Hats Off to Progressive Nicholas Kristof for Spotlighting Liberal Intolerance in Academia

Liberal bias in academia is real — and denying its existence or claiming that reports supporting it are fabricated is disingenuous.

By George Yancey Published on May 15, 2016

Last week Nicholas Kristof, a generally progressive editorialist, published a column in The New York Times discussing the high degree of liberal intolerance in academia. I was pleased to see his column, and not only because some of my work was featured in it. It displayed a great amount of introspection for a progressive, and a willingness to look at an issue that may be uncomfortable but has to be faced.

As expected, the comments following the column ran the usual gamut of anti-Christian insults and stereotypes, as well as outright denial of what is an obvious reality for those of us who are ideological minorities on college campuses. It is generally better to ignore such foolishness. But when another professor argues that liberal intolerance is a “lie” then I need to take time to point out otherwise.

Gina Neff, the professor in question, argues that Kristof misunderstands some of the research he reports, and in doing so distorts the evidence of bias. She focuses almost entirely on a single study, even going so far as to say, “Nicholas Kristof fundamentally misread and misrepresented the research that he cited, a study by sociologists Neil Gross and Solon Simmons,” falsely implying that Gross and Simmons’ work was all that Kristof looked at in his column.

Gross and Simmons do argue that the distorted ratios of political preference we see in academia result from self-selection, or the tendency of conservatives to choose not to go into academia, rather than any actual or potential discrimination against them. But their work should not be taken as the final word. I have already critiqued in some detail their research as reported in a separate book by Gross, so for now I will only point out that I do not think the experimental design is a good measure of the actual reality of discrimination, and that the study focuses on the potential for political, rather than religious discrimination. My work indicates that religious discrimination tends to be more prominent than political discrimination in academia.

So let’s look at some research Neff does not discuss so we can make a more accurate assessment of academic bias. Yoel Inbar and Joris Lammers studied social psychologists in America and found that only 6 percent saw themselves as politically moderate and only 4 percent politically conservative. More importantly they found that about three-quarters of social psychologists are willing to discriminate against political conservatives when reviewing papers or grant proposals and in hiring them. Though political hostility may be fairly hidden from those who do not experience it, it is quite real.

I am not limited to Inbar and Lammers. I could also bring up the work of Stanley Rothman and Robert Lichter, who found that academics who are socially conservative have lower-status academic positions than would be expected for their level of academic productivity. I could speak about the work of Lauri Hyers and Conrad Hyers, who documented the everyday discrimination experienced by conservative Christians on a college campus, finding that students had less sympathy for targeted individuals in the case of anti-Christian incidents than when sexist or anti-black incidents occurred.

Or I could mention the work of Albert Gunn and George Zenner. They found anecdotal evidence that admissions committees for a medical school questioned individuals who opposed abortion or sterilization more strenuously than those who favored such procedures.

Of course my brief synopsis does not do these research articles justice, so I encourage you to look them up. And there is more work I could draw from as well, some of it reported in my own book on this subject. Kristof referred to my book multiple times, yet Neff did not address any of it in her rebuttal.

As reported in my book, I sent a survey out to academics all across the country in nine different disciplines, asking them if they would be more willing or less willing to hire a potential faculty member if they found out the candidate belonged to a given social group. I asked about political, religious, sexuality and lifestyle groups. In some disciplines I found more than half of the respondents less willing to hire a candidate they found out to be a conservative Protestant. A smaller but not insignificant percent of those respondents also stated less willingness to hire a Republican.

The reduction in their willingness to hire was based on no other information except the job candidates’ religious or political identity. So from their own mouths, my respondents voiced their willingness to act in a biased way towards religious and political conservatives. Combine this with the other research I have noted, and the evidence for academic bias is quite powerful.

I recently warned that scientists should not prematurely declare a debate over, so I will not say this debate about academic bias is over either. But those who want to deny this bias exists must produce reasonable evidence to counter the information I have cited. Until they are able to do so let us at least refrain from calling the current evidence a lie. And until we have a body of evidence indicating there is no bias, let’s consider how we can reduce or eliminate the bias that’s been demonstrated to exist according to the research that’s been done to date.

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