Yesterday, Michael Strain penned an excellent post outlining the decline of conservative faculty in higher education and posing a number of questions regarding the reasons. The numbers are indeed sobering:
The reality is worse than the chart indicates, with conservative numbers inflated by select professional schools. Conservatives constitute only five percent of the faculty in the humanities and social sciences. Michael asks:
What drives this? Is there much actual discrimination against conservatives in hiring and tenure decisions at universities? Or is the relative absence of conservatives in humanities and social science departments almost entirely driven by self-selection — is it instead the case that people who go into Ph.D. programs are majority liberal, and that people who graduate with Ph.D.s and who choose to go into faculty positions are (nearly) exclusively liberal?
I have considerable personal experience with discrimination against conservatives — especially Christian conservatives — in higher education, and much of it begins with the process of selecting graduate and professional students at elite universities. And I’m not alone. Yesterday, Inside Higher Ed, published this disturbing anecdote, taken from a new book by Julie Possett, who embedded herself in the admissions process of six highly-ranked graduate programs at three research universities:
In most cases Posselt observed, the committee members used banter and “friendly debate” when they disagreed with one another. They didn’t attack one another or get too pointed in criticizing colleagues. She describes one discussion she observed — in which committee members kept to this approach — that left her wondering about issues of fairness.
The applicant, to a linguistics Ph.D. program, was a student at a small religious college unknown to some committee members but whose values were questioned by others.
“Right-wing religious fundamentalists,” one committee member said of the college, while another said, to much laughter, that the college was “supported by the Koch brothers.”
The committee then spent more time discussing details of the applicant’s GRE scores and background — high GRE scores, homeschooled — than it did with some other candidates. The chair of the committee said, “I would like to beat that college out of her,” and, to laughter from committee members asked, “You don’t think she’s a nutcase?”
Other committee members defended her, but didn’t challenge the assumptions made by skeptics. One noted that the college had a good reputation in the humanities. And another said that her personal statement indicated intellectual independence from her college and good critical thinking.
At the end of this discussion, the committee moved the applicant ahead to the next round but rejected her there.
This was remarkably similar to my own experience fifteen years ago, when I intervened to stop a similar incident while serving on the admissions committee while teaching at Cornell Law School:
In one of the most memorable incidents [of ideological cleansing], the committee almost rejected an extraordinarily qualified applicant because of his obvious Christian faith (he’d attended a Christian college, a conservative seminary, and worked for religious conservative causes). In writing, committee members questioned whether they wanted his “Bible-thumping” or “God-squadding” on campus. I objected, noting that my own background was even more conservative. To their credit, the committee members apologized and offered him admission.
Christian students weren’t the only applicants to face discrimination. Affirmative action was less robust for African-Americans and Latinos who were seen as insufficiently authentic:
there are times when admissions committees will actually ideologically cleanse the minority applicant pool of minorities who are seen as “less diverse” because of expressed interest in “white” professions such as, say, investment banking. If you’re a Mexican American who writes an admissions essay about defending the rights of migrant farm workers, you’re a dream candidate. If you’re a black candidate who aspires to work for Goldman Sachs, you’re “less diverse”
And, by the way, I only gained my (non-tenure track) position at Cornell after satisfactorily explaining how a “conservative Christian” could “fairly teach LGBT students.” (I explained that I believe in treating everyone the way I would want to be treated, but couldn’t guarantee that LGBT students would feel the same way about me after they learned about my faith.)
This hostility and discrimination is an open secret amongst top conservative students, with many not even attempting academic careers — convinced they don’t even have a chance at fairness. So discrimination breeds self-selection, which breeds isolation and even more discrimination. Quite simply, our universities are breeding and perpetuating an ideological monoculture, one where conservative ideas aren’t merely rejected, they’re often never even heard.