Iowa Bill Proposes Faculty Play “Survivor” (updated)


A bill (Senate File 64) under consideration in the Iowa legislature, proposed by State Senator Mark Chelgren, would turn faculty positions into something like Survivor. Or maybe the Hunger Games. The bill would:

  • Require that any professor employed by an institution of higher learning under the control of the board teach at least one course offered for academic credit per semester.
  • Develop and adopt the criteria and a rating system the institutions shall use to establish specific performance goals for professors and to evaluate the performance of each professor employed by each institution based on the evaluations completed by students
  • Require that if a professor fails to attain a minimum threshold of performance based on the student evaluations used to assess the professor’s teaching effectiveness, in accordance with the criteria and rating system adopted by the board, the institution shall terminate the professor’s employment regardless of tenure status or contract.

But wait. Here is what turns this from run-of-the-mill stupid to “the idiocracy is upon us” stupid:

The names of the five professors who rank lowest on their institution’s evaluation for the semester, but who scored above the minimum threshold of performance, shall be published on the institution’s internet site and the student body shall be offered an opportunity to vote on the question of whether any of the five professors will be retained as employees of the institution. The employment of the professor receiving the fewest votes approving retention shall be terminated by the institution regardless of tenure status or contract.

(via Ben Hale and the Academe Blog)

UPDATE (4/23/15): From IHE: “After receiving a substantial number of emails from outraged faculty members, Inside Higher Ed determined that the bill had died in committee — six weeks ago.” Meanwhile, a bill in North Carolina would require all faculty at state universities to teach eight courses per year. Details in the The Chronicle of Higher Ed.

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Matt Drabek
Matt Drabek
6 years ago

As an Iowan, I’d love to do this for state legislators. How about it, Senate?Report

anonymous
anonymous
6 years ago

I’m in favor of teaching quality mattering substantially more than it does, and I’m not sure that something like this would threaten the academic freedom that tenure is intended to protect. But this particular proposal seems idiotic for at least two reasons. First, evaluation scores depend on many factors, including what courses you teach, and what grades you assign. So this seems like a recipe for getting people to refuse to teach unpopular but essential required courses, and to inflate grades even more. And second, under this proposal an otherwise strong teacher can get fired for a single bad semester due to very incidental issues–for example, because a new professor teaches two sections of an unpopular intro course at too high a level, or because a professor’s teaching temporarily suffers due to a personal crisis like a divorce or family death.

The thing about students voting is also really stupid. Since it’s decided by whoever has the fewest positive votes, new professors are at an obvious disadvantage, as are professors who haven’t recently taught large lecture courses.Report

ejrd
ejrd
6 years ago

Using student evaluations to gauge the quality of a professor’s performance is the kind of ridiculously shortsighted, empirically ignorant, kind of solution that emerges from a bureaucracy obsessed with numbers but without much experience with actual teaching. What a horrible, horrible, proposal.Report

Ryan
Ryan
6 years ago

I’ll stick my neck out with a possibly unpopular take…

I don’t think bullet points 1 and 2 are nuts, but bullet point 3 is mistaken because the mechanism of evaluation it proposes is horrible, and the italicized point is outrageous because it too is too crude.

I don’t think that 1 and 2 are nuts because they propose a way to ensure that professors are more accountable to their jobs as teachers than many research universities currently require them to be. Yes, it’s a change in our understanding of the gold-plated TT 2/2 R1 job. But it’s also a change that in my opinion is overdue. Students aren’t customers–as this proposal likely mistakes them to be, especially with the ‘voting out’ nonsense–but they are pupils. And unfortunately the incentives for career advancement in a large swathe of academia overlooks this.

It’s high time we returned to the view of education as a public trust that first and foremost educates, especially in the humanities. Plus–why do professors think they ought not be managed like the vast majority of workers in our society?Report

Rebecca
Rebecca
6 years ago

One obvious problem with #1: the language doesn’t seem to accommodate e.g. parental leave.Report

John Protevi
John Protevi
6 years ago

A couple of points:

1) We are being trolled. This proposal is not serious. It’s just trolling the “liberals” and stoking the resentment of “the base” against pointy-headed intellectuals. It will never get out of committee.

2) We should not be trolled by this sort of thing; the real action is in state budgets. I wish more people paid attention to Chris Newfield than to this sort of click-bait “legislation.” Newfield’s blog is here: http://utotherescue.blogspot.com/. This is a good, recent, piece: http://utotherescue.blogspot.com/2015/04/the-good-point-in-paul-camposs-bad-new.html

3) As Facebook friends have pointed out, this sort of high-stakes student evals, often w/o counter-balancing peer review, is *already* the reality for far too many of our colleagues in precarious labor positions. TT and aspiring TT folks do not have engage speculation as to what might happen to TT folks in the future; they need only examine what is already happening to our colleagues.Report

John Protevi
John Protevi
6 years ago

Let me clarify the relation of 1) and 3) above. The details of this proposal are so silly that it will never get out of committee. But slightly less silly (or better, terrifying) procedures are already in place for precarious folks.Report

Avi
Avi
6 years ago

According to his senate profile page, this senator apparently “attended” UC Riverside where he “majored” in Astrophysics and Mathematics, but has his “degree” from a certain “Forbco Management School” which doesn’t seem to have a website. Neither does “Forbco Management Corp.,” which is located in Southern CA and apparently runs some Sizzler steak restaurant franchises.Report

Michelle
Michelle
6 years ago

Clearly there’s no need for schools to have their own special voting website, as they can just head straight over to ratemyprofessor.com.Report

E
E
6 years ago

He got his degree from a high quality steak joint like Sizzler? I think we need to listen to this legislator.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
6 years ago

This is the same Iowa legislator who wanted to mandate drug testing not only for welfare recipients but for anyone who received child support payments. He wanted the person making the payments to be able to demand that the recipient submit to a drug test every six months. I’m surprised he didn’t demand drug tests for any professors who get low teaching evaluation marks.

