Idea bias in educational hiring

“Diversity” in progressive educational institutions means physiological variety and ideological conformity. How much does this affect their hiring practices? If your ideas differ from the prescribed “diverse” ones, does that wreck your chances of getting a job?

It’s hard to say for sure. If an applicant’s ideas fall under the realm of religion, it’s illegal to take them into account, but employers can (probably) take ideas on politics, academic freedom, and what constitutes fair treatment of people into account. An article from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania discusses the vague notion of being a “cultural fit” for a workplace. It’s not specifically about academic workplaces, but its questions certainly apply there. The article offers a subtle slap at academic dogmatism: “Research also shows the benefits of diversity in the workplace — diversity of ideas, personality and life experience in additional to racial, religious and gender diversity.”

A study by two psychologists at Tilburg University found that a substantial fraction of academics in social psychology responded that they would choose an equally qualified liberal over a conservative. The method of identifying people’s positions isn’t great; it asked them to position themselves on a scale of “liberal” to “conservative,” with separate ratings for social issues, economic issues, and foreign policy. These are vague terms, but we can read them as “minority viewpoint” in the academic world.

The study found that “the more conservative respondents were, the more they had personally experienced a hostile climate.” Ironically but not surprisingly, “the more liberal respondents were, the less they believed conservatives faced a hostile climate.” The surprise is that a substantial fraction of respondents openly admitted they would discriminate against people with “conservative” views.

One in six respondents said that she or he would be somewhat (or more) inclined to discriminate against conservatives in inviting them for symposia or reviewing their work. One in four would discriminate in reviewing their grant applications. More than one in three would discriminate against them when making hiring decisions.

The good news is that most people said they wouldn’t, but I have to wonder how often the large and noisy pro-discrimination minority pushes them into submission.

When I interviewed at Dartmouth College for a software development position a few years ago, I was asked about my views on diversity. I answered in a way that was honest but hopefully made it difficult for anyone to use my answer against me: That a diversity of viewpoints and experiences was a good thing, but that fake diversity was bad. As an example of the latter, I cited some notes which I’d seen on campus earlier in the day, in which some black students complained that professors treated them as representatives of their race rather than as individuals. The people I talked with seemed to like me; unfortunately, the project I was working on was canceled, so no one got the job. I don’t think my ideas had a negative effect. Still, why should that have been a question at all? The job I was applying for didn’t have any hiring or supervision responsibilities. My views on the topic had no relevance to the job.

More recently I applied for a job with a digital library at a Boston-area university. I thought I did well on my phone interview, but two months later I’ve heard nothing, not even the courtesy of saying they’re going with another candidate. If the managers looked up any of my online writings, they’d quickly see I don’t conform to the progressive orthodoxy. Did that kill my chances? I have no way of knowing. Without naming the institution, I’ll mention that FIRE has given it a speech code rating of “red,” meaning it “has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.” I’m sure that a lot of people pursuing careers in academic institutions decide that expressing opinions publicly would be bad for their employment and advancement prospects.

Colleges and universities are supposed to be places where people can question established ideas and explore unpopular positions. Instead, too many of them are “safe spaces”: safe from controversy, safe from unpopular ideas, safe from anything that might upset believers in the orthodoxy. That makes them unsafe spaces for people who think.

Update: An op-ed in the New York Times by Nicholas Kristof, titled “A Confession of Liberal Intolerance,” reaches similar conclusions.

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