ERIC Identifier: ED426114
Publication Date: 1998-08-00
Author: Haskell, Robert E.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Assessment and Evaluation Washington DC.
Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Student Evaluation of Faculty:
Galloping Polls in the 21st Century. ERIC/AE Digest.
Despite a history of conflicting research on its reliability and validity,
student evaluation of faculty (SEF) has typically not been viewed as an
infringement on academic freedom. Indeed, it has generally been taken for
granted that SEF is appropriate and necessary.
Informal and reasoned analyses of the issue indicate that because SEF is used
for faculty salary, promotion, and tenure decisions, there is pressure to comply
with student classroom demands regarding teaching style, grading and a host of
others demands. It is suggested that it is this pressure to comply with student
demands that directly leads to an infringement upon academic freedom. As the
findings of this paper suggest, SEF are not the benign instrument they may
appear to be or may once have been. Their primary impact goes to the core of
academic freedom and to quality of instruction. It is the purpose of this paper
to explore the implications of SEF.
A BRIEF LOOK AT ACADEMIC FREEDOM
Academic freedom and
tenure are two sides of the same coin. The current view of tenure was
established in 1940 when the American Association of University Professors
(AAUP) and the Association of American Colleges (AAC) officially sanctioned it
for purposes of preserving faculty's right to academic freedom. Legally, it
assures faculty the right to pursue any line of inquiry in the course of their
teaching or research without being censored, penalized or fired by university
administrators. In 1973, the Commission on Academic Tenure in Higher Education
(jointly sponsored by the AAUP and the AAC) recommended that "'adequate cause'
in faculty dismissal proceedings should be restricted to (a) demonstrated
incompetence and dishonesty in teaching and research, (b) substantial and
manifest neglect of duty, and (c) personal conduct which substantially impairs
the individual's fulfillment of institutional responsibilities. The burden of
proof in establishing cause for dismissal rests upon the institution" (University of Michigan, 1994).
How SEF establishes incompetence, or neglect of duty, is problematic, having
largely to do with issues of validity. To further complicate matters the concept
of academic freedom, like most abstract terms, is logically fuzzy around its
edges. Moreover, unlike the legal categories of academic freedom and tenure,
there is no equivalent legal category of SEF. Consequently, published legal
rulings on this issue are scarce.
While academic freedom has not been recognized universally by the courts as
equivalent to a constitutional right, it has nevertheless been viewed as a right
which the courts have deemed must not be violated in the performance evaluation
process. In addition, academic freedom has been associated with the First
Amendment right of free speech. Some courts have considered it to be a First
Amendment-right in and of itself. While the two rights are not necessarily the
same, they frequently and sufficiently overlap to trigger judicial scrutiny when
faculty performance evaluation process threatens to impinge on the First
Amendment (Copeland and Murry, 1996).
FACULTY ASSESSMENT OF HOW SEF INFRINGE UPON ACADEMIC
Mention of this issue within the text of a number of articles
throughout the literature provides a kind of uncontrolled data base indicating
that an increasing number of faculty consider SEF an impingement on academic
freedom. While formal surveys of faculty views on this issue are relatively
rare, one study found that at least one third of faculty respondents reported
lowering their grading standards and course level in response to their student
evaluations (Ryan, Anderson, and Birchler, 1980). According to another study,
39% of accounting administrator respondents admitted being aware of faculty who
altered their instructional behavior in order to improve evaluation scores
(Crumbley and Fliedner, 1995). Faculty were also in nearly universal agreement
that SEF is important in promotion (86.6%) and tenure (88.2%) reviews (Kolevzon,
Unlike the paucity of formal surveys, there are numerous statements by
faculty in the research literature clearly arguing that SEF is an infringement
on academic freedom. These statements by faculty contend that SEF (1) is prima
facie evidence of administrative intrusion into the classroom, (2) are often
used as an instrument of intimidation forcing conformity to politically correct
standards (Young, 1993), (3) create pressure for a self-policed lowered teaching
standard (Bonetti, 1994), (4) are responsible for a considerable amount of grade
inflation (Greenwald, 1996),(5) function as prescriptions for classroom demeanor
(Damron, 1996), (6) when used for promotions, salary raises or continued
employment, SEF becomes a potent means of manipulating the behavior of faculty
(Stone, 1995), (7) when salary and promotion are possible consequences of SEF
there is pressure for faculty to teach in a manner that results in higher
student evaluation (Damron, 1996), (8) contrary to their original intent of
improving instruction, do not eliminate poor or below-average teachers but
instead increases poor teaching practices (Carey, 1993), (9) illustrate a
mercantile philosophy of "consumerism" (Benson, and Lewis, 1994), which erodes
academic standards (Goldman, 1993; Renner, 1981), (10) have thus lowered the
quality of U.S. education (Carey, 1993; Crumbley, and Fliedner, 1995; Young,
1993), (11) lead to the inappropriate dismissal of faculty (Parini, 1995), and
(12) constitute a threat to academic freedom (Stone, 1995). Finally, it would
seem that SEF creates an educational conflict of interest between faculty and
students impacting on the quality of instruction.
