Many believe that the Binghamton University’s treatment of teaching evaluations — which are voluntary, self-selected and seemingly ignored — leaves students without a viable avenue to voice their opinions about the classes they take and the instructors who teach them.
In 2005, the Faculty Senate passed a resolution stating that no instructor can be required to use and report evaluations of any kind, according to Laura O’Neil, Faculty Senate secretary. The Student Association successfully pushed for the public listing of Student Opinion of Teaching (SOOT) surveys online, but the current list is incomplete because many professors simply do not participate in the evaluation process.
The format of the voluntary surveys vary drastically across departments and professors. Some use SOOT surveys, which require the student to bubble in a ranking across many categories online, while others provide forms with more open-ended questions where students can write out their thoughts about a particular class.
Professors in all departments are encouraged to distribute some version of these forms to their students.
Nicholas Nace, a visiting assistant professor in the English department, however, is troubled by the administration’s lack of oversight and thinks the student evaluation forms should be required.
“Students, a while ago, voted for having evaluations across the board, and the administration and the faculty voted it down,” Nace said. “The faculty doesn’t want to be monitored because they like being guided only by their own sense of what’s appropriate or effective in the classroom.”
Nace, who was denied a position on the tenure-track at BU, felt that his situation was unfairly assessed by higher-ups. Students in his classes even made an effort to speak out to administration about Nace’s position.
Nicholas Wilsey, a student in Nace’s ENG 380T “Lyric Poetry” course and a sophomore majoring in English, publicly addressed Donald Nieman, dean of Harpur College, on Friday concerning Nace’s case.
Wilsey told Nieman that students’ voices had been overlooked by administration in determining the Nace’s future at BU.
“My question regards the fulfillment of the University’s vision to include students in the administrative decisions that affect our education,” Wilsey said during the forum. “Upon finding out that professor Nace’s professorship in future years was at jeopardy, a dozen of us students wrote describing how we value professor Nace’s professorship and would be disappointed if he were lost.”
Wilsey added that he and other students did not receive a response from the administration, and the decision was made without their input.
“We feel that there is an unapologetic disconnect between us and the administrative decisions that determine our education,” Wilsey said. “We showed a clear desire to be involved and informed about the decision regarding Professor Nace, but were generally overlooked.”
Nieman told Wilsey he could not discuss the specific case involving Professor Nace, but said he strongly values student feedback.
“I certainly read the emails and the letters and I think I responded to most of them — I probably didn’t respond to all of them — but I responded to a lot them … and I listened to what students had to say. And I always try and listen to what students have to say,” Nieman said.
While some students like Wilsey feel the administration does not value student opinion in making hiring decisions, they also recognize that professors are not making student feedback a priority.
Nace said he greatly values student opinion, but fears that select professors do not.
“I offer evaluations to the students on the assumption that I am the only person carefully reading them,” Nace said. “I will benefit from them, and I think of course it’s very important to get student feedback. How else is someone going to improve, unless students are giving you feedback? It’s not something you can simply ignore.”
The evaluations are tabulated and distributed by department heads and given back to the faculty and to department chairs, according to Jean-Pierre Mileur, interim provost and vice president of academic affairs. Deans, the provost and the president have access to the forms, which then become part of the instructor’s personnel file for use in evaluations, Mileur said.
“Students assume it doesn’t mean very much but the fact is teacher evaluations are essential to personnel evaluation process,” Mileur said. “It really counts that they take them seriously.”
He added that professors who do not have student evaluations in their personnel files would be required to explain why they are missing.
Nace said that while the administration encourages professors to add student evaluations in their files, they have the ability to weed out forms based on their content because no one checks to make sure they are all there.
He also pointed out that some professors on tenure-tracks are less invested in making changes to their teaching.
“The real problem is that some faculty members simply don’t care what the students think,” Nace said. “It’s easy for some professors to feel that they have absolute power, that they get to a point where nothing can be done to them it seems. These professors can do whatever they want.”
Michael Sharp, an assistant professor in the English department, agreed with Nace’s concerns.
“Everyone says they value teaching, but the institution isn’t structured to support or reward it in meaningful ways,” Sharp wrote in an email. “Unless students (or whoever’s paying their tuitions) cry bloody murder, the system won’t change, and teaching won’t be seriously monitored, evaluated and valued.”
Sharp stopped giving his students evaluations about five years ago because he realized the administration wasn’t keeping record.
“This doesn’t mean I don’t think they’re important,” Sharp wrote. “I was actually waiting for someone, anyone, to ask why I didn’t do them — to question the rules and the process. No one ever has.”
Patricia Ingraham, dean of College of Community and Public Affairs, has more in faith in her professors.
“There is nothing mandatory to make sure that every one is submitted,” Ingraham said. “We trust professors to provide information that is critical.”
Students like Kate Flatley, Student Association vice president for academic affairs, also argued for required forms that would value the voice of the student body.
“Education is a product and we’re the consumers,” Flatley said. “It’s a difficult market, we have high expectations of students and if something isn’t working it needs to be rectified.”
Like Nace, Flatley supports a mandatory system that would gather a wider range of feedback.
“They are voluntary based on department,” she said. “That is something I would like to see made mandatory. We should make professors held accountable. We’re not getting a clear picture.”
Serge-Edouar Joseph, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering, said the administration should more thoroughly oversee teaching evaluations and respond accordingly to students’ concerns.
“I feel like teaching evaluations should absolutely be mandatory,” Joseph said. “As much as it is the job of students to learn, it is the job for professors to teach. Being in engineering I feel like that are plenty of professors that do not reach the interest of the majority of their students and since these evaluations are not mandatory, these problems go unnoticed, leading to students losing interest in their classes and ultimately having their grades suffer.”
Jason Dirig, a junior majoring in music, said he thinks the evaluations should be required and reviewed by department chairs.
“Teaching evaluations should be mandatory, and I do think it should be made known when a majority of students aren’t happy with a professor because some of us pay out of own pockets to go here,” Dirig said. “If BU maintains that it is the public ivy than perhaps it should make sure it’s professors meet that standard.”
Al Vos, Hinman faculty master and an associate professor in the English department, said he administers evaluations mid-semester so he can make changes based on student feedback to improve the class.
“I see a range of students investment in the process, some give extensive high-quality feedback and some just do a very quick minimal response,” Vos said.
Students and professors agree that the wide range of students’ responses is reflected on RateMyProfessors, a website where students can freely post comments about their professors.
“I have been on it and I don’t have any problem with it,” Interim Provost Mileur said. “But RateMyProfessors tends to draw the extremes.”
Professor Nace and Flatley shared similar opinions to Mileur. They said the website commonly attracts students who either had a great experience or a particularly poor experience.
While some seem are skeptical about the website as a valid source for assessing teachers, RateMyProfessors is the highest-trafficked college professor ratings site in the U.S, according to the SUNY website.
Last month, the website teamed up with Princeton Review to rank the 300 best professors nationwide. Mary Haupt, a professor in the English department, and Jennifer Wegmann, an instructor in the Health and Wellness department, were included on the list based on positive reviews on Rate my Professors.
The University released an official press release celebrating Haupt and Wegmann’s recognition.
“That to my mind sort of raised its legitimacy,” Nace said. “If we’re going to give her the credit that she is due for that distinction, we have to also look at the other end within our own department.”