Phi Beta Cons

Where Academic Bias Really Is

As the intellectual-diversity movement unfolds in state legislatures and in the media, a pattern of resistance has developed, and it’s a potent one. It came up in questions posed during the hearings in Pennsylvania, and it was echoed in news stories (see here and here). In those cases, the focus swerved from the actual locus of the bias. Bias was postulated in the wrong places, and when they didn’t find it there, legislators and skeptical journalists declared the whole issue a false problem.


Here is where went gone wrong. The inquiry was set up to focus on specific events and actions. Have professors punished conservative students at grading time? Have partisan incidents spread through classrooms? Are there intimidated professors and harassed students lurking underground? In these cases, the attention fell on individual teachers and episodes. It was the personal contact that counted.


For an inquiry into bias in an institution the size and complexity of the university, this is a dead end. Academia is a subculture, an insider’s universe. People join it by undergoing a slow and selective process, over many years learning to give lectures, conduct research, and handle students. At each stage, they’re judged by people who have already passed through the system. This makes for a social component in the training. What happens is what happens in any closed group over time. A set of mores, protocols, attitudes, and norms develops. In its better forms, it goes by the name of professionalism. But how easily do those attitudes and norms slide into cliquish, parochial, or ideological behavior, especially when professionals talk only to themselves. Bias, then, operates more systematically, less overtly than in a rant against George Bush in the classroom, less individualistically than in one person’s exercise of power. It becomes proper to the whole discipline.


Here’s an example. Among the general goals listed in the College of Education at Penn State is this: “Enhance the commitment of faculty, staff, and students to the centrality of diversity, social justice, and democratic citizenship.” This is an ideological demand.  “Social justice” is a loaded political term, and its range of meanings includes government policies to redistribute wealth and resources down the income ladder. It may, and should, be part of the curriculum, a practice to be studied. But to insert social justice into a mission statement is to make it an entrance requirement. If you subscribe to it, you may join.


When prospective students who don’t share the social-justice outlook encounter such statements, they don’t file complaints. They walk away. When professors in the program assume the rightness of social justice, they don’t think they’re acting partisan. They’re merely abiding by the standards of their field. What is a political position is made to look like a professional one. The habit has become so ingrained in academic behavior that liberal bias proceeds in professional-looking ways–in the books selected for a syllabus, in the topics considered relevant and cutting-edge in a field, in the themes chosen for conferences. Nobody needs to say, “We don’t want any conservative or libertarian views around here!” The system already takes care of it.


Here is where attention should go. Which programs and departments make an ideological belief definitive of responsible academic conduct? Professors who blatantly push an ideological agenda are far outnumbered by those who don’t, and individual cases of discrimination may be cast as exceptions. But the norms that preside over the humanities, schools of education, and many social-science departments are there for the exposure–if one wishes to take the time and trouble to chart them. 

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