Course evaluations and the contract in Spring and Summer 1

As we wrote in March 2016, the administration collected student rating data for all sections of every course taught in Spring 2016, an action that was not in compliance with Article 16 of the Agreement:

Article 16§4: Student ratings shall be conducted in each class taught by a bargaining unit faculty member in at least one semester of each academic year (to be determined by the faculty member).

In other words, Article 16§4 ensures the faculty’s contractual right to decide which class sections are evaluated in a given semester as well as the semester in which a course is evaluated. Faculty who teach multiple sections of the same course need only collect rating data for one section per academic year, although individual faculty members are of course free to choose to collect rating data for as many sections as they wish.

Why are we still talking about this?

In response to the administration’s actions, the WMU-AAUP Association Council voted at their March 25 meeting to file a chapter grievance alleging administrative violation of Article 16. The chapter grievance, filed in April, was denied by the administration and at the request of the WMU-AAUP Executive Committee has recently moved into mediation.

But wait, there’s more.

There is a new development to report: Faculty who taught in Summer 1 2016 and logged onto GoWMU with the intention of opting out of participation in rating data collection, as is their right under Article 16§4, were unpleasantly surprised to learn that they could not do so and that rating data would again be collected for every section of every course.

On June 6, 2016, WMU-AAUP Chapter President Lisa Minnick contacted Dr. Nancy Mansberger, the administration’s Director of Academic Labor Relations, to inform her that faculty members teaching Summer 1 2016 were finding that they were not able to opt out of evaluating their courses if they so chose but — as in Spring 2016 — were only offered the option to ‘opt out’ of having ratings data sent to chairs and deans after it is collected, in contravention of Article 16.§4. Dr. Mansberger responded in an email, dated June 9, that rating data would be collected for all courses taught at WMU in Summer 1 2016. In her email message, Dr. Mansberger claimed that

The [letter of agreement] authorizing the pilot study detailed that a pilot study be run during the 2015-2016 Academic Year, which concludes at the end of the Summer I session. I have been informed by the Office of Assessment that the pilot study conditions will be lifted and the original ICES programming conditions will be reinstituted in time for the Summer II session evaluation process.

However, on May 9, 2016, faculty teaching in Summer 1 had received an email from Dr. David Reinhold that included the following statement, indicating that Article 16.§4 would be honored during Summer 1 2016:

If you are a full-time bargaining-unit faculty member you have the option whether or not to evaluate your course(s) this semester. If you choose to not evaluate this semester/session you must access ICES Online and indicate, section by section, whether you are evaluating that course.

This information turned out to be inaccurate, as was the case in Spring 2016, after faculty had received an email containing the same language on January 11. Faculty members who intended to exercise their rights under 16.§4 found when they accessed ICES in Summer 1 that they were preventing from doing so, just as they had been in Spring 2016.

In June, the WMU-AAUP Executive Committee authorized the filing of a second chapter grievance alleging violation of Article 16 in Summer 1.

The Summer 1 chapter grievance also alleges a violation of Article 2. In her June 9 email, asserting the administration’s right to conduct its ‘pilot study’ during Summer 1, Dr. Mansberger claimed that “the 2015-2016 Academic Year. . . concludes at the end of the Summer I session.” However, according to Article 2 (Definitions) of the Agreement:

(a.) ‘Academic year’ means the fall and spring semesters.

Is there is a solution?

