Are professors racist

I seem to recall reading about this back when it came out, but failed to blog about it until a former student joking asked to see my sent mail folder in reference to this NPR story from Shankar Vedantam:

VEDANTAM: The bias has to do with how faculty seem to respond to these requests, David. Group of researchers ran this interesting field experiment. They emailed more than 6,500 professors at the top 250 schools pretending to be the students. And they wrote letters saying, I really admire your work. Would you have some time to meet? The letters to the faculty were all identical, but the names of the students were all different.

Let me read you some of the names and you can tell if you can pick up a pattern.

GREENE: Mm-hmm.

VEDANTAM: Brad Anderson. Meredith Roberts. Lamar Washington. LaToya Brown. Juanita Martinez. Deepak Patel, Sonali Desai, Chang Wong, Mei Chen. Do you see something, David?

GREENE: It sounds like a diverse group. I mean these are names that come from different ethnic and racial backgrounds.

VEDANTAM: That’s exactly what the researchers were trying to establish. And all they were measuring was how often professors wrote back agreeing to meet with the students. And what they found was there were very large disparities. Women and minorities systematically less likely to get responses from the professors and also less likely to get positive responses from the professors. Now remember, these are top faculty at the top schools in the United States and the letters were all impeccably written.

Definitely disturbing.  What bothers me most is that so many people were completely ignored.  Is it that hard to write a “thanks, but I’m just too busy” email?  Apparently, there’s a lot of self-important jerks among the professorate (not that I know any).   As to what my own answer would be, I’d hate to think it would depend upon the name of the student.  In truth, I’d be far more likely to make time for an NCSU Political Science major (or wannabe major), but that’s about it.  Actually, just found a page with the research, and here’s the key chart:

Whoa– watch out Chinese students.  Also, I can’t help but admit taking pleasure in this aspect of the study given my own biases regarding certain academic disciplines:

VEDANTAM: Milkman found there were very large disparities between academic departments and between schools. Faculty at private schools were significantly more likely to discriminate against women and minorities than faculty at public schools. And faculty in fields that were very lucrative were also more likely to discriminate. So there was very little discrimination in the humanities. There was more discrimination among faculty at the natural sciences. And there was a lot of discrimination among the faculty at business schools. Here’s Milkman again.

MILKMAN: The very worst in terms of bias is business academia. So in business academia, we see a 25 percentage point gap in the response rate to Caucasian males vs. women and minorities.

Well, hooray for Humanities (I’d also like to see how Social Science fared) and hooray for public universities.  Anyway, interesting and disturbing stuff.

Oh, and by the way, it really is amazing the number of people out there who just keep insisting that racism and sexism basically no longer exist.  Even in the overtly liberal halls of academia it’s still there, so imagine how bad it is out in the business world.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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