Recalibrating Academic Bias

George Yancey

Whether political and/or religious academic bias exists is a question with important ramifications for our educational institutions. Those arguing for the presence of such bias contend that political conservatives and the highly religious in academia are marginalized and face discrimination.1 For them, this bias leads to the indoctrination of college students not exposed to ideas contrary to those promoted by political progressives.2 Others argue that such charges are the result of conservative attempts to silence political progressives.3 They assert that there is no real discrimination against political conservatives and the highly religious, but that those individuals have relatively less interest in academic pursuits.4

Evidence about the possible existence of academic bias seems contradictory. On the one hand, there are anecdotal instances of such bias,5 research indicating that social conservatives teach at lower-quality schools than their credentials warrant,6 evidence that conservative Christian students experience discrimination on secular campuses,7 and a significant percentage of academics admit that they are less likely to hire religious and political conservatives for academic positions.8 On the other hand, Stanley Rothman, April Kelly-Woessner, and Matthew Woessner found that very few academics complain of mistreatment and Bruce Smith, Jeremy Mayer, and A. Lee Fritschler found that few academics perceived problems in academia (although they did find “very conservative” professors five times more likely to think a preference for hiring and promoting “liberal” professors existed at their institution than “very liberal” professors thought such preference existed for “conservative” professors).9 Furthermore, little evidence has been produced that the political orientation of faculty members influences the political attitudes of their students.10 Making sense of these differing trends can provide scholars with a more accurate answer to the question of the existence and nature of academic bias.

The question of academic bias tends to be cast in a dichotomous manner. Some individuals envision an academic atmosphere rife with anti-conservative bias. They perceive academia as the domain of political progressives who actively work to promote liberalism.11 Others argue that academic bias is nonexistent or rare. They contend that political conservatives and the highly religious are not interested in academic pursuits due to a desire to enter highly profitable occupations or a lack of academic curiosity.12 These different priorities result in the politically progressive and nonreligious trends among academics. Yet it is possible that academic bias works in a more nuanced way. Bias can exist within academia, but not in an all-encompassing manner.

Enough empirical work has been conducted that the outlines of the nuances of academic bias can be delineated. Using previous work, I will propose a theory of academic bias that can pull together seemingly conflicting findings and suggest new directions for study.

What Do We Know?

To construct a theory of academic bias it is important to document areas where there is little or no disagreement. The most commonly accepted and virtually undisputed fact is the overrepresentation of political progressives13 and the nonreligious14 in academia. What is disputed is the source of this overrepresentation, whether it is due to bias or self-selection out of academia.

Rothman, Kelly-Woessner, and Woessner15 provide information indicating that the overrepresentation of political progressives may be even worse than suggested by the ratios showing vastly more Democrats than Republicans in academia as documented in other research.16 Their work shows that on a variety of specific political issues, Republicans in academia are more liberal than Republicans in general. Furthermore, Stephen Balch has argued that it is the virtual absence of zealous conservatives, who might otherwise offset the passionate zeal of progressive academics, which provides the key to understanding the unbalanced ideological climate of our universities.17 Those who are highly conservative or conservative activists may be especially likely to self-select themselves out of academia and/or to suffer the effects of bias. Whether this propensity also means that religious individuals in academia are less traditionally religious than religious individuals in general is a question that deserves investigation.18

A second commonly accepted fact is that this political and religious disparity varies according to the type of scientific discipline, greatest within the social sciences and humanities and least in the natural sciences.19 Recent research indicates that a growing percentage of those in the natural sciences are political progressives or nonreligious.20 However, it is still the case that the social sciences and humanities tend to attract political and religious progressives in higher numbers than the physical sciences. It is plausible that social and philosophical issues within those disciplines are more likely to create conflict between political and religious conservatives and liberals than the issues of physical reality found in the natural sciences.

