A Religious Test for Conservative Christians in Academia

Julie R. Posselt's new book, Inside Graduate Admissions: Merit, Diversity and Faculty Gatekeeping, describes a bias against conservative Christians

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.

 

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.

Denny Burk is Associate Professor of New Testament and Dean of Boyce College, the undergraduate arm of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. This article first appeared on his blog and is used with permission.