Inside Higher Ed, Student-Evaluated Out of Tenure:
Carolyn Brown, an assistant professor of journalism at American University, says it’s her ethical duty to hold her students to high standards, especially the kinds of firm deadlines they’ll face in their careers. So she wonders why American is denying her tenure over some moderately lower than average student evaluations of her teaching, which she says are linked to her at-times unpopular rigor — not poor teaching.
So do many of her colleagues, who have appealed to Scott Bass, provost, on her behalf. “Denying her tenure after six years based on the clearly specious basis of teaching evaluations is clearly wrongheaded,” John C. Watson, associate professor and director of the journalism division, said this week. “That’s as a matter of principle, and more specifically in terms of what’s happening at the university today.”
By what’s happening on campus, Watson means that American’s School of Communication will by the end of this semester lose four faculty members of color, including Brown, who is Latina — though she’s currently appealing her tenure denial. As on many campuses, there are also universitywide concerns about the climate for diversity; bananas with a written reference to an all-black sorority were found hanging from a noose this spring, for example, after a member of that sorority became head of the student government.
To willingly push another minority scholar out on shaky grounds, Watson said, “just doesn’t make sense. It makes you want to look for some other reason why they are doing this … It’s just, frankly, stupid.”
He’s written to the administration asking for another year to mentor Brown to get her teaching scores up, though he says he’s always observed her to be an effective teacher. Brown was recommended for tenure by her communications colleagues and dean before her bid stalled.
Brown thinks she knows why Bass, the provost, took unusual care — in a four-page tenure denial letter — to explain why he couldn’t promote her: she’s been a vocal advocate for diversity on campus in everyday activism and as head of her school's Diversity Committee. While Bass has done a good job recruiting more minority students, she said, faculty diversity hasn't kept pace; she would, for example, she said, have been the only Latino or Latina tenured professor in communications. She's also encouraged students to voice their concerns about the racial climate on campus.
Yet that explanation is vexing, too, she said, since the university has on numerous occasions singled Brown out as a key thinker on diversity, pointing to her award-winning documentary films on Latinos and immigration. It once labeled her its "Latino-Documentary Wonk" for a themed branding campaign, she wrote in her appeal. “They used me as a face of diversity,” Brown said, “and when I went up for tenure, they threw me away. It’s really disappointing. I’m still kind of devastated.” ...
By American’s own standards on tenure, assessments of one's teaching should not hinge on students' evaluations alone. That's partly because numerous studies suggest that student ratings are inherently biased, particularly against women and minority faculty members. A 2015 internal report from American’s Faculty Senate on offered numerous suggestions for improving its own evaluations process and instrument and concluded that “in evaluating teaching, it is critical to balance student input with other factors.” Teaching units should “continue to articulate for themselves how that balance is best achieved,” it said.
But Bass's analysis of Brown's teaching seems to rely only on student evaluations. In his denial notification letter to her, Bass wrote that “there are significant problems in your teaching and they revolve around consistency from one course and/or one term to the next. Further, within courses, even those that seem to go well, there is often substantial ranges of scores from the overall mean score (e.g., the standard deviation). [For example, you can get a mean score of 3.5 by someone scoring a 1 (very poor) and a 7 (excellent) or two people agreeing and reporting a score of 3.5. The mean provides too little insight as to what the student experience was in the class. Hence, the phrase — the 'tyranny of the mean' — is commonly used in the social seciences. The variability is better explained by the examination of the standard deviation.”] ...
As for her future, Brown said she’s seeing the appeal process through. But Watson warned that scholars of her stature, particularly scholars of color, get offers to go elsewhere fast.
“It’ll be a yearlong process to replace her," he said. "The likelihood we'll get another woman who is a minority is a tick above zero."