This is a somewhat rambling follow-up to my recent post on conservatives in the academy and a post from a couple of months back on academic freedom and religious education.

It’s important to note that “academia” is not a single, monolithic thing, but rather a network of interrelated institutions that function in varying ways and with various boundaries. Let me take my own career as an example.

About fifteen years ago I became restless at Wheaton College and started wondering whether I wouldn’t be happier teaching somewhere else — especially in my native South. Also, I had myself been educated wholly in secular, public institutions and thought that it might be good for me to return to that world. So I started applying for jobs.

I had a fine job at Wheaton, so I didn’t apply that widely — I was especially concerned that, having taught academic high-achievers for so long, I wouldn’t be a good teacher for marginally qualified students. And as a member of many hiring committees over the years I had learned the fruitlessness of applying for positions you don’t really fit (in disciplinary speciality or rank or institutional mission). So that first year I applied only for jobs I thought I would enjoy and clearly had the qualifications for.

But in putting together my application, I found myself in a bit of a moral dilemma. I had more than enough publications in peer-reviewed journals, and books on peer-reviewed presses, to make a good case for myself … but I also had many publications in religious and politically conservative magazines and journals. Should I include those? They almost certainly wouldn’t help my case and might actually hurt it. But then I thought: No, this is who I am, I can’t pretend that I haven’t written this stuff. I decided to clearly distinguish my general-interest writing from my peer-reviewed stuff, but put it all on my CV. (They could google me, anyway.)

I sent off my applications, and within a couple of weeks I received polite letters of rejection from every school I applied to.

The next year I was still restless, so I applied a little more widely — and got the same result. At this point my professional pride was slightly wounded, but I was also curious about how this was working out. By the time the next hiring season rolled around, I was less inclined to move — but I applied anyway, still more widely than before. In fact, for a period of about ten years I applied to positions for which I was qualified, all over the United States, in every kind of college and university, including places where I definitely didn’t want to teach. I did my homework; I tailored my letters to the specifics of each school, each department; I presented my work with care. Moreover, as each year passed my list of publications was growing longer.

In all those years, in which I sent out over one hundred letters of application, I received not one inquiry. Either I got a polite rejection letter or no response at all. (And when I got no response I followed up with emails to department chairs; those weren’t answered either.) I wondered whether diversity initiatives might be at work, but when I could discover who had eventually been hired for the positions I applied for, I learned that most of the hires had been white men, like me.

Draw your own conclusions from all this. I am not sure what conclusions to draw. In the op-ed I mention in my previous post, Jon A. Shields and Joshua M. Dunn, Sr. mention the work of George Yancey: “Yancey found that 15 percent of political scientists and 24 percent of philosophers would discriminate against Republican job applicants, and at least 29 percent of professors in all disciplines surveyed would disfavor members of the National Rifle Association. He found that professors are even less tolerant of evangelicals, partly because that identity is a proxy for social conservatism.” But are we sure that that’s the way the arrow points? Maybe those professors are intolerant of political conservatives because they perceive political conservatism as a proxy for Christian belief. When hiring committees saw my CV, was the red flag my writing for conservative publications, or religious ones? Or were both equally alarming? Was my experience teaching at a religious college more alarming than either?

But while you’re thinking about all this, keep something in mind: While those rejections were piling up, I was publishing books — peer-reviewed books — on some of the better university presses: Oxford (once) Princeton (three times); and my next book will be with Harvard. I don’t know why the presses are so much more open-minded, but I suspect it has something to do with the thinness of the relationship: if Princeton University Press publishes my book, they don’t commit to putting me in a office down the hall for the next twenty years.

We can speculate about all that as well. But for now I just want to say that when people decry academia’s prejudice against Christians and conservatives, it’s important to ask: “What do you mean by ‘academia’?”