The Equity Stakes in Student Evaluations of Teaching for Contingent Faculty
What are the equity stakes in student evaluations of teaching (SETs)? And how are these stakes intensified for minoritized contingent faculty in a two-tiered faculty system? This question is particularly salient given that today half of the instructional workforce is part time, with another 20 percent serving in full-time contingent roles. Because of the tenuous status of these contingent faculty appointments, student teaching evaluations can assume disproportionate impact. Due to a lack of employment security and often semester-to-semester appointments, SETs can weigh heavily in reemployment decisions and career progression.
Consider in this regard how Sara, an Asian American full-time contingent faculty member at an elite Western university describes how minoritized faculty must compensate for bias in student evaluations of teaching:
As anyone knows, teaching evaluations are skewed and . . . full of racial and gender bias. But the university continues to use them. . . . And so in that sense, I think that’s unfair, because we know that hurts women in general. . . . we know that evaluations work against us, so we have to make an extra effort to make sure that students enjoy our class. . . . So I would put myself in the category of women and minorities who, in a sense, have to try to compensate for race and gender bias in student evaluations.
The American Sociological Association’s landmark statement on SETs (2019), which 17 scholarly associations have endorsed, cites an increasing body of evidence that the use of SETs in personnel decisions is problematic. Studies indicate only a weak correlation with student learning and teaching effectiveness. Moreover, as the statement indicates, a number of observational and experimental studies have found SETs to reflect bias against women and faculty of color. For example, Black and Asian faculty members tend to be evaluated less positively than white faculty, particularly by students who are white men.
With these findings in mind, consider also a meta-analysis of 100 articles that identifies two significant areas of concern with SETs: measurement bias based on the weak correlation with student learning and teaching effectiveness and equity bias based on variables outside of an instructor’s control that include demographic differences such as race and ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation (Kreitzer & Sweet-Cushman, 2022). A significant difficulty with SETs relates to the seemingly empirical nature of the data that can mask underlying biases and prejudices. Yet due to its reliance on numerical scores, the SET frequently serves as a quick evaluative instrument. In this regard, Sara describes the use of SETs by department chairs as a quick comparative mechanism:
You know they’d rather just have a number. This is your student evaluation number and that’s how we compare you against everyone else, and decide whether you’re worth promoting or not. And so I think this system is fundamentally unfair and problematic.
From a conceptual standpoint, the visibility of dimensions of difference in the classroom can give rise to considerations of role (in)congruity for minoritized faculty who may not be seen as fulfilling the prototype of the model instructor. Equally problematic is the fact that the standards of evaluation are not fixed but essentially shifting as judgments are made to a reference point such as white males (Chavez & Mitchel, 2019). From this perspective, researchers point out that minoritized individuals can be placed in a “double bind” or face pressures due to the need to fulfill rather than disrupt prescriptive stereotypical expectations as well as the conflicting demands of their professional role. Women, for example, are expected to be more helpful, sensitive, and kind while men are usually seen as more agentic, assertive, and independent (Chávez & Mitchell; MacNell et al, 2015). Equity bias also brings into play the complexity arising from the intersectionality of minoritized identities. With an equity framework in mind, institutions can begin to address the ways they can modify and reconfigure organizational processes to address inequality and create more inclusive learning environments.
In our forthcoming book, The Challenges of Minoritized Contingent Faculty in Higher Education (Purdue University Press), we document through first-person narratives the intensification of pressure for minoritized contingent faculty to prove themselves due to the double jeopardy of being a minoritized faculty member in a contingent status. Of great concern is the trend in higher education toward treating students as customers, whereby the learning process can be commodified and redirected toward delivering customer service. From this vantage point, faculty can appear more as entertainers than facilitators, and contingent faculty may be more reluctant to introduce difficult topics or give lower grades due to their tenuous employment status. As Nora, a disabled white transgender full-time contingent faculty member at an Eastern public research university, explains,
This student wields a certain amount of power, and you want to maintain your integrity, of course, but you are worried that they could go up the chain and complain about this to your chair, to your dean, God forbid to your provost. And so I’ve had students start at the level of the president, you know, with different concerns. . . . and here’s the thing where you have to be concerned about grading, when you belong to these marginalized groups and when you’re a contingent faculty member.
Clearly, with the goal of student learning at the forefront, the potential for measurement and equity bias in SETs is an important consideration for academic leaders. Recognition that SETs describe student perceptions and experiences rather than necessarily provide valid, empirical measures of teaching effectiveness or learning is an important step. As academic leaders consider more holistic and inclusive measures of teaching effectiveness, one intervention can involve informing students of the potential for bias and department heads of the need to consider this possibility. According to a recent study, informing students of the potential for biases affected ratings of female professors upward by a half-point in a five-point scale (Peterson et al, 2019). From an overall institutional perspective, addressing both the measurement and equity aspects of the student evaluation process through evidence-based, holistic assessment will not only strengthen student learning outcomes but also contribute to a more inclusive academic climate.
American Sociological Association. (2019, September). Statement on student evaluations of teaching. https://asanet.org/wp-content/uploads/asa_statement_on_student_evaluations_of_teaching_feb132020.pdf
Chávez, K., & Mitchell, K. M. W. (2019). Exploring bias in student evaluations: Gender, race, and ethnicity. PS: Political Science & Politics, 53(2), 270–274. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1049096519001744
Kreitzer, R. J., & Sweet-Cushman, J. (2022). Evaluating student evaluations of teaching: A review of measurement and equity bias in SETs and recommendations for ethical reform. Journal of Academic Ethics, 20, 73–84. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10805-021-09400-w
MacNell, L., Driscoll, A., & Hunt, A. N. (2015). What’s in a name: Exposing gender bias in student ratings of teaching. Innovative Higher Education, 40(4), 291–303. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10755-014-9313-4
Peterson, D. A. M., Biederman, L. A., Andersen, D., Ditonto, T. M., & Roe, K. (2019). Mitigating gender bias in student evaluations of teaching. PLOS ONE, 14(5), e0216241. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0216241
Edna B. Chun, DM, and Alvin Evans are award-winning authors, each with more than two decades of experience in higher education. Chun teaches in the Human Capital Management Department at the Columbia University School of Professional Studies and is chief learning officer of HigherEd Talent, a national HR and diversity consulting firm. Evans is higher education practice leader for HigherEd Talent.