Revisiting “Compromising Scholarship”

Revisiting “Compromising Scholarship” April 3, 2014

Three years ago my book Compromising Scholarship was published. To the best of my knowledge, it was the first systematic documentation of political and religious academic bias. Since then, other information on this topic has come out, and I have had a chance to see responses to the book. Based on both this new information and these responses, I have become even more convinced that this bias, particularly as it concerns conservative Christians, is a real problem. I have also come to the conclusion that this will be a very hard bias to overcome – if we ever are going to be able to overcome it. I take this occasion to revisit that book and look at this issue in light of the new information I have gained in the last few years.

First, let me examine the reaction to the book. A few individuals have pointed out the low response rates of my surveys. That was a problem I dealt with in the book where I showed that the results are not due to the social dynamics of my sample differing from demographic makeup in academia. There are researchers who have debated whether low response is the problem; some say that it is, but the power of my findings strongly suggests that low response rate bias is not a serious problem to the overall results.

Other than a couple of mentions about the response rate, there are two other criticisms of the work. First, some have argued that this one study does not prove that academic bias is a problem. I will go into more depth about this critique later when I discuss other work supporting my argument. Second, some have argued that even if there is a bias that this is not important since Christians, especially conservative Christians, are not suited for academic work. I saw many such claims in comment sections in online articles about the book and in response to a video I made about the book and some of my other work.

The implication of this argument is that religious discrimination is okay. That is quite disturbing. But perhaps it is not a surprise. Whenever a social group mistreats an out-group there is a need to find legitimation for that mistreatment. Is it true that Christians are not suited for academic work? It is possible that anti-intellectual trends in some Christian circles results in some Christians being less open to academic work. However, having a contrasting epistemological framework can also allow Christians to bring ideas into academia that are normally ignored. Having individuals who are nonconformist to the current scholarly paradigms can provide new fruitful academic directions. The argument that Christians are not suited for academic work can be used to suppress voices challenging the academic status quo. Part of my disappointment in my findings is the loss to science when voices that do not comport with the current scholarly fashions are silenced.

But even if those voices do not contribute to science, bias against someone seeking a place in academia due to their religious beliefs is just wrong, even if we believe their religious beliefs to be wacky. I do not expect everyone who works around me to agree with my religious and political viewpoints. Unless I am working in a ministry where promotion of a certain religious perspective is one of the main objectives of the job, then it would be wrong for me to not hire someone who disagrees with my religious perspectives. This moral truth seems so self-evident that I scarcely see a need to defend it.

However, there may be a need to assert that anti-religious discrimination is wrong since there is an assumption by some that Christian scholars bring their faith into their work. The implication is that a Christian professor cannot help but promote his/her faith in scholarship and teaching instead of doing quality work based upon data. My response to that claim is that all scholars bring their beliefs into their work. As I stated in a former blog, objectivity is a myth. What I find curious is that there is a worry about objectivity when a scholar or potential scholar is a Christian but not if that person is a Marxist, homosexual or feminist etc. I would argue that given the atmosphere of skepticism against traditional religion in academia, a Christian scholar is more likely to be challenged on his/her own belief system than those with a more secular and/or humanist perspective and thus more likely to engage in introspection than other scholars. This said Christian has to be willing to challenge his/her belief system since it is clear that other scholars will challenge it when that professor presents research or uses a given pedagogical approach. If I am right then Christian scholars are more likely to work at being unbiased than other scholars.

As stated earlier I have found work supporting my argument about academia bias. Yoel Inbar and Joris Lammers also did a survey of 800 social and personality psychologists finding that they are willing to discriminate against political conservatives when it comes to hiring, reviewing papers, reviewing grant proposals and invitations to a symposium. Furthermore, Stanley Rothman and S. Robert Lichter (See their chapter “The Vanishing Conservative” in The Politically Correct Univeristy) found that cultural conservative academics tend to work at jobs that are lower status than would be expected given their achievements and qualifications. Finally, there are case studies such as the trial of Mike S. Adams revealing what happens when this bias flairs up from behind closed doors. Kandy Kyriacou and Ojoma Omaga sued Peralta Community College when they were punished for praying for an ill professor. Another example can be seen in the case of Jennifer Keeton who faced pressure from professors for her traditional Christian-based views on sexuality.

