Campus Free Speech

U. Penn Faculty Must Undergo Implicit Bias Training Before Serving on Hiring Committees

Raises concerns about academic freedom, pseudoscience.


Bruce Andersen / Wikimedia Commons

All faculty members who serve on hiring committees at the University of Pennsylvania must undergo subconscious bias training, The Daily Pennsylvanian reports.

"We thought that was a good place to start," Kelly Jordan-Sciutto, a professor in the Dental school, told the student newspaper. "I think that this will go a long way to making an inclusive environment which will only further enhance all the scholarship and education that occurs here."

It's unclear exactly what this training will look like. The university's Perelman School of Medicine already offers anti-bias workshops run by a private consulting firm.

In any case, forcing faculty members to submit to such training raises important concerns. For one thing, the science of subconscious or implicit bias is far from settled. It's probably true that most people have unconscious biases they should work toward overcoming, but the tools we have for measuring these biases aren't nearly as reliable as some psychologists have claimed. (The implicit association test increasingly looks like junk science.)

Subconscious bias is often cited as the cause of microaggressions: small acts of unintentional malice perpetrated against members of disadvantaged groups. Preventing the spread of microaggressions is now a top concern of many campus activists and administrators. But it isn't clear that microaggressions actually bother any significant number of marginalized people—many said in a survey that they were not offended by the proposed microaggression.

Campus diversity administrators probably love bias and microaggression training workshops because these are tangible things they can point to and say look, we're doing our jobs, spreading diversity. Given the amount of money these public employees make—often more than $100,000—I can see why they would feel the need to justify their positions. Of course, one team of researchers turned up no evidence that hiring a chief diversity officer had a positive effect on campus diversity numbers.

The nature of implicit bias and the existence of microaggressions might be interesting subjects for classroom discussion in certain departments. But I am unconvinced that workshop-quality implicit bias training is sufficiently advanced beyond pseudoscience. Requiring the hiring committee to enroll in it is a blow to academic freedom without any obvious benefit.