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Driving Campus Diversity One Decision at a Time

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There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.—Ernest Hemingway


The posting below looks at the role of implicit bias in limiting efforts to diversify our campuses and reduce the feelings of isolation that can impede learning. It is by Sharon L. Davies* and it appeared in Liberal Education, Fall 2016, Vol. 102, No. 4, a publication of the Association of American Colleges and Universities []. Copyright © 2016 Association of American Colleges and Universities, 1818 R Street NW, Washington, DC 20009. All rights reserved, reprinted with permission.



Rick Reis

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Driving Campus Diversity One Decision at a Time


There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.—Ernest Hemingway

After last year’s record-breaking student activism, many college administrators welcomed the arrival of summer with a sigh of relief. Through marches, rallies, sit-ins, and even food strikes, student protestors had pressed their campuses throughout the year to address a host of concerns. Their protests touched sensitive topics, like race and ethnicity, and exposed their campuses’ lack of practice tackling such issues head-on. Students of color described the “microaggressions” and cultural insensitivities of their peers, objected to the multiple ways in which their campus environments honored past oppressors, and revealed the embarrassingly small number of African Americans and Latinos among their faculties, staffs, and student bodies. Summer promised a chance for administrators to reflect on what the students had said, to develop action plans, to catch their breath.

But then summer 2016 brought unfathomable acts of human violence. First came the deadliest mass shooting in the nation’s history, the slaughter of forty-nine men and women at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando—a murderous rampage that intentionally targeted the LGBTQ community. Next came the heartbreaking killings of two African American men by police officers in Baton Rouge (Alton Sterling) and St. Paul (Philandro Castile), adding more names to what seemed to be an ever-growing list of victims and more taped evidence that race may play a role in such incidents. Then came the murder of five police officers in Dallas by a deranged veteran, and another three officers in Baton Rouge by a former marine—both shooters senselessly bent on vengeance.

The heated political discourse surrounding the contest for the US presidency contributed even more grist to the tense mood of the nation. Political promises to “build a wall,” to institute mass deportations of undocumented immigrants, and to ban Muslims from entering the country altogether resonated with a wide swath of American voters who desire to return to an earlier time, a time that felt safer. Unlike the students who just months before had marched and chanted for change, many of these Americans saw the solution to our problems in less diversity, not more. The race for the presidency had thus dragged into the open the depths of the citizenry’s disagreements. Divisions ran straight down the fault lines of race, ethnicity, nationalism, and religion—all places we have been before.

Colleges and universities are bracing themselves for what lies ahead, understanding that much of the debate over these controversies will occur on our campuses. And rightly so. Higher education institutions can be critical sites for building understanding of the drivers of fear-based, anti-diversity thinking. But this is not inevitable. To be effective, colleges and universities must begin with a clear-eyed look at themselves, and then put into place mechanisms of change that are responsive to students’ criticisms. Diversity and inclusion must begin at home.

How implicit bias research can help us create diverse and inclusive campuses

As we search for ways to work with our students to diversify our campuses and to help them grow into the leaders our diversifying nation will need them to be, we must resist the temptation to underestimate the dimensions of the challenge we face. It is not simply a matter of overcoming the beliefs of a small pool of folks who are resistant to change. Decades of brain science teach us that the challenges are much bigger than that. Far greater than the threat posed by individuals who see little profit in diversity is that posed by the much larger pool of pro-diversity folks who do not understand how powerful, easily triggered implicit biases can impede our diversity efforts.

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. Because decisions are made one by one over time—in carrels, offices, committee rooms, faculty lounges, and buildings spread across our campuses—they can seem less consequential than they actually are. (Surely one hire, or one admissions decision, can’t be that important?) As long as individuals remain unaware of their own implicit biases, the effects of implicit bias itself will go unconsidered, and harmful associations connected with race, gender, age, and so on will continue to go undisrupted.

What is implicit bias?

Before exploring how implicit biases may be shaping the composition of our student bodies, faculties, and senior leadership teams, and how they may be contributing to the slights and microaggressions underrepresented minority and women activists have brought out into the open, it may be helpful to define our terms.

