Save our professors from MyEdu

A professor stands at the front of the lecture hall, one hand running through his thinning gray hair while the other nervously clutches a stack of burnt-orange Scantron sheets. “I’m going to step outside now,” he says. “Please fill out the course evaluations thoroughly and have a wonderful break.”

At UT-Austin, professors take their students’ evaluations seriously, as they should. But the incentive system, which encourages professors to pander to student demands, risks being counterproductive to academic excellence. Student evaluations influence decisions about the future of faculty members’ careers: decisions about tenure, various awards and even job security. At the end of each semester, students are given an opportunity to be brutally honest — or not — about their professors’ performance, in the hopes that faculty members will receive feedback as an opportunity to develop alongside their pupils.

Anonymous evaluations allow students to opine freely at the risk of encouraging vindictive behavior. Unfortunately, students often reveal more about a course’s convenience than its quality. A cursory glance at the course rating website MyEdu, in which the UT system invested $10 million in 2011, makes clear the danger of students’ tendency to be capricious with their commentary. Outrage at undesired grades and praise of light workloads abound. Some professors are denounced for scheduling their lectures too early in the morning; others are applauded as GPA-boosters. The most popular recommendation of one introductory chemistry professor reads, “Class is easy … A lot of people found it difficult to stay awake … Best part is that the homeworks are so indicative of the tests … Take [this professor].”

UT’s investment in MyEdu demonstrates its commitment to humor students’ wishes, a seemingly laudable goal, but also a dangerous one. There is an important distinction between using students’ feedback and acting in their best interest. Students are constantly exposed to University rhetoric promoting education as a worthwhile goal, including an inscription on the Main Building that reads, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set ye free.” That mission does not, and should not, come easily.

The value of a college education extends far beyond the (strongly encouraged) four years of its duration. It’s impossible for students to judge that lasting worth before they’ve left the University, but they are asked to do just that in their course evaluations, and indeed at the most stressful time of the semester. Many students from challenging high schools eagerly, and with a hint of braggadocio, quip about the academic struggles they overcame on the way to college. Fortunately for them, four strenuous years of delayed gratification gave them necessary skills for collegiate success. Fortunately for their teachers, the students were not invited to pass judgment on the quality of their instructors during the time of instruction. Otherwise, many of the hard-earned skills honed through persistent academic effort would have gone undeveloped.

In August 2011, UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa articulated his “Framework for Advancing Excellence,” a plan to improve graduation rates and make UT System universities operate more efficiently. Central to the framework is a call to “strengthen annual performance evaluations” for faculty, in order to “better define performance levels.” Cigarroa is right to suggest that professors need to be held accountable and that student input has its place in the class room.

But it’s important that objective and credible sources of evaluation carry the most weight. At an August 2012 meeting of the Board of Regents, Board Chairman Gene Powell spoke of the plan’s success: “From what I understand, the chancellor’s framework is quickly becoming a national model.”

If the habits of UT students on MyEdu are any indication, Powell’s claim may spell bad news for university professors nationwide. Professors deserve reasonable room to operate without fear of harsh student feedback. Whereas student evaluations can provide critical feedback for faculty to improve teaching methods, they hardly represent a fair metric of professor performance.