Untold Stories and Difficult Truths about Bias in Academia

Bias continues to exist on our campuses.
By Marie Chisholm-Burns

The racially charged recordings of Donald Sterling, then owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team, were addressed publicly by NBA commissioner Adam Silver in April 2014, prior to an NBA playoff game in Memphis, Tennessee. Being a resident of Memphis and having a husband who is a dedicated sports fan, I followed the story closely. The Sterling incident reminded me, as it did many others around the country, of the harmful biases that continue to exist everywhere in our society. In job searches, racism and other types of discrimination prevent members of certain groups from reaching their full potential. Today, conscious bias is often easily recognized and addressed through equal employment opportunity offices and other mechanisms.

Unconscious bias, however, is much more insidious than conscious bias. I would also argue that it is more prevalent in contemporary employment sectors, including academia.

Brenda Dooley, a human resources specialist, perhaps stated it best when she defined unconscious biases as “being automatic, products of our upbringing and experiences that influence our decision making even though they may or may not be rationalized or justified by facts.” Each of us has unconscious biases, but because they are unconscious, we fail to recognize, evaluate, criticize, or discuss them. Although the consequences of conscious and unconscious bias are often indistinguishable, unconscious bias may have more lasting and damaging effects because its etiology and specific practices are generally not known.

Several studies have demonstrated the existence of unconscious bias. The one that most resonates with me is based not in an academic setting but rather in the context of symphony orchestras. Published in 2000 in the American Economic Review, Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse’s study evaluated the implementation of “blind” auditions in which candidates played their instruments behind a screen to mask their identity. The results were startling. Blind auditions led to a significant increase in the selection of women compared to traditional auditions. Other studies have had similar findings, providing a starting point for discussions about the “untold stories” of unconscious biases in our own disciplines and organizations.

How Unconscious Bias Works

Unconscious biases occur frequently in most industries—and academia is no exception. Academia’s struggles with conscious bias, particularly during the civil rights era, are well-known. Unconscious bias, by contrast, is not easy to identify, admit, or discuss. Such bias may be the “elephant in the room” during admissions, recruitment, hiring, and promotion and tenure processes.

I have often wondered about how unconscious bias contributes to the “bottlenecks” that occur in academia. While the characteristics of students admitted to colleges and universities have changed, the number of minority and women professors, department chairs, deans, and top executives continues to lag. During my twenty-year academic career at public research universities, I have been the first minority female professor, the first minority and first female department chair, and the first minority and first female dean. It is disappointing to move up the ladder of success and still witness limitations imposed by others for reasons that have nothing to do with ability and qualifications.

Search committees, because they are composed of individuals with different perspectives and perceptions, afford a measure of protection against bias and increase the possibility of fairness and equity in the search process. Yet no process is without vulnerabilities. Individual committee members or people with hiring authority sometimes use the search process to legitimize the hiring of a preselected candidate. I have even seen situations where unnecessary obstacles seem to have been erected to inconvenience and frustrate other candidates. Furthermore, in my experience, the preselected candidate is not generally the most qualified for the position, although that candidate is always presented as the best choice. A preselected candidate is often simply the person with whom others in the organization, for whatever reason, feel the most comfortable. Such hires are unfair to other candidates, however, and are damaging to employers. They create workplaces that lack diversity in knowledge, experience, opinions, and other characteristics that may benefit the organization.

I have also observed situations in which individuals’ similarities to others in the organization have elicited negative reactions (for example, when a candidate’s field of study is almost identical to the specialization of a researcher already employed by the department, or when a faculty member covets his or her status as one of a few minorities within a department). In such cases, individuals on search committees may be biased, consciously or unconsciously, against candidates who are perceived as threats. These candidates may be dismissed from serious consideration not because of a lack of qualifications for the position but because of the possible impact their selection could have on one or more members of the group.

Then there are the candidates who do not “look the part.” In academia, middle-aged or older men have long predominated in upper-level administrative and executive positions—when most people picture a university president or a college dean, this is the kind of person who comes to mind. And the pervasiveness of this mental image may unconsciously influence the selection and advancement of like candidates through the search process. In these situations, the search committee never grasps the role that unconscious biases play in the search process, and without tangible evidence of bias, it is difficult to call decisions into question.

Addressing Unconscious Bias

Although vulnerable to the influence and effects of unconscious biases, the academic environment also lends itself to inquiry, as academics are well-positioned to develop and implement methods by which unconscious biases and their detrimental effects can be significantly limited. The most effective strategy that I have observed focuses on what we academics hold as sacred: education. Reducing unconscious biases and their impact involves raising awareness (especially self-awareness), fostering comfortable environments and cultures, and having effective role models, mentors, and sponsors.

A key step in the educational strategy is to identify unconscious biases through open and nonthreatening discussions. The untold stories need to be verbalized and the elephants in the room discussed. The administration, in particular, must educate faculty, students, staff, and others about unconscious biases. Case reports followed by open dialogue are one educational technique that can be employed. Such methods should be properly facilitated and undertaken at the campus and unit levels to ensure that recruitment and pipeline issues are addressed.

The literature is replete with examples of techniques to reduce the effects of unconscious bias. For example, organizations may want to consider formal “onboarding” programs that engage and promote a culture of inclusiveness among faculty, students, and staff. Data on efforts to reduce the impact of unconscious biases should also be collected and shared. Questions should be asked and answered and continuous quality improvement implemented. Finally, a goal without accountability is bound to fail, so accountability must be woven into any process an institution adopts.

Keep in mind that early gains in inclusivity may erode without continuing efforts to address unconscious biases. For example, data may demonstrate that minority students are matriculating but not graduating, or that female and minority assistant professors are not progressing to associate or full professor ranks or upper administrative positions at a rate equivalent to their majority counterparts. How do we prevent such situations? In addition to following appropriate procedures for conducting searches, casting the proverbial net as broadly as possible, and extending upward mobility, we must address the workplace environment. We must integrate diversity and inclusivity into day-to-day operations and interactions and make them part of the organizational fabric. We cannot rely solely on changes to guidelines and performance expectations to accomplish this goal. Rather, we should, at all levels within each of our institutions, facilitate mentorship, provide development opportunities, encourage talent, and take responsibility for leveling the playing field, recognizing that vigilance is needed to prevent old, negative patterns from reemerging. And these mechanisms are needed not only in recruitment and hiring but also in admissions, faculty development, promotion and tenure, and faculty and staff retention processes.

We all have a part to play in creating an environment that minimizes the detrimental effects of bias. Only when we, together, listen to the untold stories, identify and recognize biases, and work to overcome these biases will we begin to realize our full potential individually and collectively.

Marie Chisholm-Burns is dean of the College of Pharmacy and professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis, Knoxville, and Nashville.