Implicit biases are easily triggered evaluative beliefs or stereotypes that can influence our understanding of others and our behaviors toward them without our full awareness. They are related to, but distinct from, explicit or overt expressions of bias. The key distinction is that the operation of implicit bias is largely hidden from our consciousness. Indeed, research shows that most of us are profoundly unaware of how often deeply embedded automatic associations linked to race, sex, age, and other identity markers affect our perceptions of others and our actions concerning them.¹ Worse, these easily triggered associations can even contradict firmly held egalitarian commitments to be fair to others irrespective of our differences.²

Unlike explicit biases, which today we tend to believe are confined to a relatively small group of bigoted individuals, brain science has shown that implicit biases are pervasive. They even influence the perceptions and judgments of individuals who have heightened professional obligations to act impartially and even-handedly, such as judges and teachers.³ Although research shows that people tend to associate favorable qualities with their own “in-groups,” it is also quite possible to internalize negative biases toward one’s own group, particularly if it has been stigmatized by the broader culture.⁴

The online Implicit Association Test (IAT) is the most popular method for identifying one’s own implicit attitudes.⁵ This timed-response sorting test measures how strongly or weakly two concepts are associated with each other in our brains (such as “black” with “good” versus “black” with “bad,” or “white” with “good” versus “white” with “bad,” or “women” with “family” versus “women” with “leadership”). When concepts are strongly associated in our minds, the sorting process is quicker and more reliable. The opposite is true for weakly associated concepts. The majority of test takers pair black faces with negative terms faster than they pair black faces with positive terms. High percentages pair women’s faces with words like “family” and “nurture” faster than with words related to jobs, leadership, and ambition.

What can be done about implicit biases?

People sometimes despair when they first learn about implicit bias. (If implicit bias is an automatic cognitive process that operates without our permission or even awareness, what can we do about it?) Happily, recent research suggests that just as implicit associations are learned, they can gradually be unlearned, freeing us to act in alignment with our intentions to treat others fairly. In particular, intergroup contact and mindfulness exercises have shown promise for altering implicit biases. To be effective, however,  contact across lines of difference can only occur if diversity already exists to enable it.

Why address implicit bias in higher education?

In classroom settings, negative implicit biases can be detrimental to student well-being. Research shows that implicit biases can influence educators’ perceptions of, and interactions with, their students, for example. Educators have been shown to evaluate the behavior and promise of students of color more negatively than they do those of white students. This tendency is pervasive, appears to start at an early age,⁸ and it is present both in K–12 systems and in higher education settings.⁹

In the workplace, “confirmation bias” has been shown to compound the harmful impacts of implicit bias. In one recent study, law firm partners received a writing sample supposedly written by a junior lawyer that contained deliberate errors. Half of the partners received the sample with a cover letter indicating that the author was African American, while the other half received the identical sample with a letter indicating the author was white. The partners were asked to rate the quality of the writing sample and to note any errors. The results were jaw-dropping. The quality of the writing sample from the “white lawyer” was rated significantly higher than that of the sample from the “black lawyer.” In addition, the partners who thought they were reading a sample written by a black lawyer found more of the errors. In short, the readers saw what they expected to see (implicit bias: greater competency, white; lesser competency, black) and found evidence to validate what they expected to see as well (confirmation bias: fewer errors, white; more errors, black).¹⁰

Studies like this raise the troubling concern that college admissions decisions might be tainted by implicit biases. Researchers Katherine Milkman, Modupe Akinola, and Dolly Chugh studied how professors respond to email inquiries expressing interest in their programs. They sent emails to professors at 259 universities from a fictitious student asking to meet with them in order to discuss mentorship and entry into graduate school. Apart from details indicating the student’s gender and race, the emails were identical. The study revealed that, in every academic field save the fine arts, the professors responded significantly more often and more positively to white males than to either women or minority students.¹¹

