A book releasing this month shines a light on astonishing examples of political bias in American higher education, such as academics discounting applicants to Ph.D programs, because they come from religious colleges that are “supported by the Koch brothers.”
The book in question is “Inside Graduate Admissions” by Julie Posselt, a professor of education at the University of Michigan. Posselt was allowed to sit in on Ph.D program admissions decisions for six different departments at three major research universities. All of the departments were ranked near the top of their particular fields.
While admissions decisions for undergraduate and professional schools are largely made by dedicated admissions personnel, doctoral programs are quite different. For most programs, the decision to let a student study for a Ph.D is simply made by a group of faculty members who meet to discuss each applicant.
According to a review of the book by Inside Higher Ed’s Scott Jaschik, the image of academia presented by the book falls short of some high-minded scholarly ideal. In one particularly notable case, Posselt describes faculty members showing substantial bias against an applicant because of her perceived conservative, religious background:
“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?'”
Ultimately, the student didn’t get in.
The complaint about the Koch brothers is rather ironic, as the Koch family has actually donated money to a huge variety of schools, many of them state schools or elite private institutions.
Jaschik’s write-up describes several other kinds of bias seen in the book. Many departments, Posselt found, penalize applicants from East Asian countries, whose pristine test scores are often suspected to be the result of cheating. Many departments also sought to recruit more women and racial minorities, though efforts to bring in more blacks were often complicated by the fact that schools would battle over a handful of high-quality black applicants rather than lowering standards to admit more marginal applicants.
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