Higher ed study results are deeply disturbing

Higher ed study results are deeply disturbing

By Gene Budig and Alan Heaps

A recent report from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania sheds important and disturbing new light on racial and gender inequality in higher education.

Pretending to be students, Professor Katherine Milkman and her colleagues emailed 6,500 professors at 259 of the nation's top colleges and universities requesting a meeting to discuss research opportunities before applying to a doctoral program. Each message was identical. The only variables were the senders' names, deliberately chosen to suggest an ethnicity and gender (e.g. Brad Anderson, Lamar Washington, Latoya Brown, Sonali Desai, Mei Chen).

Here are the results in Milkman's own words: Professors "ignored requests from women and minorities at a higher rate than requests from white males. We see a 25 percentage point gap in the response rate to Caucasian males versus women and minorities." The results of this experiment are deeply disturbing not only in and of themselves, but because they appear to be a case of "do as I say not as I do."

In recent years, higher education has made a very public show of embracing equal opportunity. Case in point: In response to a recent court case on admissions, last year 37 higher education associations took out a full-page ad in The New York Times trumpeting their support for campus diversity. It stated, in part, the following: "Our nation's higher education institutions stand committed to furthering the goals of equal opportunity and diversity in education. We remain dedicated to the mission of discovering and disseminating knowledge, including the knowledge gained through direct experiences with diverse colleagues — a resource for achieving a stronger democracy and nation."

Unfortunately, the Milkman data tells a different story about their own institutions. And, sadly, her report supports other troubling facts about race and gender in higher education.

— According to the American Council on Education, in 2011 only 26 percent of college presidents were women and only 13 percent were minorities.

— According to the U.S. Department of Education, in 2011 only 26 percent of full-time teachers in higher education were minorities and 44 percent were women.

— According to the U.S. Department of Education, of those students who entered four-year colleges in 2005, 62 percent of whites received a degree within six years, versus 40 percent of blacks and 51 percent of Hispanics.

Higher education plays a critical role in America. It helps shape the economic futures, character, civic responses and ideals of more than 20 million enrolled students. Higher education is also a thought and moral leader. However, as with all of us, actions speak more loudly than words.Racism and sexism, or prejudice of any kind, should never be acceptable. But in a nation that is 51 percent female and is expected to be majority-minority by 2043, these behaviors are not only morally wrong they are just plain dumb.

The bad news from the Milkman study is that, when it comes to championing diversity, colleges and universities require substantial reform. The good news is that, if they take this opportunity to correct their deficiencies, they can serve as an example for all of us.

Gene Budig is the chairman of News-Gazette, Inc., and is past president/chancellor of Illinois State University, West Virginia University and the University of Kansas. Alan Heaps is a former vice president of the College Board in New York City.


News-Gazette.com embraces discussion of both community and world issues. We welcome you to contribute your ideas, opinions and comments, but we ask that you avoid personal attacks, vulgarity and hate speech. We reserve the right to remove any comment at our discretion, and we will block repeat offenders' accounts. To post comments, you must first be a registered user, and your username will appear with any comment you post. Happy posting.

Login or register to post comments

dlgreen50 wrote on August 03, 2014 at 10:08 am

These prejudicial attitudes are reflective of structural and class inequalities in our society; they are largely symptoms. The authors aren't interested in understanding how the society and economy might be changed for the better. "Equal educational opportunity" has proved to be a sham.

Skepticity wrote on August 04, 2014 at 1:08 am

I first heard of this study in early May of this year, and it shows up as an article NOW???


Peer reviewed studies are only reliable if you trust that the peers are without bias.  We have all seen cases of cooked data being given a pass because the outcome supports the bias of the peers. 

However, for the purposes of this post, I will tentatively accept the results of the study as valid. 

This does not mean racism is the sole cause of the study results, though I will acknowledge that most likely some of the results are likely due to racism.

There is still racism in this imperfect world, among other flaws.


Did anyone examine possible causes OTHER than racism for the results showing bias in responses to the names of applicants for mentorships? 

Here is another theory:

While I am not in a position to offer mentorships, likely to be solicited for such a role, nor do I have any interest in such a role, were I in such an elevated academic position I might think twice about those letters to which I would respond. 

My concerns would be about my level of vulnerability to the attentions of activists if I accepted certain candidates to mentor.  Basically I would hesitate out of a need for self preservation. 

With candidates for mentorship with similar backgrounds to mine, any flaws in my mentoring would be more likely to be challenged on a one to one basis, or attributed to personal failings on my part.  Errors based on personal failings, not racism, sexism, etc.

With mentorship candidates of differing gender, sexual orientation, ethnic, or racial backgrounds any misunderstandings or missteps on the part of the mentor could be characterized as sexist, based on ethnicity, or based on racism. 

Allegations of such bias would draw the attention of activists.  This would mean that if the mentor offered criticism of the one being mentored it could be construed as bias, and subject the mentor to persecution by activists.  In today's environment of political correctness, attacks by activists could ruin your career.  Activists create an atmosphere that builds fear of transgression of the established PC standards. This stifles the expression of any thoughts or opinions that fall outside of that prescribed by the activists.

So I suggest that one unintended consequence of political correctness and activism in pursuit of equity is to cause those who might offer mentorships to minorities to think twice before doing so, and possibly to take the safer path of avoiding involvement in such situations in the first place. 

Why enter a situation that places your career in jeopardy when you could avoid the whole problem by not accepting those candidates.   

Just an alternate theory to offer...

(Yes, political correctness creates fear and paranoia!  Just watch the responses to anyone who challenges it.)