To be fair, Neil Gross provides some evidence that directors of graduate programs do not discriminate against political conservatives. However, I pointed out some weaknesses of his approach in an earlier blog. Furthermore, he only looked at political bias and in Compromising Scholarship I found bias against religious conservatives to be more powerful than bias against political conservatives.

This leads me back to the question of whether my study proves that academic bias is a problem. I argue that my study in and of itself shows that bias against religious, and to a lesser extent political, conservatives is a problem. I found that slightly less than half of all academics stated that they were less willing to hire a job candidate if they found out that the candidate was a fundamentalist and only a slightly smaller percentage were less willing if they found out the candidate was an evangelical. I only have to point out that if we found such percentages less willing to hire a candidate if that candidate was Jewish, Muslim or atheist that we would rightly look at the problems of religious bias in academia. Should we be less concerned if the candidate is a conservative Protestant?

The additional research lends even more power to that argument. We not only have a survey indicating that academics are less willing to hire from a certain religious group, but we have case studies where it appears that bias is a problem and evidence that cultural conservatives, who are highly likely to be members of this group, may not receive as much of a return on academic achievements as other individuals. Once again if we were talking about, well name your favorite non-Christian religious group, having professors talk about not willing to hire them, cases where it is likely they were discriminated against and evidence that they face systematic, structural disadvantages in their job placement, then it is highly unlikely that individuals would state that there is no evidence of discrimination and prejudice. If there is discrimination against a group by highly educated academics, who are highly motivated to hide overt signs of bias, the evidence noted above is what I would expect to find.

What is of real interest is the double standard that snaps into play when the subject of anti-Christian bias comes up. Some argue that unless we have people overtly stating that they will not hire someone because they are a Christian or that a person cannot get tenure because they are a Christian then we have not PROVED anti-Christian bias. By that standard we have not PROVED contemporary anti-black bias in most institutions as educated individuals know not to be blatant with their biases. In one of my blogs, one person commented that unless there are “Christian need not apply” signs that we have not proven bias. Do we have any modern “Blacks need not apply” signs out there today? How often do we have people who overtly state that they will not hire or promote African-Americans? I, and other race scholars, clearly know that we have problems of racial bias even today and yet we do not have the type of evidence demanded by critics of my work. Critics of the notion of academic bias demand far more evidence for that bias than what is provided to show racism, sexism, homophobia etc. in our social institutions.

So three years after the publication of Compromising Scholarship, I am more confident that religious, and to a lesser extent political, academic bias is a real problem. However, I am less confident that it is a problem that will be solved in the foreseeable future. Previous research has shown that conservative Protestants are quite underrepresented in academia. Given that those with a more secular perspective are overrepresented, those with anger towards and contempt towards Christians, particularly conservative Christians, have more power in academia than those Christians. While Christians have social advantages in other important sectors in society, they have a marginalized position in academia. This reality is a blind spot for many scholars. When I did the research and wrote that book, I hoped that pointing out such blind spots would raise enough concern that there would be those who would work towards creating a more equitable environment. I did not expect overnight results, but I thought that there would be recognition of the problem which would be the first step towards finding lasting solutions. I realize now that I was naïve. Academics, even those who study issues of power and its abuses, are just as willing to legitimate the use of power over marginalized groups when it concerns groups they do not particularly like. A willingness to punish out-groups one does not like may be a universal quality that does not know political and social boundaries.

Perhaps I should not be surprised. History has shown us that when groups have power over others that it is difficult for the members of the powerful group to perceive this power as a problem. Social scientists should be able to recognize good evidence of bias. But the evidence of double standards indicates that when it comes to looking at those that scholars likely perceive as out-groups, they seem as vulnerable to social and cognitive biases as others in our society. One may hope that academics would be more knowledgeable about dynamics of social power and more sensitive about using that power over out-group members who are in subordinate positions in the institutions they control. But everything I have seen indicates that academics are not immune to using social power in unfair ways against groups they do not like. My hope now is that in time academics will engage in the self-introspection necessary to fully address some of the issues that Compromising Scholarship has brought out. But that hope has waned over the last three years.

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