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The Final (?!) Word on Academic Discrimination

Former colleague Martin Gaskell (see Posts 1, 2, 3, and 4), pointed me to this article from The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled, “Preferred Colleagues.”

It is a review of a series of studies of the views of sociology faculty regarding personal traits/views they would prefer or not in colleagues. For example, Peter Woods, the essay’s author, opens with,
“A new study presents evidence that more than a quarter of sociologists (27.8 percent) would “weigh favorably” membership in the Democratic Party by a candidate for academic appointment, and nearly 30 percent would weigh favorably a prospective candidate’s membership in the ACLU. More than a quarter (28.7 percent) would disfavor hiring a Republican, and 41.2 percent would weigh negatively a candidate’s membership in the National Rifle Association.”

The studies go on to show more striking results when desired religious views are probed, with the unsurprising bias against ‘fundamental’ and ‘evangelical’ Christians.

I encourage you to click on the link and read not just the article, but also the comments that follow. There is an incredible amount revealed there that is both illuminating and disheartening.

My main disappointment is with the number of ad hominem attacks and snippy comments to each other by readers on several different sides of the issue. So much for professional and collegial discourse generating more light than heat.

Several comments argue how the author of the essay draws conclusions in excess of the studies he is reviewing. Without reading the original studies, it is hard to know if he is or not. There are a couple of places where he seems to draw inferences that do not necessarily follow from the data he cites, but may be reasonable nonetheless.

Others seem to attack Woods for apparent flaws in the studies, seeming to forget he is reviewing them, not the author of them.

But the vast majority of the comments center around the topic Woods raises about biases, and whether they are good, bad, or neutral. They discuss whether biases in an academic field are due to individuals self selecting themselves into or out of that field, or if it is truly an exclusionary tactic by members of the field.

Of course, one example topic is the perennial ‘conservative Christian in biology,’ and whether or not a conservative Christian can be qualified to teach biology, due to potential conflicts with evolution. The way certain aspects of this issue are handled, it is apparent the commenter has a limited understanding of the rich diversity of opinion within Christendom regarding evolution.

What I found most interesting in the discussions is how difficult it is to do this kind of a study in a way that is clear, answering all questions and potential interpretations such that accurate trends can be revealed, understood, and useful conclusions drawn, especially on controversial topics. Supporters will tend to overreach in drawing conclusions and detractors will over-emphasize flaws and opaque points.

It reinforces for me the notion that people are going to read into anything what they want to, resembling the quip, “My mind is made up. Don’t confuse me with the facts.” The truth is usually more nuanced and subtle than we would prefer, as it is easier to declare that something is black or white, so we can see who is with us or against us.

Thus, in the end, the question of bias in academia is still not settled, nor likely to be in a way that will satisfy all. Does it exist? How widespread is it? It is legitimate to discriminate depending on the field or other factors?

Ultimately, it comes down to ‘What is fair?” and “Who is or is not being fair?” and, finally, “Who should decide what is fair?”

More personally, it boils down to “Am I being both just and loving towards others?” regardless of whether I am evaluating others or being evaluated by them.


1 comment:

  1. First of all I am not an academic and have not experienced academic discrimination but I have read and studied quite a bit about it. For me, I see a certain subconscious, sometimes conscious, conflict in individuals between a belief system (i.e. an a prioi worldview )v.s. an objective pursuit of observation and facts wherever they may lead. In some sense a member of the educational institution may not be able to accept certain facts due to an internal conflict with his or her a prioi worldview and thus defend his or her model while discounting the "offending" observations. In such cases I would hope, rather, that new models would be proposed recognizing the "offending" observations without the unwarranted tenacity to cling to existing models. Churches have closed systems of membership based an acceptance of an a prioi belief system. Academia should be free of that.