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UVU Faculty Speak Out Against School’s ‘Overreliance’ On Student Evaluations

Photo of a sign that reads UVU: Utah Valley University.
Brian Albers / KUER
UVU says student evaluations are only one of many assessments used to measure faculty performance.

Two faculty organizations at Utah Valley University are speaking out against what they argue is an overreliance on using student evaluations to measure faculty success and promotion.

In a letter sent to university administration Friday, leadership of the UVU chapters of the American Federation of Teachers and the American Association of University Professors said they have received numerous complaints from faculty about the practice.

“Recommendations from Retention, Tenure, and Promotion (RTP) committees, [department] chairs and peers have taken a backseat to students’ comfort with and enjoyment of a particular class,” the letter said.

Many colleges use student evaluations when making personnel decisions, even though research suggests they’re a poor measure of teacher effectiveness. Student evaluations have been found to be disproportionately negative for female professors, instructors of color and those from other marginalized groups.

They can also encourage them to require fewer or easier assignments and grade more leniently. For Alex Simon, who teaches behavioral science and is the outgoing president of AFT UVU, that is the biggest issue.

“You could say it’s a case of fraud,” Simon said. “Parents, students, they think their kids are getting a decent education that will allow them to ascend into the middle class and contribute to society. And if these courses are less rigorous than many high school courses — and in some cases they certainly are — we’re really violating the duties that this public institution has to the community.”

The letter notes the administration has a record of denying applications for tenure and promotion based almost entirely on hearsay.

In a statement, UVU communications director Scott Trotter said last year the school granted tenure or promotions to over 90% of faculty who applied.

“UVU uses many assessments to measure faculty performance and doesn’t rely solely on student evaluations,” Trotter said. “In fact there are checks and balances built into the system to ensure fairness.”

Simon, who was privy to tenure applications as part of his department’s RTP committee, said he disagrees. He said what typically separates the faculty who receive tenure from those who don’t is the level of difficulty in their classes, which students may complain about in reviews.

“The incentives are all pointing in the wrong direction for faculty,” he said. “Dumb the curriculum down if you really just want to keep your job.”

The university has been criticized in the past for the way it investigates and disciplines faculty, most notably in a case involving longtime tenured professor Mike Shively. One of the primary complaints against him was “arbitrary and capricious course requirements and grading.”

Shively later died by suicide, which his family and some colleagues believe may have been due in part to the stress of the investigation.

His family subsequently sued the university, alleging it suspended him without due process. The case is currently pending a decision in the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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