FCEs of high quality vital when tenure is in question

Credit: Adelaide Cole/Art Editor Credit: Adelaide Cole/Art Editor

With the end of the semester approaching, the registrar’s office and professors across the university will soon be sending out their semesterly Faculty Course Evaluation (FCE) reminders. As inconsequential as clicking all of those online checkboxes may seem, students have an important role to play in determining the progress of our instructors’ careers.

Just ask Steven Maranville, a former business professor at Utah Valley University.

In a lawsuit Maranville filed against the university last month, he claimed he was denied tenure because students didn’t like his Socratic teaching style. Allegedly lauded as a “master teacher” by his department chair and praised by his fellow professors, Maranville said he was denied a promised promotion because students wanted him to lecture instead of asking questions and assigning group work. The suit, reported by Inside Higher Ed two weeks ago, is still pending.

What the Maranville case highlights is the dual necessity of providing meaningful feedback (on the part of students) and interpreting it appropriately (on the part of university officials). “My professor doesn’t just give us the answers” or “I don’t like working in a group” is not the type of complaint that can help university officials properly judge a professor’s competence. It won’t help our professors get better at teaching, and it should not serve as an excuse to deny a professor an otherwise deserved promotion. Many students spend five minutes or less filling out a professor’s FCEs, and many more simply don’t bother to fill them out. The idea of a short survey only a small percentage of students bother to fill out that determines the future of a professor seems irrational.

Student feedback should have a role in advancing a professor’s career, but it should be evaluated and deemed reliable.

If feedback from students indeed led to Maranville’s dismissal, Utah Valley administrators need to go back to their student comments and learn to separate the wheat from the chaff. In addition, administrators need to take into account past feedback, professional achievements, and all of the other aspects that make for a successful professor.

Closer to home, Carnegie Mellon students should make use of semesterly FCEs and other means of providing instructor feedback to make sure our own administrators have enough to make a good harvest. Taking time to fill out an FCE with constructive feedback in mind will not only help the professor and administrators see where improvement is needed, but it will also benefit students in future classes.