A religious test for conservative Christians in academia

In terms of cultural influence, there is hardly any group more consequential than the faculty members of elite universities. They have an incalculable impact on emerging generations of leaders in business and politics and other fields that define our national life.

How do they come to this position of influence? The first and most important qualification is the Ph.D. degree. Who determines who gets Ph.D.’s in our country? Little groups of faculty members meeting in little rooms determine who gets into the programs and thus who will comprise the future faculties of our nation’s colleges and universities. How do these committees do their work?

Julie R. Posselt tries to answer that question in her new book Inside Graduate Admissions: Merit, Diversity and Faculty Gatekeeping, which has just been reviewed at Inside Higher Ed. It turns out that these gate-keepers are not merely looking at academic qualifications but are also applying ideological litmus tests. In particular, the book describes a bias against conservative Christians. Pay close attention to this excerpt from this review at Inside Higher Ed:

In most cases Posselt observed, the committee members used banter and “friendly debate” when they disagreed with one another. They didn’t attack one another or get too pointed in criticizing colleagues. She describes one discussion she observed — in which committee members kept to this approach — that left her wondering about issues of fairness.

The applicant, to a linguistics Ph.D. program, was a student at a small religious college unknown to some committee members but whose values were questioned by others.

“Right-wing religious fundamentalists,” one committee member said of the college, while another said, to much laughter, that the college was “supported by the Koch brothers.”

The committee then spent more time discussing details of the applicant’s GRE scores and background — high GRE scores, homeschooled — than it did with some other candidates. The chair of the committee said, “I would like to beat that college out of her,” and, to laughter from committee members asked, “You don’t think she’s a nutcase?”

Other committee members defended her, but didn’t challenge the assumptions made by skeptics. One noted that the college had a good reputation in the humanities. And another said that her personal statement indicated intellectual independence from her college and good critical thinking.

At the end of this discussion, the committee moved the applicant ahead to the next round but rejected her there.

The ironic thing about this religious test is that these admission committees say that they are committed to diversity. But the book makes clear that the diversity is primarily racial and sexual, not ideological. In other words, applicants cannot stray from certain liberal orthodoxies if they wish to be admitted into elite Ph.D. programs. And there is no greater apostasy from liberal orthodoxies than conservative Christianity.

We already knew that this kind of discrimination was going on at elite universities. It is nevertheless jarring to see it described in such candid detail. It is discrimination based on a religious test, and it is the kind of thing that happens all the time without controversy or fanfare.

You can read the Inside Higher Ed review here. You can order the book itself here.

8 Responses to A religious test for conservative Christians in academia

  1. pauljacobsblog January 6, 2016 at 1:32 pm #

    I earned my PhD at the University of North Texas 26 years ago. At the time, most of my professors were atheist, agnostics, socialist, liberals, lapsed Catholics, and such. There were decidedly liberal in every sense of the word. However, I earned top scores and felt completely free to pursue research in areas that I was interested. I wrote my dissertation on the history of Criswell College. My defense lasted less than 15 minutes and I passed. They were liberal in every sense of the word. They were so liberal that they even welcomed my twisted conservative ideas which I feely expressed (usually with humor) in and out of the classroom.

    Today, I am confident that I could not gain admittance to UNT nor ever graduate. The liberals of yesterday have been replaced by radicals who say they believe in diversity as long as you agree with them. They are in favor of other’s ideas as long as you tow the liberal boat.

    • jazzypaul January 6, 2016 at 2:41 pm #

      and most conservatives don’t do the exact same thing?

  2. Christiane Smith January 6, 2016 at 4:07 pm #

    any kind of ‘labeling’ is wrong when someone is being considered for an opening that is supposed to be free of discrimination . . . a school may have certain academic standards for admission as criteria which screens out many ‘applicants’ even prior to consideration for admission . . . but once someone is under consideration, matters of religion, creed, race, ethnic origin are usually not something that would prevent a student from entering an ivy-league school . . . these days, even the traditionally female ‘seven sisters’ colleges of the Northeast take male students in regularly.

    It has become too easy for folks in THIS country to discriminate openly using ‘labels’ because of the deep culture war divisions we (WE, all of us) have allowed to occur. . . and it will take some very strong people of character to set an example to turn this around . . . we need the honorable grown-ups to step forward . . . they have been too long quiet and their silence has allowed extremists in our country to take over public opinion

    I would say ‘labeling’ without personally knowing and listening to one another has approached and in many cases, entered into the category of sin that traditionally the Jewish people have called ‘the bad speech’ that slanders . . . it may be time for some self-examination by everyone to sort out where each of us has given in to this unwholesome practice without thinking about the consequences of what we are doing . . . some thoughts

    • dr. james willingham January 6, 2016 at 9:12 pm #

      Christiane: Have you seen Ben Stein’s Expelled? Seems that if a believer should hold to an early earth creation, he or she will quickly find that there is no acceptance in academia. The day of open minded teachers and students seems to have passed, since those years when I attended 10 different colleges and universities, beginning in 1958 and lasting off and on until 1988. Just look at what many of the schools have done with Intervarsity and the Baptist Student Union and other religious groups that hold that a homosexual cannot be an official in their organization, because such conduct violates the standards of their faith. Don’t kid yourself, Christiane, for that period appears to have passed from us for the most part.

  3. dr. james willingham January 6, 2016 at 5:29 pm #

    I earned an M.A. in American Social and Intellectual History at Morehead State University in Kentucky. The chairman of my thesis (The Baptists and Ministerial Qualifications: 1750-1850) was a young Agnostic from the University of Kentucky for whom I graded papers and taught classes when he had to be absent. I use to twit him saying, “Aw, John, your just a dishonest Atheist.” His face would turn red and he would laugh, knowing that I had been an Atheist before my conversion some years earlier. All of the professors treated me with respect, and one even let me teach the course in Senior Papers while he graded the papers, saying, “Well, you know as much as I do on the subject. So you teach the course.” One of my professors who conducted the thesis exam held a Ph.D. from the University of Vienna. I seated that one, and I managed to pass by staying on the subject and my sources when he tried to pull me off into a discussion on some scholar from Europe. Another professor recommended me for a teaching job at South Carolina State University (then a college). At Columbia University int he Summer of ’71 a Marxist professor sought to recruit me to do a Ph.D. in Black History. I wrote a prospectus for a doctoral dissertation in that field, but was unable to return to do a year’s course work and the dissertation due to the arrival that Fall of a babe boy who is now our pastor. However, as good as it all sounds, the indications are now very ominous. Even professors are not immune to brainwashing techniques (with some notable exceptions) designed to jettison Bible believing Christians from the public sector and from all respectability.

  4. Ezra Thomas January 6, 2016 at 8:42 pm #

    It seems like you’re arguing for affirmative action for “conservative” Christians in academia. This incident aside, the real reason there are so few conservative Christians is because they very likely make up a small percentage of the small percentage of conservatives who pursue higher studies in the liberal arts. Because so few conservatives, let alone conservative Christians, follow this track they are underrepresented among faculties and decision-making bodies.

    That being said there, it is likely that many in academia are biased against conservatives although I don’t think religion is as much of a factor. Rather, its a reflection of the hostility communicated against liberal academics by the right for decades. This hostility is a recognition that the university is perhaps the one place in America where conservatism has the least influence.

    Even so, conservatives enjoy great influence in the business and economics departments of many universities yet this significant impact on the minds of future business and economic students and professionals is rarely acknowledged by conservatives.

    Its relevant to point out that Christian conservatives have no qualms in firing or refusing employment to apostates as proven by the folks at Wheaton. There can be no dissent or opposing views on conservative Christian campuses.

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