How Academic Guilds Police Higher Education

Academia is a self-certified guild that is funded mainly by tax money. Each year, something in the range of $350 billion goes into higher education in the United States. This figure keeps rising. So, the stakes are high.

As with any guild, it must limit entry in order to preserve above-market salaries. It does so primarily by academic licensing.

The primary licensing restriction is university accreditation, which is a system run by half a dozen regional agencies. To get degree-granting status, a college or university must be certified by one of these agencies. They certify very few.

The next screening device is the Ph.D. degree. This system was imposed on academia nationally by John D. Rockefeller’s General Education Board, beginning in 1903, when Congress chartered it. He gave money to colleges, but only if they put people with Ph.D. degrees on their faculties.

Next comes faculty tenure. After about six or seven years of teaching mainly lower division classes that senior professors refuse to teach, an assistant professor comes up for tenure. If he gets it, he can never be fired except for moral infractions far worse than adultery committed with female students. Very few assistant professors are granted tenure. The Ph.D. glut then consigns the losers to part-time work in community colleges for wages in the range of what apprentice plumbers receive. I have written about this glut elsewhere.


To get tenure at a major research university, you must publish in the main academic journals in the field. This is limited to about a dozen journals in each field. They publish quarterly. They run perhaps eight articles per issue. Most of these are written by well-known men in the field who are already tenured. The average Ph.D. holder publishes one article, which summarizes his Ph.D. dissertation. This article is unlikely to make it into one of the top dozen journals.

Almost no one ever wins a Nobel Prize who is not on the faculty of one of these universities. He must also have published repeatedly in the dozen top academic journals. His articles must be cited widely by other authors in these journals. If an article is not widely cited within five years of publication, it is doomed.

In short, journal editors control access into the top rank of academia, who in turn assign manuscripts to be screened by teams of unnamed faculty members. Almost no one knows who these people are.

Robert Nisbet once told me that he had given up reading any professional journal in sociology decades before. A decade before George Stigler won the Nobel Prize in economics, I heard him say in front of a group of academic libertarians and conservatives that he had a question. “I would like to know why there is only one journal article a year worth reading in my field.” The answer is clear: the system is funded by the state and ruled by faceless committees.

At schools other than the top three-dozen, tenure is granted for publishing in a lesser-known journal. Also relevant is a book published by a major university press. These are presses that are subsidized indirectly by the government. Their books sell for very high prices, and are then bought mainly by university libraries.

If you do not publish in the top dozen journals, then you do not get tenure at a major university. Very few Ph.D.-holding academics get offered a tenure-track position in these schools. The old-boy network rules. A major professor at Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, Berkeley, or Chicago calls a buddy at one of the other top schools and recommends his top two or three Ph.D. graduates. A few of these get hired. Of these, maybe 20% ever get tenure. The losers here wind up at second-tier or third-tier universities.

If a person reaches age 35 and has not published in an academic journal, he is relegated to the limbo of academia. He may get tenure at a community college or a third-tier university that grants only the B.A. and a few M.A. students. If by age 40 he has not published several articles and multiple book reviews in one of the top dozen journals, he will never become a major figure in the profession.


If you did not get into one of these schools’ Ph.D. programs, you do not get recommended to teach at a major university. If you are granted a Ph.D. by any lower-tier school, then you probably will not get a career job in academia, but if you do, it will be in a community college teaching for low wages, probably part-time. You may get a tenure-track job at a college no one has heard of except its alumni, who do not have much money to donate to the endowment. If a Ph.D. holder is granted tenure at one of these schools, he has lifetime employment in safety but obscurity. No one ever hears about him or her again.

The prospective Ph.D. student is told about none of this. The faculty is paid more for Ph.D.-level students. Faculty members have no incentive to cut the supply of lemmings. They keep these pour souls in the dark. These people work for minimum wages teaching sessions of lower-division students. Or they do the grunt work researching topics that their advisors will use to write articles and books, mentioning these students in a footnote or the Acknowledgments page of a book.


Then there is the textbook system. There is a lot of money to be made in textbooks for lower-division classes. A textbook may sell for $100 to $150. The market is huge: over half of the 15 million college students enrolled in America’s 4,000 community colleges and 4-year colleges. Only a few textbooks make the cut: about a dozen. Textbooks shape the minds of the general academic public. They also set the criteria for those students moving into upper division as majors in a department.

