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Faculty meeting highlights concerns with faculty assessments

Concerns about bias in student assessments of teaching prompt discussion of transparency

Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 5, 2017

At the last faculty meeting of this calendar year, faculty members discussed changes to course evaluations and provided an update on the University’s response to the Republican tax bill.

A committee to evaluate the University’s instruments of assessment, and specifically course evaluations, is working with the Sheridan Center to review techniques of peer institutions and discuss sample questions with the goal of better “captur(ing) the student experience,” said Professor of Epidemiology Alison Field. Dean of the College Maud Mandel formed the committee in response to concerns voiced in the last year about student evaluations, Field said. A new evaluation strategy is anticipated to launch this spring, she added.

Some faculty members stressed that adjustments to student evaluations must consider potential biases during assessment. Dean of Engineering Lawrence Larson shared data from 14 million reviews on that highlighted gendered language used to describe male and female professors. Male faculty rated on the website, for example, are more frequently described as “funny” in comparison to female faculty, he said.

“This is a very compelling demonstration of the problem of gender bias in teaching evaluations,” Larson said.

Other faculty members raised concerns that factors such as tone of instruction or student success may inaccurately reflect the quality of teaching.

These concerns about bias are challenging for the University to address because of a lack of transparency in the evaluation process, said President Christina Paxson P’19. University evaluations, unlike those at many peer institutions, are accessible to the administration only during the review process. Otherwise, they are only available to department heads, said Provost Richard Locke P’18.

“We have to figure out … how do we make it so these evaluations fit into a larger system of assessment and improvement,” Locke said.

The meeting later focused on the GOP tax bill, which is in the reconciliation process after the House and Senate passed their respective bills.

As this new political phase transpires, the University is “continuing to advocate for changes,” said Assistant Director of Government Relations Steve Gerencser.

“The excise tax started at a $100,000 threshold, and it moved up to $250,000, and now it’s at $500,000, so we are seeing these advocacy efforts working,” Gerencser said.

The “worst-case-scenario” for the University would be if the final product mirrored the House bill exactly, Locke said. “It would be pretty devastating on our budget,” adding that the graduate student provisions alone would represent a $23 million cost. If the eventual bill mirrored what passed in the Senate, “it would not be terrible,” Paxson said.

Faculty also passed a motion that renames the undergraduate concentration “Science and Society” to “Science, Technology and Society” in order to “give students a concentration with a name that is nationally recognized,” said Director of the Program of Science and Technology Studies Joan Richards. The motion also approved changing the program “Science and Technology Studies” to “Science, Technology and Society,” effective immediately.

Deputy Provost Joseph Meisel discussed the University’s accreditation process, which will bring a review team to campus from March 11 to 14.

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