CSU allows faculty to address biased student surveys

Tim Peterson and Matthew Keyser

Tim Peterson & Matthew Keyser wrote this article for Cal State Fullerton’s Daily Titan. It is available for republication or reference. If you think their work is important, you can support it here.

The ratification of a new Cal State University faculty contract now gives professors on campus the explicit right to rebut sexist, racist and prejudiced bias in student evaluations. While this seems like a win for faculty across the CSU, the recent negotiations have shown an unrefuted bias in evaluations towards women, Black, Indigenous and people of color and LGBTQ faculty.

Student Opinion Questionnaires, known as SOQs play an important role in the review of faculty for raises, reappointment, tenure and promotions. In the past, faculty have always had the right to rebut certain biases but only to an extent.

Michele Barr, a full-time lecturer at Cal State Fullerton in the Department of Kinesiology and vice president of Fullerton’s California Faculty Association, said that faculty members never had the opportunity to address specific language related to discriminatory bias in evaluations.

“Initially, when we brought that up, management’s response was, “No, we don’t want that language in there,’” Barr said. “Obviously we came a long way, but again, why the no stance on there initially, I don’t really know.”

Under the new agreement, reviews must consider the rebuttals when reviewing the underlying student opinions.

“It’s a difficult situation because student evaluations are important,” Barr said. “But I mean there is just unrefuted evidence that women, folks of color, LGBTQ are rated lower, not based on content, not based on you know, the actual teaching.”

Toni Molle, the director for strategic communication and public affairs of the Chancellor’s Office said the faculty negotiating team brought up student bias in evaluation forms so they incorporated detailed language in the collective bargaining agreement regarding bias.

“If they feel that a faculty evaluation is still damaging another course of action that they could also request is to meet with a campus administrator to discuss it and to provide additional insight onto it,” Molle said.

Studies show a significant amount of negative feedback from student evaluations is directed towards female instructors. In a study examining student evaluations of courses and teachings, the results concluded that women academics receive 37% points lower than male academics.

This data is backed up by the association’s findings which particularly showed that younger female instructors received worse evaluations compared to younger men, even though instructor gender did not influence students’ study hours or grades.

Studies have also found that faculty of color receive lower evaluations than their white peers, with Hispanics receiving the lowest course evaluation ratings. Women of color are likely to receive more criticism due to their gender and skin color.

Gregory Chris Brown, associate professor of Criminal Justice at CSUF and chapter president of the association, said while teaching at another university he has been the victim of racist remarks in a student evaluation.

“We know that Black, Indigenous and people of color, women, LGBTQIA+ are always judged differently by student evaluations,” Brown said. “I’ve had comments made unrelated to my teaching, but more about me as a person, a Black person.”

Brown added that women faculty members had the way they dress and look discussed in student evaluations. He stated that bias and inappropriate comments regarding gender, race and sexuality occur every semester when the university collects SOQs.

“So there are things that happen, and the university never recognized that. They now recognize that,” Brown said.

Not all areas of academia received the same level of bias in SOQs. For example, the same study that identified gender bias in student evaluations found that some professors who taught in the social sciences and humanities received higher scores on student evaluations than their colleagues who teach science-centric courses.

The study also said that universities employ so few faculty of color that there is not enough data to determine large scale bias. The study noted that smaller studies did find prejudice targeting faculty of color.

Brown emphasized that the student evaluations impact faculty members’ careers, so when they receive a negative review filled with bias unrelated to the course itself, it could lead to losing a job.

He said that the ability to rebut and address the bias present in student evaluations is an improvement, but there is still more progress needed. Brown said he thinks the SOQs need to be changed.

“I want to work with the administration to make sure we improve them,” Brown said.