University News

Report details challenges to tenure review process

Senior Staff Writer
Friday, October 26, 2012

Evaluating faculty members’ teaching during tenure review continues to be a challenge for several departments, according to the 2012 report from the Teaching, Promotions and Appointments Committee, a faculty governance committee. Some departments pay less attention to “challenging teaching issues” or do not provide “a candid assessment” of each tenure candidate’s strengths and weaknesses as a teacher, according to the report.

The committee, in conjunction with the Dean of the Faculty’s office, has worked for several years to improve teaching assessment by requesting that departments provide both numerical assessments of teaching performance and students’ comments on their instructors’ teaching, the report said. But while some departments have responded by providing more data, others have failed to provide enough information, the report said.

The report comes in the wake of changes to the tenure review process that became effective last year. The changes prompted concerns from some faculty members that the University would prioritize research over teaching in granting tenure.

“Sometimes departments gloss over some of the issues (in assessing teaching), and the committee needs to delve into these in a little more detail,” said Kenneth Breuer, professor of engineering and former chair of TPAC, who oversaw this year’s report. Breuer and Steven Reiss, professor of computer science and the new chair of TPAC, both declined to name specific departments that have neglected to provide a candid assessment of teaching, citing the confidentiality of TPAC internal discussions.

“The main challenge is that we’d like departments to evaluate teaching in multiple ways and not simply rely on students’ evaluation forms,” said Kevin McLaughlin P’12, dean of the faculty. McLaughlin listed peer evaluations by more senior colleagues as one viable alternative to student reviews, which are distributed to students in a class at the end of each semester.

 But there is no uniform method for evaluating teaching, McLaughlin said. “There are different challenges in different kinds of classes,” he said, noting that having a faculty member sit in on a smaller class to observe the junior professor’s teaching might simply be too disruptive. “You have to try to figure out the teaching in each one of them.”

“TPAC doesn’t make any demands on a department, but we do ask for comprehensive discussion,” Breuer said. He criticized student evaluations as often not presented in an easily readable or comprehensible manner, saying that departments should be open to peer evaluations as a valuable complementary form of assessing teaching.

McLaughlin said his office continues to monitor reports of ineffective teaching and is working to ensure all departments have submitted documents clearly showing how they assess teaching. TPAC also takes into account any written observations from colleagues when assessing faculty members’ teaching, McLaughlin said.

But TPAC was generally pleased with the “quality and candid nature” of the teaching assessment reports presented by departments, according to the report.

“This is not an endemic problem,” Breuer said. “I think departments are always doing the best they can to ensure quality.”

As administrators have implemented the tenure reforms, they have faced the issue of how to weigh both teaching and research in tenure decisions. Tenure is based on three core components: teaching, research and “service,” which is measured in multiple ways, including organizing conferences, contributing to departmental committee work or reviewing academic papers.

But any perception that the new tenure rules have emphasized research at the expense of teaching is inaccurate, McLaughlin said. “In no way has that been an effect of the policy, and it is not the intention,” McLaughlin said, adding that he has dealt with cases where faculty members with significant research experience have been turned down for tenure because of inadequate teaching abilities.

Many department chairs stressed that teaching remains an integral part of the tenure process, and many expressed support for using peer evaluations alongside student comments to assess faculty teaching.

“We don’t consider it acceptable that someone may be a stellar researcher but a mediocre teacher,” said Roberto Tamassia, professor of computer science and chair of the department. Tamassia said his department considers numerous criteria for assessing teaching, including peer evaluations in which senior professors observe their colleagues deliver multiple lectures to judge their progress over time.

Tamassia said the computer science department also examines faculty members’ impact beyond the University when reviewing tenure cases. Professors can demonstrate strong teaching by having written influential textbooks or by creating educational websites for their courses, Tamassia said.

But others diverge on the weight given to instruction against research.

“I think we should say that while important, teaching is not the most important part of receiving tenure at Brown,” said Roberto Serrano, professor of economics and chair of the department. “Brown is a leading university in the world, and what is really important is the research component.”

Serrano said that while faculty members who are mediocre researchers will never get tenure in his department, he still values teaching. The economics department looks at the difficulty level of an assistant professor’s course, the quality of syllabi and the comments from student reviews as criteria for assessing teaching effectiveness, Serrano said.

“There’s a completely global evaluation of the teaching of each faculty member,” Serrano said. “With teaching, it would be dangerous to rely on just one statistic like students’ evaluations.”

Serrano added that while he attended a seminar at the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning on how to evaluate peers’ teaching skills, senior faculty members do not frequently sit in on junior colleagues’ classes. “We’ll leave that as a voluntary resource that a faculty member could use if he or she wants,” he said.

Echoing Serrano, Kenneth Chay, professor of economics, said teaching was not usually decisive in the outcome of tenure cases but definitely was taken into more serious consideration at Brown than at other national research univ

“Relative to a liberal arts college, we put more emphasis on a world-class researcher, but we don’t want people who are not educating the undergraduates and graduates at a world-class level,” Chay said. “If they were really bad, it could be a deal-breaker.”

Laura Bass, professor of Hispanic studies and chair of the department, said students’ feedback can be constructive in evaluating their professors’ teaching styles.

“If we see improvement in teaching in the first couple of years, we’re obviously going to take that into consideration,” Bass said, adding that professors who give different types of assignments in addition to a final paper or exam also demonstrate effective teaching.

The size of departments can also influence the effectiveness of assessing teaching. Evelyn Lincoln, associate professor of history of art and architecture and of Italian studies, said she felt her department was able to examine teaching well because of its small size.

Several junior faculty members agreed that, while research was central to tenure, teaching should not be overlooked.

Stephen Bush, assistant professor of religious studies, said teaching assessment was part of the annual review of all non-tenured faculty members who are on track to receive tenure.

 “Research and scholarships are the priority,” he said, “but teaching is an important and essential aspect.”