The textbook must conform to certain standards. Those ideas within the guild that are considered representative touchstones of the guild’s positions must not be violated. These ideas are used to screen textbooks.

In economics, the universal screening rule is affirmation of central banking in general and the Federal Reserve System in particular. The editors pay close attention to this chapter. The following rules must not be violated.

1. Only a brief mention of central banking as a government-licensed monopoly — no detailed discussion of the central bank in terms of the textbook’s chapter on monopoly.

2. No mention of its structure as a member bank-owned cartel of commercial banks — no discussion at all of the central bank in terms of the textbook’s chapter on cartels.

3. No mention of the fact that, under the auspices of the Federal Reserve System, the dollar has depreciated by 95% since 1914, according to the Inflation Calculator on the Website of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

4. No mention of the well-organized, decades-long plans to create the Federal Reserve, except to dismiss all such accusations (accurate) as “a conspiracy theory.” (This dismisses as a crank theory Part 2 of Murray Rothbard’s book A History of Money and Banking in the United States.)

5. No mention of fractional reserve banking as inherently inflationary and also immoral: a cartel-enforced wealth transfer, the position of Rothbard’s book, The Mystery of Banking.

6. No mention of the Great Depression without invoking Milton Friedman’s assertion that the Great Depression was the failure of the Federal Reserve System in not inflating more. No mention of Murray Rothbard’s book, America’s Great Depression (1963). Instead, it cites Friedman’s book, A Monetary History of the United States (1963).

This chapter serves the economics guild in much the same way that the local altar to the emperor’s genius served Rome. Every adult resident of the empire had to publicly worship the State by placing a pinch of incense on this altar. To refuse was to risk a death sentence. Similarly, any economics textbook author who does not toss a pinch of incense on the altar of the Federal Reserve System assures himself of publication death. His manuscript will be rejected. In the New Testament’s terminology, you either make peace with the Beast, or else you are consigned to outer darkness by the guild.

This is why there has never been an Austrian School economics textbook. Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard rejected all central banking as an illegitimate government intrusion into the economy. No other school of economic opinion takes this hard-line view of all central banking. A prospective textbook author must implicitly announce his rejection of Austrian economics by means of the chapter on banking.

A professor gets no tenure points for a textbook, but he can become a multimillionaire if his textbook sells well. Very few textbooks make it into classes of the top three-dozen universities. He may get an obscure book publisher to publish his textbook, but the book is marketed to academic limbo. It is highly unlikely that it will break through into the big leagues. It will not be assigned to students at the top three-dozen Ph.D.-granting universities or the two-dozen top four-year schools, such as Swarthmore, Pomona, Carleton, and Occidental. It will not be assigned at the 150 second-tier schools. The textbook may make the author some retirement money, but it will not shape the thinking of the future major players in the profession.


Take away government funding, and the system dies. Barring this, allow another dozen accredited schools like the University of Phoenix to market programs, as Phoenix does, to 300,000 students a year, and the system will not die, but it will be drastically modified. The middle-tier and lower-tier private schools will go under: hundreds of them. These lower-tier colleges (“universities”) sell to students who were not good enough to get into the major universities and state universities.

This system cannot be modified until the funding is cut off by the state. Short of an economic disaster, this is unlikely. Parents are rarely in a position to tell their children to fund their own educations. There is too much peer pressure on the parents. So, the parents pony up their retirement money and send their children off to schools that are designed to undermine the students’ faith in what their parents had taught them, unless their parents never changed from their own last years in college.

It is a self-policing, tax-funded system of indoctrination. It has worked for seventy years. This is unlikely to change in our time.


There are alternatives in terms of books. The books on the’s free Literature section offer an alternative. So do the Website and catalogue of the Liberty Fund. But these books are aimed at independent thinkers. Not one institution of higher education certifies them. On the contrary, the academic establishment is opposed to the outlook of these books and materials.

Because of the Web, it is easier to get these materials into the hands of bright graduate students who see what is being dished out to them in their classrooms. But this remnant is small. Until the tax funding is removed from higher education, the remnant will remain small.

June 3, 2008

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

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