College Professors Biased Toward White Men

The ivory tower of academia might be the last place you'd expect a systemic bias toward privileged groups, what with all the liberal atheist professors of Queer Women's Basketweaving Studies teaching their Humanities and pushing the Gay Agenda™ running around. Turns out that's not quite the case.

We already knew that white students were institutionally favored for things such as scholarships and other forms of financial aid. But new research by Katharine Milkman (University of Pennsylvania), Modupe Akinola (Columbia), and Dolly Chugh (NYU) reveals that there's also a bias in how instructors at the university level interact with students. Of particular interest was the fact that professors respond more frequently to email requests for meetings sent by white, male students than they do to women and minority students.

Marcie Bianco notes that this bias is most prevalent in private universities and business schools as compared to public universities and humanities departments (in line with my suspicion that private universities and business schools inculcate terrible values, including capitalism and 50s era gender roles).

The students most ignored? East and Southeast Asian students. As Bianco puts it, this

surprised researchers, who assumed the stereotype of "Asians as a model minority group" would be reflected in faculty response. The assumption, as well as the final data, reveal how both Southeast Asians and East Asians collectively remain the silent minority whose mythic "model minority" status conceals their lived discrimination in American culture.

If I may venture a guess as to part of the reason behind this, it may be helpful to note that American universities make a ton of money charging tuition from international students, principally Chinese, Korean, and Japanese students. It's a big business. And instructors are often given minimal instruction or training to know how to help students who quite often grew up speaking a different language.

I'm teaching two sections this semester, with about 50% of my students being international students from South Korea. I'm often at a loss as to how to bridge the language barrier in their writing and help them acquire English at a high level. My training in these areas has been minimal, amounting more or less to "send them to the writing center." In one-on-one sessions in my office, I'm able to make good work happen and my students and I talk at length to settle their questions. In the classroom I find it's harder to reach these students because of my lack of training. In emails it can be difficult - non-real time communication means that I may not respond within the student's availability window, limiting how much clarification either of us can ask for and receive.

The language barrier is tough. I'm better equipped to help primary Spanish speakers than I am Korean speakers because of my background and training. As graduate students, my program requires us to fulfill a foreign language requirement, so some familiarity with another language is achieved, but being able to get through an undergraduate literature class conducted in French doesn't mean you are prepared fully to help a Francophone international student.

If we want to serve international students well, we need to start by giving instructors the training and tools necessary to get over that first hurdle. There are techniques that work for helping non-English speaking students get better at English. We need to start implementing those, perhaps have instructors take a class where they can learn the skills and techniques so they can apply them in their classrooms - for faculty you could write it off as part of their service to the university. That may go a great deal toward overcoming the bias, at least as it exists against students from non Anglophone backgrounds.

What about the rest of the students, though? We have plenty of students from Anglophone backgrounds in our universities who are being ignored because they're people of color, women, or both. At the moment I have no good answer beyond a vague hope that the new generation of instructors, educated in the intersectionality of systems of oppression might be able to do better where our academic forefathers and foremothers have failed.

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Correction: I originally posted this noting that the study and Bianco's piece on it referred to East and South Asian students as those most ignored when they refer to East and Southeast Asian students (South Asian students did face a significant response gap as well). This error has been corrected. Also, N.B., this article stops being about the study after I quote it because I want to speak to my experience teaching East Asian international students, which reveals an issue separate from that presented in the study but still under the umbrella of systemic bias against East and Southeast Asian students more broadly.