Student participation in tenure evaluations declining

Macalester granted tenure to seven professors this year and evaluated 26 faculty members who were up for pre-tenure, tenure and promotional review. But student participation in tenure evaluations was noticeably low this year, and the administration is sending out a warning: if students remain inactive in the evaluation process the system might have to change, which might create a deeper disconnect from a process about which students are already uninformed.

“It’s hard for me to overstate how important student input is in this process,” Faculty Personnel Committee (FPC) co-chair Jim Doyle wrote in an email. “Effective evaluation of the candidate’s teaching is not possible without thoughtful student responses.”

Doyle, along with Professor Lin Aanonsen, chairs the committee that makes tenure decisions based on a review process that includes, among other factors, evaluations from current and past students of tenure-track professors.

“Evaluating effectiveness in teaching cannot be done without extensive student input, which is why it is so important that students respond to the requests for evaluations,” Doyle said. “These letters have an enormous impact on the tenure evaluation process.”

But participation in the anonymous surveys sent out to students taking classes with professors up for review was low this year, and Provost Kathleen Murray is concerned. Though she admits that the number of professors under review was overwhelmingly large this semester, she fears that students don’t understand the weight of their role in the process.

“That’s the voice students get to have, and they may not realize it,” Murray said. “Especially when they get three to four of those [surveys], because we had at least 20 people up for review this year, and by the third survey they may think, ‘What’s going on here?’ But it matters enormously in the process.”

Though they know student participation is low, administrators cannot pinpoint the cause of the decline.

“I can speculate about some possibilities [for the low response rate], but in terms of a firm answer, I’m not sure,” said Associate Dean of Faculty Kendrick Brown. “We did have a lot of reviews over the past year, that might have had something to do with it. And [students] may not realize how much power they actually have. It doesn’t help when as many voices as possible are not being heard.”

On the administrative side, Murray notes that measures already have been taken and will continue into the next academic year to improve student utilization of the role they play in tenure decisions.

“We decided the co-chairs of the FPC [Doyle and Aanonsen] would put a letter to the editor in The Mac Weekly (see page 18), and I’m telling all faculty to take five minutes in their classes to explain the importance of this process to students sometime in the next week,” she said. “That way it can be in real time: the survey hits your inbox, and at the same time somebody you respect in the classroom is saying ‘This is important; take the time to do it.’”

If this doesn’t work, things may have to change. Though it is unclear what the new system would entail, history shows that current methods are generally the best way to ensure a sufficient response rate. But no one can tell why it isn’t working.

“We have fewer reviews next year than we did this year, so we think the problem of survey fatigue might not be as bad. But if we can’t get higher return rates we’re thinking about changing the process altogether,” Murray said. “They used to randomly sample students in the class and just hound them more, but the feeling was that if you have a random sample and the return rate already isn’t very strong, you’ve really cut your information. We decided to try these interventions this year and think about it again next year if it doesn’t get better.”

But Doyle is hopeful that this won’t be necessary. Though there is some uncertainty around what a new system would look like, he isn’t ready to give up on the way things are done now.

“I think the student letters are still the best way to evaluate a candidate’s teaching,” he said. “If the rate remains low, I would want to brainstorm some more to think of other ways to get the response rate up.”

FPC and tenure review for students

According to Murray, Doyle and Brown, students have an irreplaceable voice in this process that Doyle considers “the most important decision the college makes.”

At some point in every academic year a handful of tenure-track professors are up for pre-review, tenure review or promotional review–candidates for full professor are reviewed in the spring, those for tenure in the fall. All reviews are processed by the FPC, a six-member committee of tenured Macalester faculty with oversight from Murray and President Brian Rosenberg.

Not a formal member of the committee, Brown’s job is to ensure that all review materials are finalized and brought to the FPC indirectly so as to avoid bias. A

ll committee members are elected by peer professors, and the process leading up to decisions is entirely confidential. There are no student liaisons to the committee for legal reasons.

The student surveys that the administration fears are not being completed at high enough rates are one of the most important materials the FPC considers.

“We read every one of [the surveys] and take them very, very seriously,” Murray said. The FPC also looks at letters from between 10 and 15 hand-chosen students–generally majors, honors students or advisees–explaining their relationships with the professor under review.

“We don’t anticipate hearing bad in those letters,” Murray said. “We see varying levels of good to great. Where the problems surface is typically in the anonymous surveys. That’s why the number is quite different.”

What professors under review can expect

What the administration is looking for in a tenure-worthy professor is three-pronged, and the FPC is aware of every piece at every point in the process.

“Teaching is the most important [factor], but there is also scholarship and service. A faculty member could be denied on the basis of any of those,” Murray said. “So a person who is a superior teacher, as painful as this may be for students to know, who is not producing research [might] not remain a superb teacher throughout the course of a 30- or 40-year career, and they’re not going to get tenure.”

If students are so connected to their professors that such an outcome would upset them, Murray suggests that they make better use of evaluation surveys when the opportunity presents itself. In the meantime, the administration is not trying to keep students in the dark.

“It’s not unusual for questions [about tenure] to come up,” she said. “I hope they continue to come up because you all are here for a little while and then leave, but the next generation needs to understand.”