At its meeting Monday afternoon the University of Alberta’s General Faculties Council (GFC) voted to endorse a set of recommendations from the Committee on the Learning Environment (CLE) that allows the University’s Universal Student Ratings of Instruction (USRIs) to continue to be used in employment decisions at the University — this despite the fact that a growing body of research shows that student evaluations of this kind discriminate against women.
GFC took this decision in regard to a CLE report, already discussed on this blog here, by me, and here, by Michelle Maroto (Sociology), that is strikingly dismissive of the research suggesting the kinds and degree of discrimination at work in student evaluations of teaching.
President David Turpin framed the discussion with opening remarks about GFC’s “legislated responsibilities” under the Post-Secondary Learning Act, and the agreement with the Association of Academic Staff (AASUA) that evaluation of teaching should be multi-faceted. He declared the situation as “extraordinarily complicated.” I did not hear a word from him that indicated any concern with the possibility that the USRIs are in any way discriminatory.
Proponents of CLE’s recommendations followed the lead of the President. They spoke of the need for a multi-faceted approach to the evaluation of teaching without taking up the question of what it means for any instrument in that multifaceted approach to be possibly discriminatory. They also insisted that the committee’s work should continue, implying that if GFC disallowed the use of USRIs for “summative” purposes — that is, the use of USRI results in hiring, promotion, tenure, and salary decisions for the academic staff — that somehow this would bring all of the work of CLE to a halt. The chair of CLE contributed to this view when she pleaded with GFC not to leave the committee “spinning its wheels.” There was only one glancing reference to the research showing that student evaluations of teaching discriminate against women, this from a Dean, who made a feint of acknowledging the “scholarship on bias” but then declared that this “scholarship” should not affect the University’s use of USRIs, as “no tool is perfect.”
Almost all those speaking in favour of the CLE recommendations were senior white men. One of these declared his “need” for the USRIs so he can have feedback from his students. Such a comment patently ignores the fact that mechanism that I was urging, a new, sophisticated evaluation to be used for formative feedback only, would secure feedback from students. That’s what it does! Sadly, speakers preferred to deal in red herrings rather than deal with the facts and implications of the research pointing to the discriminatory aspects of student evaluations. How can the members of an institution dedicated to teaching and research not take seriously research that has such profound implications for our evaluation of how we teach?
It has been clear to me for years that GFC cannot pretend on any reasonable basis to be a proper venue of shared governance, equivalent to healthy Faculty Senates. It rarely discusses or votes on anything important, and even where it does so the decisions are not the decisions of faculty, for Vice-Presidents, Deans, and students greatly outnumber faculty on GFC. Monday’s meeting suggests, however, that GFC is much worse off than I realized. It had an opportunity to engage in decision-making of widespread importance to the University community, and its decision-making was not conscientious.
The University’s motto is Quaecumque vera, whatsoever things are true. GFC needs to take its decisions on the part of the University not in relation to what is administratively easy, because it upholds the status quo, but in relation to what is morally right, and what is morally and factually true. The University should not do anything other than scrupulously eschew all forms of discrimination. If it cannot do so where research points towards the problem of one of the practices upon which it depends, how can we not wonder what other forms of discrimination are informing the work of the University?