Study Finds No Anti-Conservative Discrimination in Graduate School

Sociology study finds that conservative students perceive academia as liberal

Conservatives are less likely to pursue a Ph.D. than liberals not because of discriminatory hiring practices, but because they perceive academia as a liberal bastion, according to two studies released by Harvard Sociology graduate student Ethan A. Fosse and University of British Columbia associate Sociology professor Neil Gross.

“The idea behind our study is that if you want to explain why academics tend to be on the left, you should focus on who becomes an academic,” said Gross, who formerly taught at Harvard in the Sociology department.

In one study, Fosse and Gross—along with University of British Columbia undergraduate Joseph Ma—used data collected from young American adults over time to determine that liberal college students are more likely to attend graduate school.

In a second audit study, Fosse and Gross worked with with Northwestern Sociology professor Jeremy Freese, sending emails to professors posing as potential graduate students to inquire about doing doctoral work in their departments. In some of the emails, the experimenters mentioned working on either past Democratic or Republican presidential campaigns.

The researchers concluded that professors responded no differently to the prospective graduate students based on their stated political affiliation.

“Our research shows that there’s no direct discrimination against conservatives in the graduate student application process,” said Gross.

The study concludes that liberals disproportionately become professors because they “self-select” academia as a career choice compatible with their political leaning.

Fosse said he hopes the studies will challenge the notion that conservatives are not welcome in academia.

“I would hope that [our research] silences conservative critics who criticize the academy on charges of discrimination and bias against conservative graduate students,” he said.

Government professor Paul E. Peterson criticized the experimental method of the audit study.

“I’m not too impressed with that,” he said. “I don’t think you can draw very heavy conclusions [from] the way people respond [to an email].”

However, Gross said that research into the opportunity structure for discrimination—which suggests that people are more likely to discriminate when they can get away with it—lends credence to the experimental method used in the study.

“If there were biases, they would be more likely to show in these situations rather than [in situations] with colleagues making important decisions about who to admit into a graduate program,” he said.

He added that additional cognitive research shows that bias tends to appear in quick decisions, such as a response to an inquiring email.

Peterson added that he thinks an experiment that investigated the tenure process would more clearly explain the prevalence of liberal professors.

“Just being able to go to graduate school or getting an encouraging letter from a professor is not too much of a barrier to climb,” he said. “But getting a job is a high barrier, and getting tenure is even higher.”

—Staff writer Rebecca D. Robbins can be reached at rrobbins@college.harvard.edu

Tags