Research raises similar concerns with respect to faculty diversity efforts. Building on the troubling results of the well-known “resume studies,”¹² Geoffrey Beattie, Doron Cohen, and Laura McGuire examined whether implicit bias affects which candidates are selected for university positions. Readers were given identical curricula vitae for white and non-white candidates and asked to assess the candidates’ suitability for a given position. In general, readers with higher IAT implicit bias test scores showing a pro-white preference gave more favorable ratings to white candidates than to non-white candidates.¹³

In response to this and similar research, many universities have begun to offer or mandate implicit bias training for members of faculty search committees. That is a good and important start. But there are several additional areas of concern. For example, are those charged with making admissions decisions aware of implicit bias and its potential to affect their assessment of the relative merits of the applications they read? Do faculty understand how implicit bias might unconsciously affect their assessment of the quality of a student’s work, their willingness or ability to write a strong letter of recommendation for a female protégé versus a male protégé, or their evaluation of a presentation by a potential colleague from an underrepresented minority group?

Combating the influence of implicit biases

As the creators of the Implicit Association Test repeatedly stress, the first step in addressing the effects of implicit biases is simply to be aware that they exist. We all must be aware of the potential blind spots in our judgment, and then take steps to consider how our actions affect others.

Over the past decade, to grow this awareness and to bring research findings on implicit biases to the attention of those who need to know about them—including students, faculty, staff, and senior leaders in higher education—the W.K. Kellogg Foundation has funded the work of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at the Ohio State University. Through its annual publication, State of the Science: Implicit Bias Review, Kirwan reviews emerging brain science research in an easy-to-understand format and makes a summary publically available online (see This publication is shared with partners worldwide in order to ensure that efforts to reduce the impact of implicit bias are based on the most up-to-date research.

The staff of the Kirwan Institute also facilitates interactive trainings that provide an in-depth understanding of the science behind implicit bias and help participants apply implicit bias research findings in their work and daily lives. Within the academy, the Kirwan Institute’s implicit bias engagements focus on student diversity at all levels—from admissions and classroom interactions to university culture as a whole. Through this work with undergraduate and graduate students, colleges, departments, and faculties, the Kirwan Institute seeks to drive campus diversity progress one decision at a time.


As the new school year begins, colleges and universities are renewing their engagement with student leaders and focusing on how best to diversify their campuses and reduce the feelings of isolation that can impede learning. Efforts to deepen understanding of implicit bias can make an important contribution to this process. With a greater understanding of the pervasive tendency of the human brain to link qualities like academic competency and value (or their lack) to particular racial or ethnic groups or to a particular gender, we can arm ourselves to resist the anti-diversity forces and perhaps even dislodge the hierarchical systems that have marred our nation’s past and that continue to challenge us today.


1. See, for example, B. A. Nosek, A. G. Greenwald, and M. R. Banaji, “The Implicit Association Test at Age 7: A Methodological and Conceptual Review” in Social Psychology and the Unconscious: The Automaticity of Higher Mental Processes, ed. J. A. Bargh (New York: Psychology Press, 2007), 265–92; B. A. Nosek and J. J. Hansen, “The Associations in Our Heads Belong to Us: Searching for Attitudes and Knowledge in Implicit Evaluation,” Cognition and Emotion 22, no. 4 (2008): 553–94; T. D. Wilson and E. W. Dunn, “Self-Knowledge: Its Limits, Value, and Potential for Improvement,” Annual Review of Psychology 55 (2004): 493–518.

2. See S. Graham and B. S. Lowery, “Priming Unconscious Racial Stereotypes about Adolescent Offenders,” Law and Human Behavior 28, no. 5 (2004): 483–504; Nosek, Greenwald, and Banaji, “The Implicit Association Test at Age 7.”

3. See J. J. Rachlinski, S. L. Johnson, A. J. Wistrich, and C. Guthrie, “Does Unconscious Racial Bias Affect Trial Judges?,” Notre Dame Law Review 84 no. 3 (2009): 1195–1246; S. Glock and J. Karbach, “Preservice Teachers’ Implicit Attitudes toward Racial Minority Students: Evidence from Three Implicit Measures,” Studies in Educational Evaluation 45 (2015): 55–61.

