Discrimination at Cal Poly? Say it isn’t so, part two
March 20, 2013
Discrimination at Cal Poly? Say it isn’t so, part two
OPINION By NATE HONEYCUTT
(Editor’s note: This is part two in a two-part opinion piece.)
Does the study by the young researcher show that Cal Poly meets the “legal definition of discrimination?”
The discrepancy in the numbers of liberal and conservative faculty in higher education meets legal requirements for assuming discrimination (Teamsters vs. United States, 1977, as cited in Inbar & Lammers, 2012). Though this discrepancy is one that the average individual would likely recognize as being part of university culture, relatively little is known about why it occurs.
Over the past seven months I have been conducting research on the political climate and political diversity among university faculty at four California State Universities. This research has involved replicating and extending a study conducted by Inbar and Lammers (2012) (http://yoelinbar.net). While Inbar and Lammers only studied the conservative experience among Social and Personality Psychologists, in my research I asked university faculty across disciplines about their own political orientation, their experience of hostility, and their willingness to discriminate, incorporating both the conservative experience and the liberal experience.
Why might this discrepancy exist?
Many theories have been posed in an attempt to identify why the imbalance in political ideology exists in higher education. Some say that it is because of self-selection, in that teaching, educating, and other elements of being a faculty member at a university produces the discrepancy because this is not a career that appeals to conservatives.
Others align with the notion of “birds of a feather flock together” that suggests people are attracted to organizations made up of “people like me” (Schneider, Goldstein, & Smith, 1995).
This notion of “birds of a feather” can have interesting implications, too. If you don’t see anyone like you entering a profession, you might subconsciously conclude that the profession is not open to you. This is played out through concerns about faculty diversity in gender, race, and ethnicity, but this is also crucially important when it comes to political ideology.
A comment was made on this point when I presented my research at the Cal Poly selection level for the CSU Research Competition. A panel judge thought that hiring simply reflects the available pool of applicants, but this point is not valid. Similar arguments have been made in regard to low numbers of women and minorities in hiring. Perhaps there are less “conservatives” in a pool at the hiring committee level, but not because conservatives are less interested in the position or less qualified—they were hindered earlier on. A good way to look at this argument is to take any of the ideas suggesting that conservatives don’t have what it takes, and substitute the word ‘women’ or ‘minorities’ to best understand the full impact. Using one of those two words changes things, doesn’t it?
This point strikes home for me. While conducting this research people have asked me what my political ideology is, questioning my objectivity in conducting this study. Individuals typically research topics that are of a personal interest to them. Because I intend to pursue a career in higher education in the field of psychology, this study provided me the opportunity to investigate something interesting to me, and gave me insight into what I am going to be getting myself into. The incorporation of questions to investigate the liberal experience in addition to the conservative experience (Inbar and Lammers only investigated the conservative experience) is evidence enough of objectivity.
A third more disturbing perspective claims the presence of outright discrimination. Inbar and Lammers (2012) reported that among liberal personality and social psychologists in their national sample, “More than one in three would discriminate against them (Conservatives) when making hiring decisions” (p. 501).
The Cal Poly study
Incorporating the variety of disciplines from Agriculture to Engineering, Social Sciences to Hard Sciences, Business to Arts provided the opportunity to view the situation from a university level, and provided the opportunity to investigate how disciplines may differ from one another. Additionally, this enabled us to incorporate disciplines that are traditionally considered to be more conservative to see how they would factor into the big picture.
Upon approval from the Human Subjects and Internal Review Boards of the four universities—Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, CSU Monterey Bay, CSU Stanislaus, and Humboldt State—all faculty members were individually sent an invitation email to voluntarily participate in the study.
Of the nearly 700 faculty that responded 70.4 percent self-identified as liberal, 15.3 percent as moderate, and 14.3 percent as conservative, or about a 5:1 liberal to conservative ratio.
The results continue to be quite staggering.
On the perception of hostility, inability to express views, and discrimination the results were quite clear:
• On perception of hostility within their field, conservatives reported nearly double the amount of hostility experienced by liberals and moderates.
• On inability to express views, conservatives reported that they are nearly two times more likely to withhold expression than liberals and moderates.
• On discrimination, conservatives reported that they experience almost double the discrimination within their fields reported by liberal and moderates.
Participants were asked a question used by Inbar and Lammers (2012): “If two job candidates (with equal qualifications) were to apply for an opening in your department, and you know that one was politically quite conservative, do you think you would be inclined to vote for the more liberal one?” We asked this twice: once in the original form as stated here and again with the political labels reversed (Inbar and Lammers only asked about discrimination towards conservatives, and I wanted to correct that.) The results were perfect—the charts were charts researchers always hope to get, but rarely do. Imagine a perfectly mirrored image:
• Liberals were significantly more likely—about two times more likely—to hire a liberal over a conservative.