The June 2016 chapter grievance proposed the following remedies:

  1. Any bargaining-unit faculty member who so chooses shall be able to access the “Course/Instructor Evaluation System (ICES Online)” though the “My Work” channel in GoWMU and, by June 28, 2016, exercise the option not to collect student ratings for their courses in Summer I 2016. [Unfortunately, the clock has since run out on this proposed remedy.]
  2. By April 2017, the administration shall receive an evidenced-based report prepared and presented by representatives of the board-appointed faculty on best practices for collecting ratings data that is “valid and reliable” (as required by Article 16) and for the use of ratings data. Further, the administration shall engage in a good-faith dialogue with the faculty on this topic in response to the report, with the mutual goal of improving the quality and value of student ratings data.
  3. The faculty’s report and consequent dialogue shall address documented problems with the reliability of student ratings, as indicated by the growing body of research indicating significant biases against women faculty and faculty members of color. The WMU-AAUP Chapter has previously cited a key study released earlier this year (see Boring, Ottoboni, and Stark 2016), one of many that have found that student ratings may be “better at gauging students’ gender bias and grade expectations than they are at measuring teaching effectiveness” and “are biased against female instructors in particular in so many ways that adjusting them for that bias is impossible.” The authors conclude that for these reasons, student ratings “should not be used for personnel decisions.” The administration shall collaborate with the faculty in a good-faith effort to address the racial and gender biases endemic to student evaluations of teaching and work with faculty to develop an unbiased, equitable system for collecting and using student ratings.

UPDATED 4 P.M. ON JULY 12: The grievance hearing was held today and the grievance has subsequently been denied by the administration. On July 8, the WMU-AAUP Executive Committee authorized a request for mediation in the event of denial of this grievance. 

Why does this matter?

Language regarding the frequency of evaluation data collection has been in the contract for 35 years, and for the past 14 years, the faculty’s contractual right to make these decisions has been stated explicitly. (We published a timeline in March 2016 for how this language came to be in the contract and how it has evolved over the years, available here.)

It is the union’s job to defend the contract and protect faculty rights. Every single right and benefit in our contract is in there because faculty who came before us fought for it, won it, and had to give up something to get it. That is the nature of negotiation. Therefore, the WMU-AAUP Executive Committee, in consultation with the WMU-AAUP Association Council, voted to reject the proposal to conduct evaluations in all sections of all courses in Spring 2016 when it was presented to us. We could not in good conscience agree to make a concession regarding language that has been in our contract since 1981. When the administration chose to go ahead with the plan regardless of the contract language precluding it, and despite our repeated warnings that their plan would violate the contract, we filed the first chapter grievance, which is still active and pending mediation.

Similarly, when it came to our attention in Summer 1 that faculty rights articulated in Article 16 were once again being denied, we filed the second chapter grievance and expect the hearing to be scheduled soon.

Do faculty want student feedback? YES.

WMU faculty are rightly proud of the top-quality instruction we provide to our students and deeply invested in receiving substantive feedback from them. The WMU-AAUP is equally invested in helping our faculty colleagues access reliable, useful feedback that is free of the kinds of racial, gender, and other bias that unfortunately many colleagues have experienced firsthand in their ratings and that has been well documented in the scholarly literature on student ratings.

These are problems that our 2011 and 2014 negotiation teams raised at the bargaining table. Both times, the administration refused to engage in conversation to try to solve them. Both times, the faculty had to settle for letters of agreement establishing joint committees of faculty and administration to address the problem of low response rates that resulted from the switch in 2010 from paper to online evaluations. The problem of low response rates was the only issue the administration would consider with regard to course evaluations. While it is a significant issue, it is far from the only or most pressing problem associated with the collection and use of course evaluation data.

We value the time and energy that the members of the joint committee brought to this project, and we share their disappointment in the outcome. In collaboration with the Executive Committee, our 2014 bargaining team envisioned a process of brainstorming to generate creative solutions to improve course evaluation response rates and develop evaluation instruments that minimize potential bias, and we are still optimistic that this can be achieved without faculty conceding any contractual rights.

Given the growing body of research into bias in student ratings, it would have been irresponsible for the WMU-AAUP Executive Committee to agree to the expanded use of a flawed rating instrument or to allow a negotiated contractual right to be circumvented in the process.

What happens next?

The WMU-AAUP officers and Executive Committee will keep the faculty informed as the two chapter grievances discussed here move forward. As always, faculty input and feedback are invited.