Self-selection is no doubt operative, but can self-selection totally explain these disparities? Political progressives and the nonreligious are more likely to be drawn into academia than their counterparts.21 This attraction may be due to a higher level of interest in the acquisition of academic knowledge by political and religious progressives. Ethan Fosse and Neil Gross argue that academic occupations are naturally “typed” for political progressives who thus are more drawn toward scholarly pursuits than their conservative peers.22 The existence of this kind of self-selection does not mean that bias is a myth, however. It is quite possible that self-selection and bias work together to create an overrepresentation of political progressives and nonreligious in academia. But while many scholars acknowledge that at least part of the overrepresentation is accounted for by self-selection, they dispute the existence of bias.

Finally, not even the proponents of the existence of academic bias generally claim that such bias makes it impossible for political and religious out-groups to experience academic success. If bias exists, it clearly makes it harder for political and religious conservatives to succeed in academia, but not impossible. Simply because it has not produced inflexible rules that punish political and religious conservatives, however, does not mean that academic bias is irrelevant. I’ve argued, for example, that the possibility of this bias threatens the ability of scholars to engage in productive scientific activity.23 It is still important to determine if more subtle types of bias influence academia.

Toward a New Theory of Academic Bias

To understand academic bias, it is important to distance ourselves from the notion that all conservatives are treated equally. For example, Stanley Rothman and S. Robert Lichter find that it is social and not economic conservatives who suffer lower than expected outcomes for their productivity.24 Christopher Rosik and Linda Smith find some evidence that conservative Christians at a secular as opposed to a Christian university perceive discrimination against them by faculty members,25 and I’ve documented that religious conservatives are less accepted than political conservatives.26 Academics may be able to tolerate economic conservatives more easily than cultural conservatives, and there may also be a religious component to this distinction. Experimental data has indicated the possibility that conservative Christians face exclusion from certain academic programs,27 but there is not yet evidence that political conservatives face such barriers. In fact, Ethan Fosse, Neil Gross, and Joseph Ma’s experiment found that support for John McCain in the 2008 presidential election had little effect on the actions of graduate advisors seeking to recruit them to their programs.28

It is plausible that one of the reasons why some research fails to find academic biases is that lumping together economic and cultural conservatives dilutes the bias effect. For example, in the Fosse, Gross, and Ma experiment the results might have been different had Sarah Palin been used to represent conservatives rather than the more moderate Republican McCain. In fact, Fosse, Gross, and Ma commented that they used McCain instead of George W. Bush because they feared that Bush would create too strong a conservative prompt. They feared that emails sent to the advisors that supported Bush would have strained credibility. This reinforces the point that moderate Republicans have an acceptability in academia that escapes cultural or religious conservatives. Furthermore, Rothman, Kelly-Woessner, and Woessner find that Republican academics are no more likely to report unfair treatment than other academics, but they have no measure to determine if the respondents have conservative religious beliefs.29 It is quite possible that adherents of certain types of religious beliefs are more likely to experience unfair treatment, and this difference was not captured by their data.

An aside is in order. Balch suggests that activist conservative academics may be more of a threat than other conservatives.30 Conservative academics whose intense commitments infuse or are seen as likely to infuse their research and teaching may face more discrimination than conservative academics who keep their political beliefs quiet. There is no research that documents that such academics face more discrimination, but Balch points out that there are so few in certain academic disciplines that it is quite difficult to research them.31 It is possible that such individuals are screened out before they gain power. If this is the case, some of the bias applying to cultural conservatives in academia may also apply to committed conservatives of any stripe.

There are potential reasons why cultural conservatives are less accepted by academics than economic conservatives. Academics tend to have an upper-middle-class status, and some may accept conservative economic policies that protect their income. Along those lines, upper-middle-class individuals are more likely to favor culturally progressive choices such as abortion, which may engender more hostility toward cultural conservatives.32 Furthermore, cultural conservatives tend to have higher levels of religiosity, and religion has often been conceptualized as a competitor of science.33 Since recent research suggests that anti-fundamentalist animosity is positively related to educational attainment,34 it stands to reason that highly educated individuals in academia are relatively likely to disdain religious conservatives. Opposing the efforts of cultural conservatives may be a way in which some academics exhibit animosity toward fundamentalists. Future research may determine whether academic animosity toward cultural conservatives is geared more toward the assumed religiosity of cultural conservatives or toward the actual political issues (i.e., pro-life, pro-traditional marriage) they champion.