• Conservatives were significantly more likely—about two times more likely—to hire a conservative over a liberal.
• Moderates were evenly split, and reported little if any intent to make a choice based on perceived political orientation.
Looking at the liberal and conservative groups in a big-picture perspective, one in three of the liberal participants indicated that they would be somewhat to very much inclined to discriminate against a conservative in a hiring decision, while a little under one in three conservatives indicated they would be somewhat to very much inclined to discriminate against a liberal in a hiring decision. These numbers must be tempered, though. While almost equal percentages of liberal and conservative respondents indicate a strong inclination to discriminate in hiring, there are also five times more liberals than conservatives. This pattern of discrimination suggests that the number of conservatives hired is likely to dwindle further.
One could view this situation as spawning from two different motives: liberals applying “birds of a feather” or outright discrimination, while conservatives merely fighting for survival in an environment they are already a minority in. We need further research and open discussion to figure out which hypothesis is correct. In further analysis of our data, we plan to see if patterns are the same or different in traditionally conservative disciplines such as business and agriculture.
Any other comments?
As a part of the study, an open-ended response question was included at the end of the survey. The responses from some faculty members give unique insight to their personal experiences and perspectives. Following are some selected comments:
Comments by Liberals:
• I wouldn’t hesitate to invite a conservative colleague to a symposium I organized but I would be more likely to organize a symposium on economic inequality, which is not a topic that my conservative colleagues are well-versed in. Thus, I would likely not include them because they don’t have the expertise…Also, if two candidates are equally qualified for the job, I would definitely choose the more liberal to diversify the department.
• The academic field attracts people interested in education more than making a lot of money. Conservatives tend to follow career paths that can earn them the most, hence they may not seek teaching jobs as much as moderates/liberals.
• Politically conservative viewpoints about immigration do not fit well with the department or the universities’ mission.
• Most conservatives I have met who are faculty have a persecution complex. They are in the minority and feel that they do not get their air time.
• In general, my opinion is that “liberal” is more equated with “open minded”; whereas, “conservative” is thought as “closed minded”.
• “Conservatives” appear to not want to “conserve” anything, and appear to me to be the most liberal in their take on society (telling people how to act in their bedrooms, etc.). **** them all and vote socialist!
• Most scientists are liberal because they are rational thinkers who are rarely ideologues.
Comments by Conservatives:
• I have first-hand experience with many of these questions often times in academia. There is a major left leaning majority that is unabashed in its agenda. If one “outs” themselves as a conservative it is academic suicide. Politics have nothing to do with our field, and frankly should not matter. However, the truth is the liberal people and agenda are the mainstream of higher education and are advanced unequally every day.
• On this campus for me to say I’m a conservative would be equal to “coming out of the closet”–so to speak.
• I am a heterosexual, White, male, Roman Catholic, NRA member, Tea Party member, and a proud American veteran. Unfortunately, my values and ideals are not respected or accepted by many, many faculty on this campus. In my 10 years at Cal Poly, I have witnessed a slow evolution toward left-wing liberalism as older, more conservative or politically neutral faculty retire and younger faculty are hired. I think there is very little political diversity at Cal Poly, especially in non-science colleges and departments.
• I am constantly surrounded by colleagues who assume I share their political, left views.
• Many faculty feel it is their “job” to teach students liberal values.
• I’ve worked at three universities and faculty all seem to be quite liberal and potentially prejudiced towards conservative positions.
• Liberal faculty speak freely, often mocking conservative figures, ideas, and even colleagues. The reverse is not so.
For some, their agenda seems quite pompous and unabashed, for others their situation comes across as quite dire. Most of the above comments relate to the conservative experience. There were no open-ended responses reflecting liberal persecution, or the like.
Liberal privilege the modern day “white privilege”?
An interesting perspective presented by Jussim (2012) published in the same journal issue as Inbar and Lammers (2012) drew parallels between what he distinguished as “Liberal Privilege” and “White Privilege” as coined by McIntosh (1988). Though Jussim qualifies his perspective stating that he does not “claim or imply that discrimination against scholarship that seems to support conservative ideas in academic is comparable to discrimination experienced by any particular demographic group in the broader culture ” (p. 505), he notes that “McIntosh’s essay was a good model for communicating the broad and diverse nature of White Privilege ” (p. 505) and that “it is also a good model for communicating the broad and diverse nature of liberal privilege ” (p. 505).
Some excerpts from Jussim describing the “Liberal Privilege” (504-505):
• I can avoid spending time with colleagues who mistrust me because of my politics.
