Are Christians Getting a Fair Shot in Graduate School?

By George Yancey Published on January 10, 2016

I sometimes hear secularists argue that the predominance of non-believer scientists is evidence of their superior intelligence and critical thinking skills. Neil deGrasse Tyson supplies an obnoxious interpretation of this argument. The argument is also used to suggest that it is unwise to listen to Christians since they are not smart enough to do scientific work. But this argument depends on the assumption that Christians have a fair chance to compete with others for such academic positions. I suspect, and evidence supports, that this is not the case.

My view was reinforced by a recent book review of Inside Graduate Admission. The book’s author, Julie R. Posselt, explored how professors made decisions about entry into elite graduate programs. It is mostly anecdotal work, but it does provide some insight into how graduate students are selected. What was of particular interest was an episode describing how an application from a Christian college student was treated.

The discussion included laughter about the student being a “right-wing fundamentalist,” how a member of the committee would like to “beat that college out of her,” and their wondering if she was a nutcase. What was notable was that while some of the other committee members defended her qualifications, there was no one challenging the Christianophobic comments of her detractors. Want to imagine how the meeting would have gone if she were Jewish and one of the professors wondered if she was “stingy,” or a Muslim and there was a joke about her potential as a terrorist? The account in the book describes straight up anti-Christian bigotry.

To the best of my knowledge neither the book author nor the book reviewer is a conservative Christian. This makes this account of anti-Christian bias all the more powerful since those skeptical of such bias cannot claim the report is the result of Christians crying wolf.

When I did the research on bias in academia, I focused on whether individuals applying for an academic position would get a fair shot regardless of their religious, political or social characteristics. I found that nearly half of my academic respondents were less willing to hire another professor if they found out that this job candidate was a conservative Protestant. Sometimes they were only slightly less likely to hire the professor, but this still means a Christian candidate for an academic position cannot be just as good as other candidates; he or she has to be better.

Likewise, given the account in the book review, I suspect that a potential Christian graduate student cannot be merely as good as the other candidates to have a shot at an elite graduate school. He or she must overcome a higher standard to neutralize the type of stereotyping and dehumanizing noted in the book review. I am not saying that Christian students cannot get into graduate school. I am merely saying they must overcome hurdles that are higher than for other students.

Many scholars like to think that academia is a meritocracy. They like to believe there is a fair evaluation process that weeds out those unable to handle the intellectual challenges required of professors and scientists. But such assertions do not account for the fact that academics are humans and, as humans, are vulnerable to unfairly punishing those they have prejudice against. The longer I am in academia, the more I see such institutional shortcomings in the scholarly world. Given this sort of bias, using entry into academia as a measure of the intelligence and critical thinking skills of Christians generally is misguided.

The dynamics captured by my research and by the anecdote in the reviewed book describe a reality where secularists can make claims about the inferiority of Christians, and create the conditions that ensure those claims are legitimated. They condemn Christians for being weakly represented in academia while using anti-Christian bigotry to keep many of them out. They block Christians for supposedly being irrational, and justify the conclusion and the action with an irrational chain of logic.

This does not mean Christians shouldn’t attempt to enter those elite colleges and universities. Indeed if Christians are going to influence our culture, then they need a presence in culture-creating institutions such as academia. The problem created by the vicious circle described above is only made worse when academically talented Christians, aware of the bias, shy away from pursuing an academic career.

In the past I have written to Christian students and offered advice about how they can maximize their chances of entering graduate school. So I clearly encourage Christians who feel called to do so to seek graduate school training. However, they should not be under any illusion that they will be fairly assessed by those who evaluate their applications.

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