Consider this recent account of a graduate admissions committee meeting. An applicant to a linguistics Ph.D. program is a senior at a small, historically black college unknown to some committee members. “Left-wing black nationalists,” one committee member said of the college, while another said, to much laughter, that the college was “the academic arm of Black Lives Matter.”
The committee then spent more time discussing details of the applicant’s GRE scores and background — high GRE scores, high-poverty urban school district — than it did with some other candidates. The committee chair said, “I would like to beat that college out of her,” and asked, to laughter, “You don’t think she’s a nutcase?”
Other committee members defended her but didn’t challenge the assumptions about the college or the people who attend it. One noted that her personal statement indicated intellectual independence from her college and good critical thinking. She was passed on to the second round but rejected there and, given the comments of the earlier reviewers, it’s reasonable to think her background probably counted against her.
This is beyond outrageous. Giving a candidate a harder look because they grew up in a high poverty school district and attended a historically black college? No, no one said “we don’t want blacks in this program”; they don’t have to. They just have to decide that traits common to black candidates, like growing up in a high-poverty neighborhood, or attending a historically black college, disqualify you from being “one of us.”
While characters in movies often make explicit speeches about how they hate black people, in reality they aren’t necessary. Racists build their racist consensus in coded language, perhaps sometimes language so coded the speaker doesn’t think about the true message.
That makes it that much harder to root this kind of pervasive bigotry out of our society. And why it’s so outrageous to hear this kind of racist talk on a graduate admissions committee in this day and age.
Or it would be, if graduate admissions committees talked like that. I changed a few of the important details. In fact, the conversation I’m alluding to concerned a young woman who was home-schooled before attending a small Christian college, which the reviewers of her application dismissed as a place of “right- wing religious fundamentalists” that was “supported by the Koch brothers.”
What happened on that committee is bigotry, plain and simple. And it’s not just a problem for conservative Christians, and people seen as conservative Christians. It’s a problem for academia.
But can a creationist really become an academic, you may want to ask. Note that the student was a candidate for the linguistics department, where one’s views on evolution probably have minimal effect on the work. I’ve seen some folks argue that biblical literalism is also inimical to linguistics if people take the Tower of Babel as an accurate description of language evolution. Fair enough. But the evaluators have no idea whether this candidate is a biblical literalist. It is possible to attend such schools without being a young earth creationist, and possible to change your mind during your time there, or after you graduate. Effectively, some on the committee argued that this girl had a strike against her not even because she is a conservative Christian, but because her parents (most likely) are.
Are graduates of those schools more likely to be young earth creationists who think that secular academics which conflict with their reading of the Bible are bunk? Yes. But the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue. (Lee Jussim of Rutgers University has done a lot of work showing that stereotypes are often quite accurate.) The problem is that people use them instead of other, better information. Women are, on average, less likely to be interested in science, technology, engineering and math. That wouldn’t make it a good policy for a STEM program to discard the applications of all women, on the grounds that most women don’t want to be engineers.
To be sure, they did pass her application on to the second round — but what are the odds that the attitudes of the first-round reviewers did not infect the decisions that were made later?
It seems more likely that the second-round reviewers included a similarly bigoted constituency. For what’s most striking is not even that reviewers were biased against people outside the left-wing academic religious and political consensus, but that they felt comfortable enough to openly display this bias in front of an outsider — the author whose book details these interviews.
This is exactly the sort of bigotry against conservatives and the religious that I have been assured doesn’t happen when I’ve written about liberal bias in academia. Well, maybe it isn’t spoken out loud every time, or it is communicated in a more subtle code. As with other forms of bigotry, what is most troubling is not the conversation, but the depressing certainty that so many similar conversations didn’t even happen, because everyone in the room understood what to do without needing to discuss it.
But why is this a problem for academia? OK, they’re liberal, and like most groups, they don’t like folks who differ from them substantially, and particularly folks with differing political opinions. And you might point out that other groups, like big business and the military, lean conservative, and there’s not nearly so much fuss about that as about “liberal academia.”
In fact, few other professional spheres are as strongly skewed to the right as academia is to the left; when I looked into this a few years ago, the only professional group I could find with a similar rightward skew was Southern Baptist ministers, a comparison that neither group probably finds very flattering. Military officers are weakly conservative (two- thirds to one-third), but the enlisted are less so, and whether your business skews Democratic or Republican varies by industry and job description. Professors really do stand out as extremely politically concentrated on the left in a way that few other groups are, especially in areas like social psychology.
This makes it too easy for the group to adopt weak theories that flatter consensus beliefs without giving them the rigorous interrogation they’d get from a more balanced profession.
There’s another harm: The leftward skew disconnects academia from the society that it is supposed to serve. The bitter culture wars we’ve been living through, and the increasingly nasty partisanship, are the signs of a society whose factions no longer know how to talk to one another.
Which brings us back to those admissions committee conversations. Making it harder for members of one tribe to be admitted to important institutions that are controlled by the other is a surefire recipe for making things worse. And purely from a standpoint of academic self-interest, it is also a surefire recipe for undercutting the substantial public support, from taxpayers, employers and tuition-paying parents, upon which such institutions depend.
In the long run, no one is served by an academy that becomes the exclusive province of half the political spectrum. Unfortunately, the bigger the skew, the harder it is for people inside to even recognize the problem, much less agree to fix it.
Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist writing on economics, business and public policy. McArdle’s husband works for Reason magazine, which has received some funding from one of the Koch brothers, and had a one-year fellowship with the Charles Koch Foundation.