In response to Ryan, do you honestly think that one reasonable way to make universities truly accountable to their teaching missions is to allow students to vote out the least popular professors each year via evaluations? What sort of evidence do we have that teaching evaluations correspond to good teaching? Ryan asks, “why do professors think they ought not be managed like the vast majority of workers in our society?” and I ask in response, why does Ryan think that the vast majority of workers in our society are being managed in either a reasonable way worthy of emulation or in a way that compares to this bizarre mechanism for deciding who should be fired? If the assumption – itself already suspect and unsupported – is that we ought to adopt the best practices of business management for use in the university, this is not how I would go about doing it.Report

Eric Winsberg
Eric Winsberg
6 years ago

” I’m surprised he didn’t demand drug tests for any professors who get low teaching evaluation marks.” Only if the students who give the low evals also have to take drug tests.Report

Ryan
Ryan
6 years ago

Thanks for your reply. A few points–

“Do you honestly think that one reasonable way to make universities truly accountable to their teaching missions is to allow students to vote out the least popular professors each year via evaluations?”

No, I don’t. I clearly said that using student evaluations in this way is questionable: “… bullet point 3 is mistaken because the mechanism of evaluation it proposes is horrible…”. I admit that I overlooked that student evaluations were also proposed in bullet point 2, but that was just an oversight. Using student evals. in this way is really dumb.

“Why does Ryan think that the vast majority of workers in our society are being managed in either a reasonable way worthy of emulation or in a way that compares to this bizarre mechanism for deciding who should be fired?”

Well, let’s forget about the mechanism in question–we’re in agreement that it’s bad. So your question is really just why I think ordinary worker-management is reasonable and worthy of emulation in academia. With regards to the first part, I think it’s reasonable because this management style tends to reinforce a sense of responsibility to the shared mission of a workplace, and that’s important for its success.

The more interesting and contentious question is why I think this management style should be emulated in academia. I think it’s because I believe education is a public trust, that this means (especially in the humanities) that its primary mission is educating students, not performing research, and that this is best done when professors are subject to stricter performance controls than they currently are in a research-dominant system.

There are counter-examples, I’m not anti-research, etc. I just believe that students today are getting short shrift, and that many professors enjoy too little accountability (or, probably better, accountability to the wrong things).

To cast the issue more broadly for a sec, I take issue with the ideal of the professor as a self-governing, autonomous intellectual whose research and vision must be as unfettered as possible–and I think this is what’s behind a lot of the sensitivity about academic freedom, tenure, etc. I see the professor more as a public servant.Report

John Protevi
John Protevi
6 years ago

This is a false dichotomy: “I think it’s because I believe education is a public trust, that this means (especially in the humanities) that its primary mission is educating students, not performing research,”Report

Ryan
Ryan
6 years ago

Yeah, I can see that. So let me try to nuance.

Teaching and research aren’t necessarily at odds with each other. So in a strong sense, it’s a false dichotomy. But in a weaker sense, they often (but not always) are at odds with each other. For example, at research-oriented universities, and even at some universities whose (at least nominal) aim is to teach, the research performance of professors is much more important to career advancement (re: job security) than their teaching performance. The result is that many professors, perhaps understandably, put most of their attention into their research and less of it into their teaching, and it arguably shows in the classroom.

I also don’t think we can honestly deny that, at least in some quarters of academic philosophy, research is seen as a higher calling than teaching. It’s seen as a more complete expression of the academic as an individual, autonomous intellectual, as a visionary. The intellectual as teacher, by contrast, is seen as a dependent, someone who, perhaps because of lack or talent, vision, or what have you, is reduced to reproducing information in others’ minds rather than creating it in her own. So in this respect research/teaching aren’t practically at odds with each other like they were in the first example, but they’re more so philosophically at odds with each other. I think this example is pretty ingrained in academic philosophy.

So yeah, not necessarily a false dichotomy, but nonetheless the two are often at odds with each other. That’s what I was referring to.

Not to mention, if teaching were emphasized more than research, and say 3/3 loads were mandated, and still for many more 4/4 loads, the labour costs of universities would be considerably reduced, class sizes arguably lessened, and the education potentially improved.Report

Ed Kazarian
Ed Kazarian
6 years ago

Given that I was one of the Facebook interlocutors that John Protevi refers to, it’s probably appropriate for me to chime in here. I think his point about how this functions to deflect attention from the degree of real precarity that already characterizes the situation of many (and probably most) faculty at US universities is very well taken. Instead of getting all apoplectic about this silly (and already dead) proposal, I’d like to see folks being considerably more exercised about the fact that half the people working in many of your departments are already laboring under conditions that are nearly this bad — especially where they aren’t even getting the courtesy of regular peer observations (and meaningful support for professional development, rather than just summative evaluation).

This is also a good moment to reiterate the point that the student evaluations that are the only ‘evidence of teaching excellence’ many faculty are able to put into their portfolios are: a) wholly invalid as measures of teaching effectiveness or student learning (both of which would depend on controlled comparisons of student performance in follow on classes, which never happens and would be very difficult to manage in discipline like ours, where curricula are not sequenced or tracked in any regular way); and b) vulnerable to all kinds of common implicit biases (which cannot even be corrected for given the anonymous nature of the evaluations).Report