Faculty members reconsider SRI use in deciding tenure and promotion

In the middle of each semester, students have the opportunity to rate and provide feedback about their academic experience for each class through Student Rating of Instruction (SRI). Many students ignore the initial prompting by administration to take a few minutes to answer the questions. However, the use of SRIs have been debated in recent years among faculty.

Professor Lisa Babcock of psychology and professor Eric Wells of physics compiled a proposal to remove SRIs from the tenure and promotion discussion of faculty. The paper they co-wrote cited concerns about the low student response rates, systemic bias and outdated information that influence a critical part of a professor’s academic career. The decision was postponed at a faculty meeting on April 7 until October, to give time for more discussion and deliberation on the topic.  

Many faculty members agree that SRIs need to be improved in regard to response rates and their use. The disagreement lies in their impact in tenure evaluations. Babcock and Wells have both received tenure at Augustana University, and Wells has served on the Personnel Council in the past. 

“A better use of them would be to encourage individual faculty members to use them to learn about their classes, but not hang these high stakes job decisions in part on the student evaluations,” Babcock said.

When a professor is being evaluated for a tenure promotion, they are assessed by a committee of their elected peers. The council, which consists of the three division chairs and three elected faculty from each division, analyzes the professor on three areas: academic publication, community involvement and teaching. 

Communications professor John Bart describes this basic criteria as the legs to “a wobbly stool” because there is a larger emphasis on the teaching and academic publication aspects of an individual’s career.

While he said he partly agrees with Babcock and Wells, Bart is adamant about the importance of SRIs in evaluating a professor’s growth as a teacher. 

“I think that the student voice, while limited, is still an important factor to consider,” Bart said. 

Bart said he believes the accumulation of evaluations over time is one of the most valuable uses of SRIs because it shows how the professor is committed to their students. He emphasized a professor’s “habit of scholarship” meaning their commitment to continuing research and to their students after they have achieved tenure. The quantitative data of SRIs over the course of around six years of teaching can show this commitment.

Faculty also have the opportunity to write a narrative explaining their SRI data and can provide written feedback they have received from students, according to Bart. If a professor tried an unsuccessful project one semester, they have a chance to explain the situation to show commitment to growth in the classroom. 

In their proposal, Babcock and Wells compiled data indicating that systemic bias brings the results of SRI’s into question. They point to evidence supporting race, gender and discipline bias when students are evaluating their professors. Because the evaluations are done anonymously in order to protect students from academic repercussions, the context of evaluations are unavailable. The paper argues that there are too many outside factors to be able to effectively consider SRIs in a tenure setting. 

“The relationship between the question and the criteria is complex, depending on multiple parameters, and it is not clear how to extrapolate from one to the other,” Babcock and Wells state in the proposal.

Even though the Personnel Council is aware of these systemic biases, it is difficult to compensate entirely for the benefit of the faculty member while still taking into account the student voice. 

Senior ASA senator Mason Blue expressed concern about the lack of student voice in the tenure process. Though there are problems with the way current SRIs are presented and received, he said that they are a useful tool that should be considered in tenure decisions. 

“There should be efforts to improve SRIs before they are entirely removed from the process of considering the promotion of professors,” Blue said.

President Stephanie Herseth Sandlin oversees any changes to the Faculty Handbook, including the section concerning the role of SRIs and their uses. She said these assessment tools are imperfect and should be improved upon. However, they play a key role.

“We need to make sure that the student voice is a part of this discussion, not only to help faculty make adjustments and improve their own teaching, but it is important in the tenure and promotion process,” Herseth Sandlin said.

When deliberating over this topic, Herseth Sandlin takes into consideration the possible repercussions taking SRIs out of the tenure evaluation process might have on students. She is balancing the concerns faculty have as well as preserving the input of students. 

More evaluations need to be filled out before SRIs are considered to be an accurate depiction of a professor’s performance. In two separate polls posted on The Mirror’s Twitter and Instagram accounts, a little over sixty percent of student respondents thought that SRIs were too long. 

Bart said that in the past, SRIs were distributed on paper in class. When they moved online, participation dropped dramatically. As of right now, there is not a push towards reverting back to physical SRIs, though that does not rule them out entirely.

If SRIs are taken out of consideration during these high-stake career evaluations, what would replace them? Babcock and Wells recognize the importance of SRIs but said they are focused on pushing the administration to acknowledge the evaluation’s faults.

As the debate continues into next fall, Herseth Sandlin said she wants to focus more on  one particular question: “How do we best assess the student learning experience, the classroom environment?”

Noah Wicks contributed to this report.

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