4. See A. G. Greenwald and L. H. Krieger, “Implicit Bias: Scientific Foundations,” California Law Review 94, no. 4 (2006): 945–67; A. G. Greenwald and T. F. Pettigrew, “With Malice toward None and Charity for Some: Ingroup Favoritism Enables Discrimination,” American Psychologist 69, no. 7 (2014): 669–84.

5. For more for information on the Implicit Association Test or to participate online, access Project Implicit at Skeptics might question the wisdom of addressing unconscious bias, when more overt or explicit forms of bias so plainly continue to challenge our society. Isn’t explicit bias the more serious culprit? Didn’t Omar Marteen kill those forty-nine innocents at that nightclub precisely because they were gay, lesbian, or their allies? He did, and naturally we must be alert to, and prepared to face down, explicit bias whenever and wherever it occurs. But the challenge is not “either/or”; it is “both/and.”

6. See I. V. Blair, “The Malleability of Automatic Stereotypes and Prejudice,” Personality and Social Psychology Review 6, no. 3 (2002): 242–61; I. V. Blair, J. E. Ma, and A. P. Lenton, “Imaging Stereotypes Away: The Moderation of Implicit Stereotypes through Mental Imagery,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 81, no. 5 (2001): 828–41.

7. See T. F. Pettigrew, and L. R. Tropp, “A Meta-Analytic Test of Intergroup Contact Theory,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 90, no. 5 (2006): 751–83; A. Lueke and B. Gibson, “Mindfulness Meditation Reduces Implicit Age and Race Bias: The Role of Reduced Automaticity of Responding,” Social Psychological and Personality Science 6, no. 3 (2015): 284–91.

8. See T. M. Yates and A. K. Marcelo, “Through Race-Colored Glasses: Preschoolers’ Pretend Play and Teachers’ Ratings of Preschooler Adjustment,” Early Childhood Research Quarterly 29 (2014): 1–11.

9. For research showing the pervasiveness of this tendency in K–12 systems, see R. Kumar, S. A. Karabenick, and J. N. Burgoon, “Teachers’ Implicit Attitudes, Explicit Beliefs, and the Mediating Role of Respect and Cultural Responsibility on Mastery and Performance-Focused Instructional Practices,” Journal of Educational Psychology 107, no. 2 (2015): 533–45; J. A. Okonofua and J. L. Eberhardt, “Two Strikes: Race and the Disciplining of Young Students,” Psychological Sciences 26, no. 5 (2015): 617–24. For similar research conducted in higher education settings, see D. S. Jacoby-Senghor, S. Sinclair, and J. N. Shelton, “A Lesson in Bias: The Relationship between Implicit Racial Bias and Performance in Pedagogical Contexts,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 63 (2016): 50–55.

10. A. N. Reeves, Written in Black and White: Exploring Confirmation Bias in Racialized Perceptions of Writing Skills, Yellow Paper Series (Chicago: Nextions, 2014).

11. K. L. Milkman, M. Akinola, and D. Chugh, “What Happens Before? A Field Experiment Exploring How Pay and Representation Differentially Shape Bias on the Pathway into Organizations,” Journal of Applied Psychology 100, no. 6 (2015): 1678–1712.

12. See, for example, M. Bertrand and S. Mullainathan, “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination,” American Economic Review 94, no. 4 (2004): 991–1013.

13. G. Beattie, D. Cohen, and L. McGuire, “An Exploration of Possible Unconscious Ethnic Biases in Higher Education: The Role of Implicit Attitudes on Selection for University Posts,” Semiotica 197 (2013): 217–47.

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*Sharon L. Davies is executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at the Ohio State University, and the Gregory H. Williams Chair in Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at the Moritz College of Law. She also serves as vice provost for diversity and inclusion and as Ohio State’s chief diversity officer. This article is not intended to reflect the views or positions of the Ohio State Univer