Trust Networks: A New Perspective on Pedigree and the Ambiguities of Admissions Decisions

Trust Networks: A New Perspective on Pedigree and the Ambiguities of Admissions Decisions

Thursday, April 12, 2018, 11:00 – 12:30
E62-350
 

Trust is a powerful form of social capital, one that facilitates willingness to make investments in the absence of complete information. In this talk I present ethnographic research about the individual and institutional trust networks that facilitate admissions decisions in top-ranked PhD programs in pure disciplines, and which explain revealed preferences for applicants with elite academic backgrounds. I find that to cut through ambiguities inherent in admissions decision making, faculty make proxy judgments of admissibility rooted in perceptions of trust and distrust. They lean upon perceptions of trust in the quality of undergraduate institution (i.e., because the rigor of a given student’s training may be unknown), relationships with and the reputation of recommendation letter writers (i.e., because the sincerity of praise is often unclear), and their judgments of program alumni with similar characteristics (i.e., due to availability bias). These micro-level interactions between professors and graduate school applicants reflect and reinforce macro-level structural inequalities in higher education; achieving more equitable doctoral enrollments will thus require broadening trust networks beyond familiar, feeder institutions and paying greater attention to recruitment in general. Yet I argue that we need not impugn the role of trust, which is inherent to most social transactions. Rather, as with other aspects of professional judgment, admissions decision makers should be self-critical about their instincts to trust. As one participant professor summed up the ubiquitous challenge of admissions, “You just never know who the exciting student is going to be.”