At the University of Utah, faculty members who are pursuing tenure have their performance evaluated through the Retention, Performance and Tenure (RPT) process. These regular reviews allow them to rise in rank, progress along their career path and build support for their academic pursuits. Many stakeholders are involved in this process — including students, who sit upon Student Advisory Committees (SACs). Until recently, the president and vice president of the university, faculty members in applicable departments and students each had a vote in the progression of faculty members up for review. Now, changes to the role of SACs have been spurred by a report from the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action that found some evidence that students hold biases against faculty members who are women and racial minorities, many of whom already experience obstacles within the university.
Concern over implicit bias from students is not unfounded. Even within my own time at the U, there have been many instances I’ve seen where students have engaged in hurtful behavior and exhibited open disrespect for their professors. I have had classes where the bulk of our group discussion was monopolized by combative students with a perennial bone to pick with our female professor. In a different class, a classmate quietly grumbled to others about an online course taught by a professor with an Asian name, immediately doubting their ability to connect with students. There have also been instances in which students have specifically discussed the RPT process, openly admitting that they planned to vote against a professor due to aspects of their personal life or because of their assumed political affiliation.
This behavior reveals more than bias. It is clear that some students consider the RPT process to be an avenue for critique or even personal revenge, which has little to do with a professor’s role as an educator and faculty member. This is especially problematic in instances where a majority of a SAC’s members do not know a professor well and rely on the opinion of a student who holds bias. Some students utilize limited perspective in their vote, referencing only the experience in the classroom without evaluating a professor’s research, contributions to their department and role in the greater university community.
While bias certainly exists among students — as it may also exist among other faculty members — the university should not overcorrect by removing student involvement completely. It is important that professors receive input from those who they teach and understand the role they play in the educational experience of their students. Implicit bias cannot be solved by punishment or isolation — it must be actively and repeatedly addressed. Special training should be provided at all levels to those who weigh in during the RPT process, ensuring that professors do not have their careers unjustly sidelined by bias and bigotry.
A compromise is in the works. A temporary policy has removed the student vote, and while it is unlikely to return in future policy, students are still able to review faculty performance through a written report. This compromise had satiated many of the stakeholders involved, but it is still concerning that the student vote has been removed. Students must remain vigilant that they are not being excluded for the convenience and undue benefit of others within the RPT process. In the meantime, they should also engage with the new policy in good faith.
Whether it is a report or vote, whichever capacity students hold influence through should be executed with investment and precision. There certainly are positive aspects to a SAC report. Students are required to spend time compiling relevant information, in which they may provide the analysis behind their recommendation rather than a simple up or down vote. These reports would require research and communication, formally considering multiple perspectives throughout the process. And, if students truly wish to influence a vote, then a strong, factual argument is more convincing than a symbolic, unexplained vote of dissent.