Out in Minnesota, Melissa expresses some high-level confusion over the preference for people with a small-college background:
In the past few months, I have been involved in several conversations where someone mentioned that a particular faculty member or administrator was or was not an alum of a small liberal arts college (SLAC) in a manner that seemed to suggest their status as a former student of a SLAC (or not) clearly explained why the individual took the particular action or made the particular decision being discussed. (Generally the tone of the discussions has been that “good” decisions/actions are attributed to someone having attended a SLAC and “bad” decisions/actions are attributed to someone not having attended a SLAC.) I’ve heard this type of conversation before, and every time I hear it, it bothers me. Institutions are enriched by the diversity of experiences that faculty and staff bring, and the experience of having been a student at a liberal arts college does not by default make an individual a more valuable or wiser member of the community.
I had a couple of conversations about small-college hiring at DAMOP a few weeks ago, and the same thing came up there, so I’ll repeat my answer. I will say, though, that I haven’t noticed this coming up in contexts other than hiring a new faculty member, whether at the assistant professor level or into a senior position, so that’s the context I have in mind for my answer.
The main reason why I tend to give an advantage to job candidates with small-college experience is a question of attitude. Somebody who has been at a small college, even as a student, is less likely to view a small college job as “settling” than somebody whose whole career has been spent at top-tier research universities.
There is a persistent attitude in at least the science corner of academia that anything less than a top-level job is unworthy. The mental standard of these people is that if you can’t get a job at a major research university– preferably one of the top private schools, but flagship state universities are acceptable– that must be because you “can’t cut it” at the top level.
For people who think that way, a job at a school with “State” in the name is a bad sign, and a job at a small college is practically teaching high school. That kind of attitude is absolute poison. You don’t want somebody at your college who thinks the whole institutional category is beneath them.
A small-college background is a good and quick filter for removing those candidates from the hiring pool, especially at the intro level. It’s not the only filter, by any means– the primary criteria are the CV (does the candidate’s teaching experience go beyond the obligatory first-year-of-grad-school TA’ing of intro labs?) and the teaching and research statements (does their research plan reflect a realistic knowledge of small-college constraints? does their teaching statement express believable enthusiasm for the subject?)– but someone with a small-college background has an easier time convincing me that they want to be here than somebody who attended two Ivy League schools and did a post-doc at a third.
For more senior hires, there are additional filters for the CV and statements, because they have more on-the-job experience. But the basic goal is the same– to sort out people who really want to be at a small college from those who really want to be at a research university but are settling for a small college for job market reasons. And again, a small college background helps with that– someone who has worked at or even attended a small college is more likely to have a clear idea of what it is that we do, and see it as valuable in its own right than somebody who has only ever been at research institutions.
Once people are hired, the background doesn’t make a huge amount of difference– the student and faculty experiences are sufficiently different that educational background doesn’t have much day-to-day effect– though for somebody hired into a senior position, there is almost certainly some of what Melissa describes regarding their initial decisions (I should note that while we’ve had a complete turnover of the administrative positions since I’ve been here, all of the replacements have been internal hires, so I haven’t seen this directly). A new Dean or Chair who makes an unpopular decision will likely start people complaining that this is because they “don’t understand” the local culture. This is true even for hires from comparable institutions, but would be a lot worse with somebody changing institutional categories.
So that’s why people with a small-college background have an advantage when I’m reviewing job applications. It doesn’t carry overt hat much after they’re hired, but it definitely makes a difference at the job-candidate level, for reasons that I think are good and valid.