Some research has suggested that established academics do not often complain of suffering from academic bias,35 yet my research documents that academics often take into account the political and religious attitudes of prospective candidates.36 Furthermore, there is evidence that conservative Christians may face problems gaining entry to graduate school37 or other academic programs.38 This contradiction may be explained if we accept the possibility that academic bias may be more intense at different times in an academic’s career. It is quite plausible that bias is more intense as a potential scholar seeks out an academic job than after the scholar is established. This assertion is reasonable, given that an established scholar has protections, such as tenure, that make it less likely that he or she would experience discrimination. A nuanced theory of academic bias has to entertain the possibility that this bias manifests itself differently depending on the social and institutional power of the academic who may face that bias.

And yet, it is possible that those with seemingly the least power in the academic system may also be able to avoid the effects of academic bias. College students have relatively little power to shape the values and ideologies that drive academia, but paradoxically they may be able to create institutional problems for professors through complaints to the administration. As such, liberal professors may have incentives to avoid exhibiting academic bias or attempting to “indoctrinate” in their dealings with conservative students.

If bias may be less likely for academics who have achieved status in academia or against students who are in the classes of liberal academics, then we have reasons for understanding why some researchers have been unable to document experiences of discrimination against conservative academics39 or indoctrination of college students.40 Political and religious conservatives who escape being screened out as they enter the job market, and manage to get tenure, can establish themselves and avoid the effects of potential academic bias, and college students have means to ward off bias. But if a significant number of political and religious conservatives are screened out before obtaining positions, they obviously cannot relate their experiences to researchers who interview only academics who have experienced relative success.

As stated above, it is generally accepted that the social sciences and the humanities attract more progressive and nonreligious individuals. I have found that social scientists and humanities scholars do reveal bias.41 Research has indicated that the overrepresentation of political progressives and nonreligious individuals is growing in the natural sciences as well. However, I have found that social scientists and academics in the humanities are more likely to state a bias for or against certain political and religious groups than natural scientists.42 Analysis of the “New Class” professionals who provide intellectual support for progressive ideals can buttress the notion that scholars in the humanities and social sciences are more valuable allies to cultural progressives than scholars in the natural sciences.43 If this is the case, then we should expect there to be higher levels of anti-conservative academic bias in the social sciences and humanities than in the natural sciences.

Some critics of academic bias have argued that research into this phenomenon is limited by the fact that only certain academic disciplines or occupations are examined.44 Some argue that other disciplines such as business, agriculture, and engineering tend to employ conservative professors,45 and yet research into academic bias neglects these disciplines. This criticism is relevant but not as powerful as the critics imply. First, if we are exploring the creation of scientific knowledge, rather than merely the application of current scientific knowledge to meet certain social and physical demands, then non-scientific disciplines are less likely to contribute to such knowledge and generally research into those disciplines will have minimal importance. There may be relevance if the question concerns the general atmosphere on campus, but even here, with the exception of business, these departments seem to be relatively small and thus are less likely to contribute to the atmosphere of the campus relative to larger departments such as history, psychology, and biology.

Second, even in the supposedly “conservative” disciplines, progressives tend to be comparatively numerous. For example, Stanley Rothman, Neil Nevitte, and S. Robert Lichter show that while Democrats outnumber Republicans 63 percent to 7 percent in psychology and 56 percent to 13 percent in biology, Democrats outnumber Republicans 32 percent to 26 percent in nursing and are equivalent, at 26 percent each, in business disciplines.46 There are virtually no disciplines in which conservatives are overrepresented to the degree that the social sciences and the humanities are overrepresented with political progressives.

