Sunday, September 1, 2019

Yet Another Study Finds Evidence that Student Evals of Teaching are Biased

Yet another empirical study has produced compelling evidence that student evaluations of teaching are biased against women.  A multitude of earlier studies demonstrated evidence of bias against people of color.  At this point, there are so many studies supporting these points that the notion of bias in evals is about as scientifically validated as gravity, the heliocentric model of the solar system, and the phenomenon of at least one student per exam forgetting their Exam ID number.  Given that, I remain absolutely befuddled at how university general counsel across the land apparently remain comfortable allowing faculties to use student evaluations as a primary means to assess hiring, retention, promotion, and tenure. 

This is a particularly relevant issue for the field of academic/ bar support (and legal writing and clinical, for that matter).  Although decisions on doctrinal faculty hiring, retention, promotion, and tenure focus to a great degree on the quality and quantity of scholarly output, that is not generally true in our field.  To the contrary, student evaluations of teaching are often the primary (or sole) basis for employment decisions.  Given that our field can boast of the fact that women and people of color make up a strong majority of our number, the demonstrable bias in student evaluations creates a high likelihood of leaving the pernicious mark of institutionalized racism and sexism.       

A cynic might say that the academy’s abject failure to address this issue stems from the consumerization of higher education.  Student evaluations are the primary means by which to assess whether the “customer” is happy.  Moreover, ending student evaluations would no doubt lead students to decry the unfairness of having no say in their education, for which they pay dearly. 

But, those factors, even if credited, should not result in the complete absence of remedies.  As yet unheeded studies suggest that the language of survey instruments can mitigate bias in student evaluations.  Moreover, simply enacting faculty bylaws prohibiting student evaluations from being the dispositive factor in employment decisions would go a long way to ensuring fairer retention analyses.  It would also allow students to continue to have a voice.  And, dare I suggest the radical notion of peer teaching evaluations?

At some point, a woman of color will again suffer an adverse employment decision predicated solely or substantially on student teaching evaluations and will cite these studies as the basis for demanding court intervention.  I suspect that university general counsel at that point will be hard-pressed to articulate a credible argument that the primary use of student evaluations is anything less than prima facie evidence of unlawful discrimination.

- Louis Schulze, FIU Law

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