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Lessons on university quality gleaned from the Nazi era

Analysis by Fabian Waldinger of the Nazis’ dismissal of Jewish professors reveals the important role faculty quality plays upon PhD students’ careers, and offers insight for fashioning policies to foster research excellence.

In the early 1930s, mathematics departments in German universities had gained unrivalled world renown for cultivating enclaves of successful academic research. But when the Nazi government seized power, it immediately dismissed all Jewish and “politically unreliable” professors from German universities. Between 1933 and 1934, about 18 percent of all mathematics professors were expelled, among them some of the most eminent mathematicians of the time, such as Johann von Neumann, Richard Courant, and Richard von Mises.

Some mathematics departments, those that had not employed Jewish or “politically unreliable” academics, were unaffected, but others were decimated. The then-premier Göttingen University, for example, lost nearly 60 percent of its mathematics personnel. The dimensions of the situation were underscored dramatically in a chilling exchange from a 1934 banquet, where Nazi education minister Bernhard Rust chatted with David Hilbert, one of the most influential mathematicians of the early 20th century. “How is mathematics in Göttingen now that it has been freed of Jewish influence?” Rust asked. Hilbert’s reply was stark. “Mathematics in Göttingen?” he said. “There is really none anymore.”

My research analyses detailed data from this unprecedented chapter of German history as a way to examine the role faculty quality plays on PhD students, in creating their dissertations and in influencing the arc of their careers, a subject that is almost impossible to study in a modern context.

The Nazi dismissals had far-reaching effects on university quality which continue to this day. It also had profound effects on individuals, the PhD students caught in the throes of the turmoil of that era. The academic achievements that outline and define a career-the likelihood of getting a dissertation published, the odds of becoming professor, the number of lifetime academic citations--all were affected to a striking degree by the calibre of the faculty, and the chain of events that started with the Nazi policy of “cleansing”.

For my analysis, I used a large number of historical sources, including a compilation of the universe of students who obtained the PhDs in mathematics from a German university between 1923 and 1938. I find that students with access to high-quality faculty in this period were more successful in all the ways that are key in determining academic success. Specifically, my research shows that an increase in faculty quality by one standard deviation led to a 13 percentage point increase in the probability that a former PhD student published a dissertation and a 10 percentage point increase in the probability of becoming a full professor. An increase in faculty quality by one standard deviation led to 6.3 additional lifetime citations, a significant number given that the average former PhD student has 11 citations.

University quality is believed to be one of the key drivers for a successful professional career of university graduates. This is especially true for PhD students. Attending a better university is likely to improve the quality of a student’s dissertation and will provide superior skills and contacts. Estimating this effect is very challenging because inherently better students typically graduate from better universities. Observing a positive correlation between university quality and PhD student outcomes, therefore, does not necessarily mean that university quality causes student outcomes to improve.

The Nazi policy‘s effect on students lasted a lifetime, influencing the odds of publishing a dissertation, of becoming a professor, and of earning many academic citations

Economists often look for so-called natural experiments that come close to optimal experiments that are impossible to run, and this is why the data from the annals of this chapter of Nazi history offer such potential research value. The change in university quality in the affected departments was not related to student attributes. Therefore, it can be used as a natural experiment to measure the effect of university quality on PhD student outcomes. The departments without dismissals serve as a control group with which the changes in PhD student outcomes can be compared.

Before the dismissal of professors, students in departments which would later be affected always did better than students in departments which did not experience any dismissals. After 1933, student outcomes in affected departments dropped sharply. In departments without dismissed professors, however, PhD student outcomes remained constant.

These findings have implications for present-day policy, particularly in an era in which many nations facing budget constraints are reducing funding for higher education. It is widely agreed that inventions of scientists are important drivers of technological progress and economic growth. Therefore, it is important to organize scientific research, including the training of PhD students, in an optimal way.

The findings suggest the best policy course is to establish large PhD programs in a small number of high quality universities

My research shows that the most efficient way of training PhD students is to have large PhD programs in a small number of very high quality universities. In pre-World War II Germany, Göttingen and Berlin, the two leading universities, jointly produced more than 20 percent of all mathematics PhD students. The best five universities produced about 28 percent of all mathematics PhD students at the time. Today the best five universities in Germany produce only about 8.5 percent of all mathematics PhD students. In fact, none of the best five German mathematics departments (according to the faculty's research output) is among the top five producers of PhD students today. In the United States, however, the best research universities are also the main producers of PhD students. My findings suggest that this is a very productive way of organizing PhD training that should be further encouraged by science policy makers.

Publication details

Quality Matters: The Expulsion of Professors and the Consequences for PhD Student outcomes in Nazi Germany is due to be published in an upcoming edition of the Journal of Political Economy.

The author

Fabian Waldinger is an assistant professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick.