As I mentioned earlier, my department is currently running a couple of job searches. Although I'm not on either committee, I still hear chatter about the applicant pool--and I have one colleague who keeps popping into my office, application files in hand, and saying, "Firstname Lastname. Know 'em?"
Since they're always INRU PhDs, of course I always know them. However, since neither of our searches is in my field, and since most of the applicants are a couple of years behind me, I generally don't know their work; when asked about them, then, I've admitted the limits of my knowledge while still being genially enthusiastic: "Oh, s/he's great, just great. Very smart, hard-working, a lovely human being." But today a name came up belonging to someone who has a, shall we say, problematic personality--problematic to a degree that would be apparent even in a 30-minute interview, or possibly even over the phone. So I said, all faux-judiciously, "Well, you're the one reviewing the files, and of course I don't know his/her work . . . but if the question is just about collegiality, Person Y wouldn't be my first choice. All other things being equal, I'd definitely go with Person X."
And then a few hours later my colleague returned with a question about a Person Z, whom I actually know quite well--Z is from my entering class and is someone with whom I had numerous courses, whom I TAed alongside, and whom I get a tremendous kick out of even though we were never very close--and, well, Z is obviously the person I recommended MOST highly, for the simple reason that Z is the person I know best.
On the one hand, this is all perfectly normal and natural and the way that things work in the real world, whether that world be academia or law or Wall Street; connections are what make the world go 'round. When I was on the market, I knew that I was likely to get MLA interviews with schools where the search chair or a committee member had a degree from INRU--and whaddaya know? I almost always did.
Moreover, I trust my colleagues to make thoughtful decisions, and I'm happy to have some little knowledge that might be useful to them. All the same, when you've already received more than 200 applications for a position, you probably do what you can to weed through the pile as quickly as possible--which means that I can't help but feel a few twinges about what my casual remarks could potentially do to someone's candidacy. I also can't help but have noticed that my department, like so many others, has a lot of "duplicates": faculty members with degrees from the same institution. In fact, two of this year's new hires have doctorates from the same institutions as faculty who were hired just the previous year. (I'm the only INRU PhD in the department, but I'm one of three faculty who hold INRU BAs.)
Now, if a grad program is good, the likelihood of hiring multiple people from that program is obviously going to be higher--but I don't happen to think that the laws of the job market follow the laws of probability all that closely.
I've ranted about this elsewhere, but when I started my PhD program, our entering classes were absurdly un-diverse. 10 students came in every year, and always from essentially the same 10-15 schools. Year after year, with just one or two wildcards--someone from a midwestern liberal arts college, say, or from a flagship state school that wasn't a top doctoral institution. [I should note that this doesn't hold true any longer, or at least not to this degree; I've been pleasantly surprised by the range and variety of entering students in the last few years.]
And the thing is, I really don't think that it was snobbery, or at least not conscious snobbery; I think that it was laziness. If you're a harried committee member, and you get an application from someone who's got an undergrad degree from a place you consider a peer institution--where your friends teach, or taught, or got their degrees from--you feel like you know what it's about: you have a sense of who the faculty are, what kinds of students attend, and what the courses in the major looks like. It's just easier than wondering whether Northeastern Montana State U has a rigorous course of study, or who this person writing a rec letter is--and it's certainly easier than (*gasp!*) actually trying to evaluate each candidate on his or her own merits.
It's not that my fellow grad students weren't very, very smart. They were; some of them were even brilliant. But it still felt unfair to me, and I continue to wonder whether I'd have gotten into my program myself, had I not attended one of the approved institutions.
So, I worry, just a little bit about perpetuating that kind of unfair advantage at my new institution, even while I'm genuinely convinced of the awesomeness of most of my grad school colleagues. I want them to do well, and I'm certainly personally invested in seeing that we hire new people as fantastic as those we already have. And yet. . . !