Do Professors Show Bias When Choosing Students to Mentor?


A recent story on NPR discussed apparent bias by university faculty when it came to selecting students who would receive the most guidance. The discussion centered around results of a recent study authored by Katherine Milkman at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Milkman and her colleagues sent mock letters to over 6,500 professors at the top 250 universities in the country; the letters were supposedly written by students inquiring about a meeting with the instructor. The letters were identical in content but were signed with varying names that were deliberately selected to denote the gender and/or ethnicity of the letter writer. Here is a sampling of names:

Brad Anderson, Meredith Roberts, Lamar Washington, LaToya Brown, Juanita Martinez, Deepak Patel, Sonali Desai, Chang Wong, Mei Chen.

The idea was to send letters coming from a diverse-sounding pool of students who requested a meeting with the professor, then see which students received a reply. Here’s what the NPR reporter said about what the researchers found:

[All] they were measuring was how often professors wrote back agreeing to meet with the students. And what they found was there were very large disparities. Women and minorities were systematically less likely to get responses from the professors and also less likely to get positive responses from the professors. Now remember, these are top faculty at the top schools in the United States and the letters were all impeccably written.

The “large disparities” were that depending on which department the professors were associated with, their bias in replies varied greatly. In the humanities, for example, there was the smallest amount of discrimination. But in business departments, there was a 25% gap between “students” whose names read as white and male vs. women and minorities. Private schools showed more discrimination than public schools, and “students” whose names read as Asian were discriminated against more than any other group. Further, having a diverse faculty does not remedy the situation.

MILKMAN: There’s absolutely no benefit seen when women reach out to female faculty, nor do we see benefits from black students reaching out to black faculty or Hispanic students reaching out to Hispanic faculty.

The research is interpreted as revealing a “glass ceiling” of sorts. By selecting faculty at top schools, the idea is that those faculty – and their time, attention, knowledge, contacts, etc. – can be conduits to higher levels of (financial) achievement for the students with whom they work most closely. Having more access to a professor and his or her resources is believed to equate to more success. In a sense, the faculty at these top universities could be said to represent what is colloquially referred to as an “old boys’ club.” Except these professors aren’t just old, aren’t just boys, and aren’t just social elites.

I’d be interested in seeing further research on this topic. For one thing, it would be very interesting to somehow go back and interview the professors to try and find out the thought process behind which letters they chose to reply to and those they didn’t. I’m not sure it would even be possible to get an honest assessment, but it might be worth trying. Also, it would be even more informative if the researchers could do a longitudinal study in which they tracked the careers of students who were identified as being top mentees of the top professors at the top universities. Would those students achieve the more successful outcomes predicted by this study? Or perhaps the research could be done retroactively: Select the top 250 leaders…or powerful CEOs…or wealthy Americans, and ask them who their mentors were. The results could be very informative, to say the least.

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Further exploration:

– The myth of the Model Minority: Persistent stereotypes about Asian Americans.

– Stereotype Threat: When fear of confirming a negative stereotype leads to anxiety and decreased performance.

– Women are more inclined to undermine rather than help other women in a professional environment.