inbreeding in a majority of faculty appointments at India’s universities. If one also includes bias based on caste, religion and gender in faculty appointments, the disregard for merit becomes rather extreme.

The case against academic inbreeding

Academic inbreeding is commonly understood as the preference by universities – and more specifically their departments – for hiring home-trained candidates as faculty members, that is, those who have completed their terminal degree, usually a PhD, at the same university, in preference to ‘outsiders’, even when the latter are better qualified.

Note that faculty members with PhDs from a given institution who are hired after acquiring a few years of work experience elsewhere are not usually considered ‘inbred’ since they are said to have proven their worth elsewhere before returning ‘home’.

That is, academic inbreeding refers very specifically to cases where ‘inbred’ PhDs are hired by their alma mater for their very first faculty appointment.

The bias for home-trained candidates in faculty hiring is different from a bias on the basis of caste, religion or gender – even though they may overlap – since it privileges a candidate’s long and intimate ties to the home institution over all other considerations, including merit.

A 2015 bookAcademic Inbreeding and Mobility in Higher Education: Global perspectives – examined the practice of academic inbreeding in eight countries: Argentina, China, Japan, Russia, Slovenia, Spain, South Africa and Ukraine.

The editors of the book, Philip G Altbach, Maria Yudkevich and Laura E Rumbley, found that “a surprising number of institutions and countries have a long tradition of academic inbreeding but also that there are understandable – and in some cases quite pragmatic – reasons for adherence to such practices and policies”.

One of the big advantages of hiring home-trained talent is convenience; universities or departments do not need to cast their net far and wide to catch qualified candidates who will also ‘fit in’ with the institution’s culture and outlook.

In some countries, where only a couple (or a very small number) of universities are academic leaders, it is common for those with PhDs from these elite institutions to dominate faculty hiring at most other institutions as well as at their alma mater.

In other cases, where the university and-or department is not only confident of its capabilities and stature but is also considered thus by others, academic inbreeding may be seen as defensible or at least as not doing harm as long as the better home-trained students are hired as faculty.

Unfortunately, that is not what usually happens. Those at AMU and other elite institutions know quite well what happens in these situations. The best home-trained candidates are often rejected by selection committees or heads of departments or senior faculty in favour of fellow-ethnics, better-connected candidates or obedient and servile ones. The often-heard ‘who’ll take care of our own’ argument is only an excuse to favour the less-competent applicants from the home institution.

Lower research output

There are other serious issues with academic inbreeding and some of these – particularly research output and the quality of research – should be especially noted by those public and private universities in the country which plan to compete with the world’s best if they are selected as ‘Institutions of Eminence’.

There is damning evidence against academic inbreeding in the context of research performance. Studies show that inbred faculty produce less research output than outsiders and the impact of their research tends to be significantly lower.

In cases where research output is approximately the same, the quality of research produced by inbred faculty tends to be lower, either because they publish more often in national journals or in lower-ranked journals.

In sum, whatever advantages or conveniences there may be in hiring from within, research performance is not one of them.

Overall, as Olga Gorelova and Maria Yudkevich note in their chapter in Academic Inbreeding and Mobility in Higher Education, “most researchers of inbreeding are unanimous in their opinion that inbreeding is a phenomenon that has a negative influence on the overall academic system”.

Academic inbreeding at India’s universities

According to Altbach, Yudkevich and Rumbley, faculty inbreeding is an avoidable practice because “it limits the scope of hiring the best possible candidates for academic appointments – both from within the country and internationally”.

They continue: “Inbreeding tends to entrench the existing academic culture in the institution and make change and reform even more difficult than would normally be the case. It solidifies hierarchical relationships within departments and faculties and enhances the power of senior professors. Inbreeding may perpetuate unfair power dynamics reflected in society more broadly.” (Emphasis added.)

In India, nearly all of the above issues are relevant, but especially that the ‘culture’ of most universities reflects and reproduces, in different degrees, the same hierarchies and social relations of the larger society. The prevalence of an inegalitarian culture in social relations, based on differences in caste and gender in particular, is hardly conducive to the good health and prosperity of India’s universities.

Caste and ethnic discrimination

As mentioned earlier, academic inbreeding tends to be particularly pernicious in India because it not only discriminates against well-qualified outsiders, it also lends to discrimination against meritorious insiders. This is because the faculty and administration at most (if not all) higher education institutions is organised along ethnic lines, with caste, language and region-based groups as the most common.

There are entire disciplines or departments at colleges, universities and research centres which are either dominated by particular castes or linguistic groups or are characterised by everyday conflicts for supremacy between two or three such groups.

With each group engaged in a tussle to dominate, the process of hiring new faculty is rigged against those who do not belong to one or the other dominant groups.

Another common feature of India’s universities is that its professoriate demands near-complete subservience from students, even and especially from those whom they mentor.

This is especially true in doctoral programmes. Those students who are relatively independent, irrespective of their merit and capabilities, are punished or rejected by potential or actual mentors. It is the obedient students who become favoured disciples and are later supported for faculty positions so that they may continue to serve their mentors for as long as possible.

All arguments in favour of academic inbreeding become useless in such contexts and all criticisms against become all the more sharp.

It is odd that AMU has been held up as an example of inbreeding when the practice is common across India’s university system. Things have surely not changed so much since 2003 when the University Grants Commission itself acknowledged that inbreeding had destroyed many departments at India’s universities.

Highlighting AMU’s transgression gives the impression that other major universities – whether Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi University, Hyderabad Central University and even many of the Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management – do not inbreed. They do, to greater or lesser degrees.

It is possible that the extent of academic inbreeding at AMU is much higher than that at Banaras Hindu University or Hyderabad Central University or elsewhere. But if there is data on academic inbreeding, it should be made widely available. If there is not, someone ought to start compiling it.

The best universities in the United States, India and elsewhere, make a distinction between ‘pure inbreds’, ‘silver-corded’ academics and ‘mobile inbreds’.

Silver-corded academics are those whose first employment is not at the university from which they graduated, but who later returned to their alma mater. Mobile inbreds are described as those “who have either spent a research or teaching spell at another university during the doctoral degree or did a postdoc at another university (or did both) before taking the first academic appointment in their alma mater”.

The evidence indicates that silver-corded faculty and mobile inbreds usually perform better because of their broader experience.

Interestingly, the government committee that drew attention to the inbreeding menace at AMU has recommended a five-year gap for all ex-students before they can be recruited as teachers.

Pushkar is director, the International Centre Goa, Dona Paula, Goa, India. Madhvi Gupta is an independent researcher based in Goa. The views expressed are personal. This article was first published in The Wire.