It is at this point that I can pull together a theory of academic bias. It is a theory whereby bias is more likely to take place the more certain conditions occur. For example, such bias tends to dominate the social sciences, humanities, and to a lesser extent the natural sciences, but it is directed almost exclusively at cultural conservatives, the traditionally religious, or perhaps “activist” conservatives. This helps to create an academic environment whereby Republicans or religious individuals who join academia profess social ideas that are very similar to their Democratic and nonreligious counterparts. Furthermore, this bias is more powerful with respect to initial hiring and perhaps tenure decisions, and weakens as the academic enjoys more career success. Academics create a screening mechanism that maintains a certain degree of religious and ideological purity, even if it allows for a few outliers. These outliers can be important because they provide evidence to academics that bias is not a problem.

This theory disputes the notion of an all-encompassing academic bias that punishes all conservatives at all times, but even this more subtle application of academic bias has important ramifications. For example, the preponderance of cultural progressives and nonreligious individuals in academia ensures that the ideas of the few cultural conservative outliers are marginalized unless they conform to the progressive presuppositions of the majority. This allows societal assumptions of cultural progressives to go relatively unchallenged and creates a situation whereby the potential demonizing of cultural conservatives and religious individuals can take place. Research on contact theory suggests that intergroup contact possesses the potential to alleviate stereotyping of out-group members.47 But the screening out of cultural conservatives reduces the opportunities for culturally progressive academics to develop respect for cultural conservatives or the traditionally religious. Academia becomes a less hospitable place for even those cultural conservatives who manage to enjoy relative success. Even if they are accepted by other academics, they will struggle to find like-minded colleagues and may have difficulty promoting any ideas that arise from their cultural conservative perspectives. Although we do not have an all-encompassing academic bias for all conservatives at all times, my theory does suggest a bias that eliminates the consideration of ideas that do not fit into a culturally progressive, secularized viewpoint. The notion of science as an objective search for truth is challenged by academic bias that attacks out-group members at key points during their scholarship career.

Research Implications

This theory has been derived from an assessment of the previous research that documents different aspects of bias, and is not the final word on this subject—but it does suggest possible research avenues to be explored.

For example, this theory suggests that throwing all Republicans or political conservatives into a group as the target of academic bias is ill-advised. Since most Republican academics have ideas similar to their Democratic colleagues they may not be affected by such bias and are unlikely to acknowledge it. By lumping moderate Republicans with those who may be more staunchly conservative, and thus are more likely to experience the effects of academic bias, researchers are likely to underestimate the power of academic bias. If the screening mechanism of this theory of academic bias is accurate, then it is likely difficult to find cultural conservative academics who can discuss the potential struggles they faced to attain their academic positions. To gain a frank picture of the potential of academic bias it is vital to gain data from the individuals who are more likely to have experienced it, and previous research suggests that these are cultural conservatives as opposed to moderate Republicans.

Rothman, Kelly-Woessner, and Woessner noted that Republicans who were academics were more likely to have relatively progressive political ideals in comparison to other Republicans.48 They did not assess the religious nature of the self-identified Christians. It is quite possible that academics who identify themselves as religious are less traditionally religious than other religious individuals. If this is the case, then it would not be surprising that the Christians in Rothman, Kelly-Woessner, and Woessner’s sample were relatively unlikely to identify problems of bias. Like the moderate Republicans, they are less likely to challenge the overall cultural atmosphere in academia and become easier for liberal academics to accept. Assessing the experiences of Christian academics with traditional religious beliefs would be valuable in determining the potential of academic bias to shape the social atmosphere among scholars.

Furthermore, those who may have experienced the worst of academic bias—cultural conservatives and the traditionally religious—are relatively likely to have been screened out of academia before their careers began. If that is correct, then they will have a harder time landing an academic position and it is quite likely that they seek employment in nonacademic settings. Research on academic bias cannot limit itself to academic sites. This research, pioneered by Daniel B. Klein and Charlotta Stern,49 must go further in seeking out cultural conservatives and the traditionally religious who have obtained higher education credentials but are not in academia in order to assess the degree to which such individuals may have been screened or self-selected themselves out of academia, or some combination of both. Documenting this phenomenon can provide insight into an important mechanism by which culturally progressive academics are able to maintain a comfortable social atmosphere, since they do not have to deal with the arguments provided by cultural conservatives or the traditionally religious.

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