On Bias in our Universities
Posted on May 12, 2016
Conservatives complain that Universities tend with a certain frequency to discriminate overtly against Republicans and fundamentalists in faculty hiring decisions. I’m willing to agree that’s probably true in liberal arts departments, not so much in business schools and engineering, and certainly not true in conservative private colleges. I also agree it is wrong, though there are nuances. However I also think that a lot of statistical discrimination results from legitimate academic standards that are nonpartisan.
I’m pretty sure that top corporate executive hires discriminate against Democrats and especially against Marxists, and that conservatives don’t see anything wrong with that (nor in discrimination at religious colleges), so the complaint is in itself biased. However corporate and religious hiring are different public policy issues from faculty hiring, so I’ll let that slide.
Now another aspect is that private liberal arts colleges come under different free speech rules from public universities. Private schools can legally discriminate on out-of-classroom beliefs, and public universities more-or-less can’t. However I think the same antidiscrimination rules should apply in both realms, for reasons of educational competence and scholarly ethics rather than law.
As a threshold problem, discussions of this issue generally refer to “evangelicals” rather than “fundamentalists,” but I think that is a distortion in two respects. First, around a third of evangelicals are more-or-less mainstream in their religious views, and I doubt they get discriminated against nearly as much as fundamentalists. Second, there are legitimate arguments for direct discrimination against fundamentalists. For example, I think it is nearly impossible to be a good college English professor if you are unable to read the Bible metaphorically. Now some fundamentalists are able to compartmentalize their literalistic tendencies, so fundamentalism should not be an absolute bar to employment in English departments, but is hard to claim it is totally irrelevant.
So one question to ask is whether the discrimination going on against fundamentalists is narrowly irrational, and similarly for Republicans. I suspect it isn’t irrational. That is, I suspect that quality of hires can actually be improved by a limited amount of overt discrimination against Republicans and fundamentalists. That doesn’t make it right, but it does make it interesting.
Now by way of comparison, we used to hear an argument that discrimination against Blacks was narrowly rational: the fact of blackness allegedly provided additional information about worker quality, or else provided information that was easier or cheaper to obtain, as compared with other sources. I believe that claim was largely false, and that the rational thing to do is to collect detailed information and then hire independently of race.This argument would depend on a lot of data and theory, so I’ll ask you to just assume I am right about the facts. We can have the full discussion another time.
In contrast, I think it would be narrowly rational to use information on Republicanism and fundamentalism in some degree, even after you did due diligence in gathering all other information.
However, even if discrimination against blacks had also been narrowly rational, it would still be irrational and bad public policy to allow it to happen. Now most people understand the fairness argument against discriminating on race. However there is also an efficiency argument. Even if it were efficient for individual employers to discriminate on race, society as a whole would be made worse off by systematic discrimination, for many complex reasons. One such reason is that systematic discrimination (as opposed to isolated or individual discrimination) has the result that an entire class of people lack the opportunity to make their best possible contribution to society. Another reason is that systematic discrimination keeps entire viewpoints out of the public discussion, which impoverishes our collective decision making.
And that is also the main reason why it is wrong to discriminate against fundamentalists and Republicans as such in academia.
Nevertheless, I think ordinary and fair academic hiring procedures will automatically introduce a bias against fundamentalists, and also (given the current state of the Republican Party) against Republicans as well. For example, both groups are rather systematically dedicated to science denial in many different ways. Evolution and climate change come to mind, but there are many other examples, including a broad range of social science denial. It seems clear to me that, a minimum, no one who flatly denies the validity of a science should be teaching that science. (Again there are many nuances I won’t go into as to types and degrees of science denial.)
Now granted there are many Republican voters who reject all Republican science denial shibboleths (heavens know why they stay in the party). They will not be discriminated against by fair procedures, but other Republicans will be, leading to a net decrease in Republicanism in academia.
Now granted, many or even most science deniers are able to practice compartmentalization of their denial. Hence they may be able to keep it out of their teaching and research. However the trait of compartmentalization can in itself be something of an impediment in intellectual affairs. Everyone does do some amount of compartmentalizing, but I predict that degree of compartmentalization is inversely correlated with academic competency in a given discipline, and hence would tend to be discriminated against under fair procedures.
At this point I will take a position most conservatives would condemn and call for affirmative action for fundamentalists and Republican science deniers in academia. I especially like the idea of designated conservative critics included on social science study teams. In some degree we need them around to keep us honest.