Ideological Discrimination in Academia Is More Complicated than You Think

(File photo: Brian Snyder/Reuters) Faculty feel less threatened by the opinions of undergraduates than by those of Ph.D. students and their peers.Many right-of-center students (especially those who are grade-obsessed) self-censor, fearing that their professors will punish them for their political and cultural views if they were to express them in class discussions or assignments. It’s…

Ideological Discrimination in Academia Is More Complicated than You Think
(File photo: Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Faculty feel less threatened by the opinions of undergraduates than by those of Ph.D. students and their peers.

Many right-of-center students (especially those who are grade-obsessed) self-censor, fearing that their professors will punish them for their political and cultural views if they were to express them in class discussions or assignments.

It’s easy to understand why they are concerned. The dearth of ideological diversity in the professoriate is significant; in social-research fields, the left-to-right ratio is roughly 10:1. Professors rarely assign readings by conservative or libertarian intellectuals, let alone engage with such thinkers in a charitable way. Faculty regularly make off-topic jabs at Trump or the Republicans, or even end up digressing into full-on rants. Professors who are moderate and charitable in the classroom may post highly political content on social media (or occasionally write highly political opinion pieces or blog posts) expressing antipathy toward Republicans and conservatives. And all of this is amplified, and often distorted, by an outrage-driven media industry.

But do liberal faculty actually demonstrate bias in grading?

In a new study, three scholars examined the backgrounds, affiliations, and institutional perceptions of more than 7,200 undergraduate students at colleges nationwide and found that liberal students do tend to have closer relationships with faculty than do conservative students. Moreover, there was a gap between the grades of liberal students and conservative students, and the difference persisted even after controlling for things such as race, gender, socioeconomic status, and SAT scores, but the gap was very small: less than one-tenth of a point on a 4-point scale (e.g., less than the difference between a 3.0 and 3.1 GPA). That is, professors may be slightly biased in grading, but not so much that it is likely to change someone’s final letter grade for a course.

This finding may surprise some, because there is compelling evidence that professors and administrators do engage in ideological discrimination with respect to peer review, institutional review boards, admissions to Ph.D. programs, and faculty hiring and promotion. So what’s up with grading? Is the issue that we just haven’t been measuring grading bias well enough? Perhaps accusations of bias are overblown across the board? Is there even reason to suspect that faculty are less likely to ideologically discriminate against undergraduates than against other groups?

It’s likely the latter. Let me explain.

The first thing people should understand is that most instructors do not enjoy grading — and we really hate haggling with students about the grades we assign (let alone with the parents or administrators they often drag into disputes). Nor do we want to get docked on our teaching evaluations by kids who turned in mediocre work but are mad they got a C.

Instructors also understand that the vast majority of students are just passing through higher-ed institutions on their way to something else. Undergraduates overwhelmingly identify getting a better job and earning more money as their primary reasons for attending college. Most students who obtain a bachelor’s degree stop there; just over a third of those who complete a B.A. go on to get an advanced degree. Even most who complete graduate or professional degrees (especially M.A.s, J.D.s, and M.D.s) leave the academy thereafter.

Faculty are not interested in standing in their way. Quite the opposite: Many inflate grades, bend over backward to provide accommodations, and lower their workloads and standards to enable such students to flow through their classes and out into the world with minimal friction. Put another way: Instructors often avoid giving students the (lower) scores they deserve, let alone give them grades below what they deserve, simply because they disagree with them on a political matter.

Also, faculty don’t take disagreements with undergraduates particularly seriously to begin with. It is easy (perhaps too easy?) for us to write off differences in perspectives as products of students’ relative youth, inexperience, ignorance, or unexamined beliefs. We often simply assume that they would no longer hold the views they do — that their positions would be closer to our own — if they had read all that we’ve read and thought about issues as long as we have.

The situation is very different with respect to Ph.D. students and faculty. Their identities and worldviews are much more fully formed than those of undergrads. They are much more sophisticated in their thinking and possess a much deeper knowledge base. Consequently, it is much more difficult to simply dismiss their views. They have read many of the books and studies one would be inclined to throw at them — they may even be more familiar with recent work in their field — and can often point out errors, limitations, and counterevidence (perhaps even with respect to one’s own work).

Ph.D. students are not nearly as transient as undergrads. Once admitted, doctoral candidates will be around the department for at least five years. They work much more closely with faculty than an undergrad typically does. Many will become colleagues in the discipline. Similarly, if a candidate is hired as an assistant professor, he or she will be around at least six to seven years as they work through the tenure track. Once they obtain tenure, they can stick around indefinitely. In short, disputes with Ph.D. students and faculty tend to be much more challenging to refute or ignore — and can be more persistent — than disagreements with undergraduates.

They can also be far more consequential.

Ph.D. students and (especially) faculty can affect the trajectory of the field through their research. They can change how others’ work is perceived by either challenging or reinforcing published findings. A professor can attract, cultivate, and mentor students to move the department — and the field — even further in his or her preferred direction. Such efforts can have important effects, positive or negative, on the credibility and impact of one’s own research. That, in turn, can affect one’s ability to recruit students, win grants, or publish subsequent research in top journals.

A lot more is at stake in the event of deep disagreements with Ph.D. students or (especially) peers, and faculty react accordingly. Most ideological discrimination by professors is against other faculty, in peer review and institutional review boards as well as in hiring and promotion decisions. There is some discrimination against Ph.D. students (i.e. future faculty) through admissions committees. With respect to undergrads, however, instructors have very little reason to discriminate in grading — and plenty of incentives not to.

Ideological bias within the academy is a real problem. It undermines the quality and impact of research and teaching. It needs to be addressed. However, grading is probably not a major way in which the bias is expressed. That leaves us with something like a “good-news sandwich” for students whose backgrounds and ideologies diverge from those of the dominant group:

The first bit of good news is that undergraduates are probably not being penalized much (or at all) by their professors for holding or expressing views that diverge from those of their professors.

The bad news is that if these students did decide to pursue a degree after their bachelor’s, they likely would face more discrimination in admissions, on the job market, in tenure committees, and when submitting research for IRB approval or peer review.  The self-censoring may never end: Many faculty conceal their conservative or religious leanings — and avoid work on controversial topics — in order to preserve good relations with their left-leaning colleagues, avoid being targeted by student activists, and otherwise protect their professional standing.  This is unfortunate, not least because their students and colleagues could benefit from exposure to different perspectives and ideas.

However, the final bit of good news is that, despite challenges, those conservatives who do stick with academia all the way to a professorship generally feel good about their career decisions and tend to enjoy their work about as much as their left-leaning peers do. So, rather than being discouraged and perhaps exiting the academy for think tanks, conservative and religious scholars should commit themselves to being part of the solution, to staying in the system, and to playing a constructive role in reforming institutions of higher learning.  We’ll all be better off for it.

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