• If I apply for a job, I can be confident my political views are more than likely to be an asset than a liability.
• I can be confident that the political beliefs I hold and the political candidates I support will not be routinely mocked by my colleagues.
• I can be pretty sure that my students who share my political views and go on to academic jobs will be able to focus on being competent teachers and scientists and will not have to worry about hiding their politics from senior faculty.
• I can criticize colleagues’ research that differs from mine on issues such as race, sex, or politics without fear of being an authoritarian, racist, or sexist.
• I can systematically misinterpret, misrepresent, or ignore research in such a manner as to sustain my political views and be confident that such misinterpretations, misrepresentations, or oversights are unlikely to be recognized by my colleagues.
• If I work in politically charged areas, such as race, gender, class, and politics and if my papers, grants, or symposia are rejected, I need not ask each time if political bias led to their rejection.
Jussim followed his examples up with some excerpts from McIntosh’s (1988) essay (http://www.nymbp.org/reference/WhitePrivilege.pdf) that he viewed as conveying the simplicity of the translation from racial privilege to political privilege:
• I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
• I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared.
• If my day, week, or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has racial overtones.
It seems clear that these “privileges” can easily lead to distorting and undermining the objectivity and validity of science in many ways.
So what? Who cares? What are we supposed to do about this?
Using a more diverse faculty sample, and incorporating the liberal experience in addition to the conservative experience, the observations from the present research reinforced many of the observations made by Inbar and Lammers (2012). Conservatives perceived that their working climate is hostile to their views, and they were unwilling to express those views. They believed that they were subject to discrimination.
The results show that either group, if in the majority, is likely to hire “birds of a feather,” so discrimination on the basis of politics is not a one-way street. However, given overwhelming majority of liberals in the faculty—outnumbering conservatives 5:1—coupled with these attitudes toward hiring, and the unwillingness of conservatives to “out themselves” by expressing their opinions, it is likely that political diversity and the number of conservatives on campus will continue to shrink in the future.
This revelation should be quite disturbing and appalling to you, as it is to me. Universities should be a marketplace of a variety of ideas, perspectives, and beliefs, not a stronghold for one-sided political perspectives as the research shows.
Jonathan Haidt, a leading Social Psychologist now at NYU, outlined two major implications of academic life being void of dissenting voices, such as the voices of conservatives.
Without input from conservative colleagues, it is possible for scholars, particularly in the social sciences, to overlook meaningful research questions or even misinterpret their results (Haidt, 2011).
A sort of “political affirmative action” is not the sort of solution that should be applied to remedy the political ideological imbalance in universities. But, this area of research is one that is typically considered to be quite controversial, and as such many researchers and reviewers avoid and often discourage it. This is a “taboo” topic of sorts, and often not considered plausible by academics and leaders within universities. So, I believe that opening up discussion and awareness on this topic could lead to individual introspection and great discussion about what is going on and the harmful implications should this lopsidedness continue within universities.
My research, though, is clear evidence that discrimination is occurring in academia. Everyone thinks it doesn’t happen, but it does.
This study reflects documented explicit discrimination among faculty against conservative individuals and ideas, but does not tap into implicit discrimination. A valuable extension of this work could include tapping into the implicit biases of individuals, as most individuals are typically not willing to indicate that they would strongly discriminate against someone else—that typically isn’t a very socially desirable trait. An extension such as this could potentially lead to further reinforcing the results obtained from the present research.
In the coming months, I will have the unique and rare opportunity to present different versions of this work at two professional psychology conventions as first author. The first conference is the Western Psychological Association (WPA) convention in Reno, and the second is the Association for Psychological Science conference in Washington D.C. Both conventions rarely feature work by students, and more rarely still the work of undergraduates and third year undergraduates at that. These conventions are quite important for me and my professional development and career advancement. Attending these conventions allows me the opportunity to establish a name for myself, network, and be seen.
Help sponsor me to the aps conference
I need your help to get to the psychology conventions, and to continue research in this domain. If you are interested in supporting me in my research and presentation endeavors, please visit my web-site www.natehoneycutt.com. Additionally, if you are interested in a presentation on my research to your club or organization contact me through my web-site, or if you would like to see a copy of my research paper or other work please visit my web-site.
As coined by Alcoholics Anonymous, the first step to recovery is awareness and self-admission. This study has made you aware of the problem at hand. What are you going to do about it?
Nate Honeycutt is a third year Psychology major at Cal Poly from Arroyo Grande who outside of researching controversial political psychology topics serves as an elected representative in Cal Poly’s student government, and enjoys hiking, biking, and kayaking.