Sociologist Ted Thornhill presents on racism in college admissions

Ted Thornhill presented his research on racism in college admissions Tuesday in Griffis Hall.

Tuesday afternoon in the Griffis Hall Forum Room, Ted Thornhill, a sociologist from Florida Gulf Coast University, presented a talk titled “We Want Black Students, Just Not You: How White Admissions Counselors Screen Black Prospective Students” as a part of the Mississippi State University Race in America lecture series. 

Thornhill, an associate professor at FGCU, presented the findings of his 2016 research with the same title. In his research, Thornhill found that white college admissions counselors were less likely to respond to the emails of black prospective students who were committed to anti-racism than black students who were racially apolitical. 

Thornhill’s research and teaching have been covered widely by the media on outlets such as The Washington Post, CNN and Forbes. Thornhill said he believed his presentation would give students a better understanding of contemporary racism.

“I think students will be able to develop a more sophisticated understanding of race and racism, particularly contemporary forms of racism as opposed to simply understanding racism as racial prejudice and conflating racism with racial prejudice,” Thornhill said.

Thornhill’s study involved sending over 1,000 fake letters from high school students with names that, in the minds of the counselors, were associated with their race. The letters expressed different levels of racial salience, or the level in which race figures into the identity of oneself. The non-racially salient student expressed an interest in environmental activism, while the racially salient student expressed an interest in anti-racist activism.

Thornhill found that counselors were much more likely to respond to non-racially or moderately racially salient students than racially salient students. For example, white male counselors responded to black female students interested in environmental activism twice as much as they responded to black female students interested in anti-racism.

A question and answer session followed Thornhill’s discussion with both students and faculty members asking questions. These questions ranged from his methodology to his views on contemporary racism. Margaret Hagerman, an assistant professor of sociology and the organizer of the Race in America lecture series, said she thought Thornhill would have a lot to share with MSU students.

“Thornhill is a nationally renowned scholar of racism,” Hagerman said. “His work has been recently published in a top sociology journal, and his work has crossed over to the public. He’s appeared in all kinds of media outlets. I think his research is innovative in its methodological approach, and I think the findings are particularly important for institutions of higher education.”

Thornhill was the second guest speaker in the Race in America lecture series. Earlier this semester, MSU alumnus Daedric T. Williams, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, shared his research on family structure and racial inequity. Hagerman said the series is an opportunity for MSU students and faculty members to learn about scholars who study race and their research.

Genesis Ferris, a sophomore criminology major from Philadelphia, Mississippi, said Thornhill’s presentation made her aware of aspects she did not know about college admissions.

“Originally, my admissions experience was kind of easy,” Ferris said. “They accepted it right away, but I feel like that has something to do with my race. I am Native American as well. I know most people don’t know this, but when federally funded schools let Native Americans in, they get more federal money. So, the bigger the Native American population at that school, the more money they get. I was kind of interested in the race side of admissions that he was talking about rather than all the other stuff.”

Thornhill’s presentation was the final lecture in the Race in America lecture series for 2019. The series is sponsored by the MSU Department of Sociology, MSU College of Arts & Sciences and the Loftin Fund. Hagerman said the goal of the lecture series was to provide an opportunity for people to learn.

“Regardless of your major, this lecture series is an opportunity to listen to some of the cutting-edge research about the topic of race in America, which is a very controversial and important topic,” Hagerman said.

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