RELEASING SEF TO STUDENTS AND THE PUBLIC
possible legal implications of SEF, it should be made clear that I am not an
attorney and approach this section on the basis of the "reasonable man" legal
standard. To begin, some faculty believe that due process and defamation issues
are involved in SEF (Crumbley, 1996). It has been suggested that faculty are
entitled to at least the same rights as students. The Fourteenth Amendment
requires, for example, due process before a public institution may deprive one
of life, liberty, or property. Given the problematic nature of SEF, due process
is in question. In a university, a faculty's reputation is considered a liberty
right, and for tenured faculty the courts have pronounced the possession of
tenure a property right. Presumably, any inappropriate action depriving faculty
of these rights would be open to legal action.
It has been suggested that if a university damages a faculty's reputation by
publishing false and anecdotal data from SEF, faculty should able to sue for
libel or defamation. The concept of defamation typically refers to communication
that causes a person to be shamed, ridiculed, held in contempt by others, or
their status lowered in the eyes of the community, or to lose employment status
or earnings or otherwise suffer a damaged reputation. According to one source,
however, the courts have generally protected administrators from defamation
charges resulting from performance evaluations (Zirkel, 1996). It would seem,
however, that these older precedents applied when administrative evaluations
were conducted in private and not publicly distributed.
University administrators are often allowed to release SEF to students when
the release of personnel information is apparently allowed in no other phase of
personnel or other key management functions. An Idaho ruling upheld the release
of SEF to students by reasoning that students were not the general public and
therefore faculty evaluations were not protected under the privacy rights of the
Idaho Code (Evaluating Teacher Evaluations, 1996). Given such apparent breaches
of confidentiality and privacy, it would seem that a university should be held
responsible for insuring that data made public are valid.
SEF AND ADMINISTRATIVE CONTROL OF ACADEMIC FREEDOM
addition to legal aspects, there are the pragmatics of the SEF which maintain
its use. The literature clearly suggests that administrators tend to strongly
oppose the elimination of SEF being used for faculty salary, promotion and
tenure decisions. There are three reasons for opposing the elimination of SEF.
The first seems to be a lack of practical alternatives to SEF (Greenwald, 1996),
the second is administrative control, and the third is that student input
facilitates student retention in numerous ways.
SEF provides a mechanism of control in a system otherwise lacking direct
control over faculty, and are a powerful tool in assuring classroom changes that
lead to the retention of student tuition dollars by assenting to student
consumer demands and to parents who foot the tuition bill. Academic issues such
as teaching, grading, curricular requirements, and other academic standards have
by tradition and expertise been the exclusive province of faculty. Although
academic freedom and the protection of tenure would appear to insure faculty
classroom independence, the extent to which faculty thought and behavior are
administratively shaped is the extent to which both are infringed upon (see
below). Such administrative control mechanisms, of which SEF is one, are
therefore seen as infringements on academic freedom.
Control mechanisms are more widespread and intricately embedded in the
everyday operations of the university than is generally acknowledged. After a
review of the research, Stone (1995), observes that SEF opens the "door to the
direct application of bureaucratic control to academic decisions." It is the
very kind of policy that, for example, has enabled educational administrators to
mandate the "politically correct" at the expense of the "academically credible."
Contrary to some published reports, conditions such as weakened standards,
fragmented curriculum, and inflated grades do not simply arise from a
spontaneous deterioration of faculty into so-called "deadwood." Neither are most
faculty incompetent at teaching. As Stone (1995) pointed out, "Rather, these
problems seem likely to have developed as a result of the continuing insidious
pressure placed on teaching and grading practices by the imperative to keep
students happy and enrollments up."
SEF AND ACADEMIC FREEDOM IN THE 21ST CENTURY
As noted above, arguments against tenure have typically been economic ones.
As higher education enters the 21st century, and its associated demographic
changes, however, arguments against tenure are changing. A paradigm shift is
taking place in arguments against academic freedom and tenure, a paradigm that
is based in the changing demographics of the student population. It is said that
academic freedom tends to be viewed from the perspective of a bygone era when
the university faculty and student population were relatively homogeneous.
Accordingly, eliminating tenure or at least radically revamping it is
increasingly being justified not on matters of principle but by political and
other expedient considerations.
There is a fundamental paradigm shift in the parameters of academic freedom
as historically conceptualized. SEF can and do reflect these and other political
and cultural conflicts, creating a "chilling" effect on academic freedom. This
paradigm shift in the parameters of academic freedom, however, is but a subset
of a more overarching social shift in the first amendment right to free speech
outside of academia.
In conclusion, what this article suggests is that SEF is far from the benign
instrument it may once have been in a more homogeneous political, gender,
racial, and academically prepared student environment. Unfortunately, on many
campuses the traditional model of student and teacher belongs to a past age.
Faculty now teach in a litigious context. The new role and impact of SEF need to
be reassessed accordingly.
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The Administrative Use of Student Evaluation of Faculty (SEF):(Part IV) Analysis
and Implications of Views From the Court in Relation to Academic Freedom,
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This Digest was adapted with permission from Haskell, R. E. (1997). Academic
Freedom, Tenure, and Student Evaluation of Faculty: Galloping Polls in the 21st
Century. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 5(6). This was the first of four
articles by the author on student evaluation of faculty (see references).