Faculty Senate votes to delay release of course evaluation data

Monday, October 26, 2015 - 7:41pm

Kinesiology Prof. Stephan Szymanski, a SACUA member, discusses flaws in studies regarding student course evaluations during the Faculty Senate meeting in Palmer Commons on Monday.

Kinesiology Prof. Stephan Szymanski, a SACUA member, discusses flaws in studies regarding student course evaluations during the Faculty Senate meeting in Palmer Commons on Monday. Buy this photo
Ryan McLoughlin/Daily

 

An overwhelming majority of the University’s Faculty Senate voted in favor of a proposal to delay the release of course evaluation data until faculty, students and experts can reach a consensus on a new instrument of evaluation.

The vote was planned after James Holloway, the vice provost for global and engaged education, announced the University could implement plans to release course evaluation data as early as this semester at a Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs meeting Oct. 12.

According to the plan Holloway presented, the University would release all numerical data from student course evaluations through a website accessible only to those with a University uniqname. Comments written on the evaluations would not be released, nor would the data collected from course evaluations of classes taught by graduate student instructors or instructors with fewer than seven terms of teaching experience.

At Monday’s Faculty Senate meeting, faculty members engaged in an hour-long discussion about the potential implications of releasing course evaluation data to students.

Comparative Literature Prof. Silke-Maria Weineck, the SACUA chair, opened the conversation by sharing faculty input she has received over the past several weeks both in favor of and opposed to the release of data.

Those in favor of releasing the data said current course evaluations, while not perfect, would be a better resource for students than ratings posted on the website Rate My Professors. Others said faculty should be transparent and responsive to student requests. Others said because course evaluation data is provided by students, it should be made available to students.

Those opposed to releasing the data pointed to potential bias based on race, gender, ethnicity and sexuality in course evaluation data, the low student participation rate in the evaluations and the professional implications such a release could have for faculty members.

On Oct. 12, Holloway said a prototype website featuring limited data has been up and running for several months. His announcement earlier this month was met with surprise by SACUA members, who voiced the need for broader faculty consultation before such a plan was implemented.

At the time, Weineck, the SACUA chair, said a majority of faculty members dislike the current course evaluation tools.

“In my 17 years at the University of Michigan, I have not heard from a single person that thinks this is a good instrument providing good data,” she said. “In sum, nobody thinks that these are good data. And whatever they are, they were not designed to assist students in choosing classes; it is the wrong instrument for that. So what we’ve been saying at the Senate Assembly, it’s not that we don’t think students don’t have a legitimate interest in having more and better information on how to choose classes, but we think at a world-class University it behooves us to design an instrument that can actually deliver the data needed for that purpose.”

In an interview with the Daily last week, University Provost Martha Pollack said if the University’s Senate Assembly expressed similar disapproval about releasing course evaluation data, she was willing to delay the release.

“This came up because the students have requested it — this was all prompted by the students. We then got a response from SACUA that they were not happy about it,” Pollack said. “So I’ve asked them to take it to Senate Assembly, which is a bigger body, and if there’s serious unhappiness about it there, then I’m willing to hold off. But then I’ve said I want faculty governance to meet with student governance to get this sorted out.”

Pollack acknowledged faculty concerns about the current evaluations during her interview with the Daily. As a result, she said she has asked Holloway to form a committee including students, faculty and assessment experts to determine best practices for course evaluation. If these best practices are not in line with the current instrument, the committee will be charged with recommending an alternative.

On Monday, Mika LaVaque-Manty, a professor of political science, presented an abbreviated summary of his research on bias based on race, ethnicity and gender in course evaluation data. According to his findings, LaVaque-Manty said, there is no indication of such bias. To reach this conclusion, he aggregated data from the 108,000 courses offered by the College of Engineering and LSA over the past 10 years.

LaVaque-Manty argued in favor of providing students with current course evaluation data until a new instrument is developed.

“There is no evidence of bias,” LaVaque-Manty said. “This does not mean that social identity is not in play, but the instrument seems to be pretty neutral on that. The question of a better instrument is a reasonable one, but at the moment students are using nothing for most of us, or RateMyProfessors.com for about 10 percent of us. The current instrument has shown to be much more consistent, a much better instrument. I don’t see any inconsistency between the idea of developing a better instrument and at the same time releasing data.”

Angela Dillard, the LSA associate dean for undergraduate education and a professor of Afroamerican and African Studies, said faculty should focus on whether or not to release course evaluation data, rather than developing a new instrument.

“This is not a new conversation; we’ve been looking at this for a long time,” Dillard said. “I am unconvinced that a study group could come up with a somehow better instrument that would be free from the questions we’re using now. I don’t think that this committee is going to come up with something that is somehow magically better. For me, it’s a question of release it or don’t release it. I can’t tell you how many studies we’ve done; I think that that’s just evasive.”

Several student government representatives were also present at the meeting. LSA senior Cooper Charlton, Central Student Government president, said CSG is in favor of working with faculty to develop a new instrument. In the meantime, however, the group plans to advocate for current course evaluation data to be released at the start of the winter 2016 semester.

“We want this to be a collaborative effort,” Charlton said. “By no means are we here to shove your concerns into a corner and not listen to you. That being said, it’s a decision, ‘are we going to release these now or are we going to kick the can down the road?’ We see there’s two conversations going on: the immediate release of course evaluations as they stand, and the second conversation is how can we come together through the committee Dr. Holloway has suggested to determine what the instrument looks like going forward?”

In an interview after the meeting, LSA senior Jason Colella, president of LSA Student Government, said he was willing to accept a delayed release of course evaluation data if it meant protecting the relationship between students and faculty.

“Personally, I would want the immediate release as well, but I am willing to take a step back and wait until we can get further agreement,” he said. “In my opinion, it’s not worth causing such strife amongst faculty in order to get the release of data.”

Following the meeting, Charlton stressed that CSG has a vested interest in collaborating with faculty.

“From the outside, it looks like it’s faculty versus students — and it’s really not that,” Charlton said. “I really do believe it is faculty and students wanting to work together. I want that to be extremely clear, we want to work with faculty. That being said, we want the course evaluations to be released for winter 2016.”

For this to happen, Charlton said, CSG has developed two potential options.

“We have two congruent plans that we can take, one is a little bit more aggressive that we want to avoid because, like I said, we want to commit to a relationship with faculty, not just while I’m here, but down the road,” he said. “We have a softer plan that involves a lot of sit-down meetings, but that probably won’t work, so we’re really left with one aggressive plan. We’d like to avoid taking an aggressive stance on this, but it’s something we might have to do.”