I already knew college professors don’t discriminate against conservatives

But it’s still nice to have an analysis that confirms that.

Woessner tells me that, when he first went into this field of research, “I came at this expecting to find evidence of discrimination, but the data didn’t support it.” Now, years later, having published a book and over a dozen articles on the topic, he concludes that college campuses, “are not a hotbed of ideological discrimination. There are challenges for any minority in the academy, and that includes political minorities and racial minorities,” Woessner says, and those challenges can lead some conservative students to “lay low.” But there’s just no evidence that college professors—who do indeed trend liberal in many departments—routinely discriminate against conservative students.

Though this broader finding is important, Woessner’s latest work has suggested some narrow correlations between ideology and grades that are worth considering. Students opposed to legalized abortion, for example, enter college with narrowly higher GPAs than pro-choice students, but lose most of that advantage over four years. Is this a sign that professors are discriminating against right-wing students? Probably not, according to the study: The authors argue that high school may play more to the strengths of conservative students, who often prefer a straightforward, right-or-wrong assessment style. Liberal students, the authors conjecture, fare better in the qualitative work prioritized in higher education, especially in the humanities. Over the phone, Woessner stresses that, in the end, he and his co-authors had “to engage in speculation, trying to map our possible explanation ranging from discrimination to skills to interests. [Conservative students] may be not as engaged” when it comes to the humanities, whereas “liberal students are much less happy with their math classes.”

Meanwhile, right-wing media outlets with a perennial grudge against professors have made the curious choice to report on this study as evidence of professorial bias. These reporters must not have read to the end of the paper, where the authors write: “[Our] results do not paint a picture of conservative students under siege. They remain largely satisfied with their college education, and perform nearly as well as, if not better than, their liberal counterparts.” And that’s just as it should be.

Yes! I go into a class with a set of objectives and rubrics; I establish the basis for grading on exams and papers and lab reports and basics like lab attendance, and I lay that all out in a syllabus. When grading time rolls around, I’ve got a spreadsheet with numbers in it that I crank through to spit out grades — I look at student ID numbers, not names. In fact, when I’m grading exams I scrupulously avoid looking at names until the grading is complete. It’s not a personal thing at all.

You could argue that my teaching style biases outcomes, but in intro courses I tend to lean towards basic lectures, occasionally coaxing students to engage in review, while upper level courses I tend to encourage more student-led engagement, where I’m a moderator helping students discuss the topic of the day. Either way doesn’t seem to discriminate against particular political perspectives and my methods aren’t at all radical.

You don’t want to tell me that it’s the content that disfavors conservatives. The most extreme cases where that is true are, for instance, people who show up to argue that the Earth is 6,000 years old. I’m not going to excuse that nonsense. The social sciences/humanities classrooms I’ve witnessed are far more tolerant of discussing alternative views than the sciences are, but none of us are going to stand by and allow ideas that conflict with reality to pass unquestioned. I presume conservatives are not going to use the defense that their more insane, off-kilter, wrong beliefs were criticized.


  1. garnetstar says

    Very true, I do exactly the same. And, I taught the largest class at the univeristy, 2000 – 3000 students per semester, with me teaching 625 of them.

    The grading and grade scale and requirements are established before the first day of class, and I’ve always laughed at the idea that I somehow have the time to scrutinize a list of 625 names and personally dole out grades according to grudges. As you say, I never look at names, I don’t know them, they’re just a list of ID numbers, and I import grades to spreadsheets as a whole, don’t enter them by hand.

    In smaller upper-level classes, more essays and writing are required, and all of them complain about it, conservative or liberal. It’s “subjective”, they whine. Get used to it. And, I also never look at names when grading those papers: I do it for fairness, but really, it’s just much faster.

  2. says

    I do know all their names — my largest class is 50 students, and others are a fifth of that — but the grading process is defined and machine-like, and I can ignore their identities entirely. And do.

  3. garnetstar says

    Yes, that’s what I meant, even in classes where I know their names, it’s a process from which I do not deviate.

    I mean, what professor even has the time for deciding grades based on identities? In smaller classes, the only reason I look at grades is to see if anyone’s starting to do badly, so I can work with them individually. Not for any personal reason.

  4. lochaber says

    Most of the Biology and Geology classes started with a brief intro about how this class doesn’t have to contradict someone’s faith, etc.

    And, n=1, anecdata, and all that, but from what I’ve seen of conservative fellow students in the humanities courses I’ve taken, is that they are really bad at following the instructions given at the beginning of the assignment. Particularly in that critical thinking class I took at a community college. They insisted on choosing to write about topics that were predetermined out-of-bounds, and they refused to stop using fallacious arguments.

    The discussion sessions were kinda fun though, me and a couple other liberal-minded students were a slight minority in a pretty conservative area, but when the professor didn’t allow fallacious arguments during the discussion, actually having some factual knowledge really made a difference…