Implicit bias is, by its very nature, a slippery concept. Everyone has it; no one believes they have it.
Yet implicit bias affects every aspect of higher education: hiring, admissions, and pedagogy. “Left unaddressed, implicit biases can influence countless judgments and choices made on our campuses daily—all day, every day. The cumulative result is an unintentional reproduction of the status quo and patterns of decision making that profoundly constrain the diversity and inclusiveness of our institutions,” Sharon L. Davies writes for the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
What is implicit bias in higher education?
The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University defines implicit bias as “the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.” More specifically, implicit bias can be defined as an unconscious preference for non-marginalized groups that leads to discriminatory behavior.
Tellingly, “implicit biases are not accessible through introspection,” the Kirwan Institute says, and aren’t always aligned with consciously held beliefs. So someone with an avowed belief in equality may still hold attitudes that are shaped by biases related to race, ethnicity, age, gender or appearance — and never be aware of it. Researchers have found that implicit bias may manifest not as negative treatment of certain groups, but rather preferential treatment of one’s “in-groups.” The good news is that implicit biases are not permanent. They can be recognized and unlearned.
Not everyone agrees that it’s a problem, however. A recent, wide-ranging study from researchers from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Harvard, and the University of Virginia found that the correlation between implicit bias and discriminatory behavior was not as strong as had been thought. They discovered little evidence that a change in implicit bias affects changes in behavior.
Why should colleges and universities adopt policies that address implicit bias?
If left unaddressed by university administration, professors may seek their own solutions. Controversy erupted at the University of Pennsylvania in the fall of 2017, when Stephanie McKellop, a graduate teaching assistant in history (who uses gender-neutral pronouns), tweeted about the use of “progressive stacking” in class. This is a technique designed to give marginalized students an increased chance to speak, by calling on them first when their hand is raised.
In the tweets, McKellop said they always called on black women first, followed by other students of color, then white women, then, “if I have to,” white men. This pronouncement drew fire from conservative observers who alleged discrimination against white students, and resulted in review by Penn administrators.
Rather than relying on professors to address — or not address — implicit bias as they see fit, it may be better for a university to outline specific policies.
Policies that can reduce implicit bias in higher ed
Encouraging self-assessment. The first step in combating classroom bias is to acknowledge its presence. Yale’s Center for Teaching and Learning recommends instructors reflect on their own pedagogical habits, and even take an online self-assessment such as Project Implicit. The University of Virginia plans to require first-year students to take such an assessment, called an implicit bias module, that’s designed to make them aware of stereotypes they hold.
Introducing inclusive teaching methods. Instead of controversial practices like progressive stacking, other pedagogical approaches emphasize inclusion. Cathy Davidson, director of the Futures Initiative at CUNY’s Graduate Center, recommends one called the inventory method. It’s simple: On an index card, students write a sentence from their reading that they found memorable, then listen as each person reads their card aloud. “It’s a remarkable experience,” Davidson writes. “Students rarely listen to one another. … They filter a lot. Including themselves. And that means (we have the data) they tend to hear mostly white, male, affluent, graduate-school bound fellow students who most resemble their prof.” Requiring they listen to each other can change this mindset, she says.
Adopting hiring best practices that address implicit bias. “Evaluation processes often underestimate the qualifications of historically underrepresented groups in higher education,” according to the University of Washington’s ADVANCE Center for Institutional Change. “By providing opportunities for search committee skill-building, faculty will be better equipped to identify subtle biases and engage their colleagues on assumptions of competence and fit.” Search committees at other universities can use UW’s video and facilitation materials to guide their hiring practices.