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University of Utah officials recently changed students’ role in decisions about retention, promotion and tenure of faculty members at the U. This comes in response to a report that found students may have implicit bias against minorities and women in the process.
Student Input in RPT Policy
The University of Utah uses the Retention, Promotion and Tenure (RPT) process to determine whether a faculty member will receive tenure. Professors pursuing tenure are reviewed annually, to provide them with feedback on their progress and determine whether the U should retain them. If their progress is sufficient, professors can be promoted. After advancing through the ranks, professors may be granted tenure — under which the U commits to provide extra protections for their academic freedom. This allows professors to freely work on subjects that may be controversial. At each step of the RPT process, students in student advisory committees (SACs) review and vote for or against the faculty member being retained, promoted or receiving tenure.
The student vote on tenure is one of many — individuals ranging from the faculty in the department to the vice president and president of the university also vote. Additionally, a negative vote from any of the parties does not automatically end the process. Instead, the application is sent to the University Promotion and Tenure Advisory Committee (UPTAC) for further review.
Harriet Hopf, interim vice president for academic affairs, explained that UPTAC does not look at any new information. They simply ensure the process was followed correctly and the negative or positive vote given was based on the evidence gathered. For example, if a ‘no’ vote was given when all the evidence reviewed should lead to a ‘yes’ vote, UPTAC would ask the SAC or faculty to reconsider their vote.
SACs have other duties besides reviewing RPT candidates. Greg Furlich, a member of the physics and astronomy Graduate SAC said they also “try to build community” and “try to make sure all students, including international students, feel welcome and treated well by peers and those who have power above them.”
Last spring, Amy Wildermuth, the acting senior vice president for academic affairs, proposed to the U’s Academic Senate that a change be made to the student vote in the RPT process. Soon after, the Office of Equal Opportunity & Affirmative Action at the U (OEO) released a report that found bias in the student’s votes. The report said they disproportionately voted against minority groups and women. Administrators responded by proposing to completely eliminate the student vote in the RPT process.
Wildermuth could not be reached for comment.
Office of Equal Opportunity Investigation
One of the OEO’s responsibilities is to investigate claims of discrimination on campus. Its investigation into the RPT process started with an individual report of suspected bias in the reports sent to UPTAC. The OEO looked at a small sample of reports. It was a “limited review based on numbers provided to us” and “not very statistically significant,” according to Sherrie Hayashi, director of the OEO.
The investigation did, however, find a bias in the reports conducted by students. Hayashi acknowledged the report “has enough weight and rais[ed] some questions that it deserves a second look,” Hayashi said. “Our role would not be to decide policy.”
According to the OEO, the study’s conclusion that the “disproportionately high rate of faculty who are female and/or are members of an underrepresented race/national origin protected class who are referred to UPTAC based upon a negative or tied vote from SAC” is concerning and warranted a recommendation for administrators to amend the role of student input as outlined in existing policy. In the report Hayashi writes, “I recommend that the Senior Vice Presidents create an exception to the policy for the upcoming RPT review process,” and “I further recommend that the University take steps to ensure that the RPT process is consistent with the University’s goals related to its Affirmative Action Plan and commitment to ensuring equal opportunity for all.”
The OEO’s report was then used as proof of something wrong with students’ input in the process. According to Kaitlin McLean, the former Academic Senate chair, Wildermuth brought the report to the academic senate and used it to argue amending the policy. “The timeline for putting a new policy in place was sped up by the OEO report,” said Connor Morgan, then-student body president.
After the report came out, criticism arose from students and faculty about how much weight was given to the report despite its low statistical significance. Statistical significance is a mathematical method used by researchers to evaluate whether the results are likely to have been influenced by factors besides random chance. It is highly valued by researchers in most disciplines. Researchers also highly value the use of large sample sizes in drawing conclusions. The OEO examined only 38 files sent to UPTAC. Hayashi acknowledged there “could be a lot more in depth review. But it didn’t really need to go to that depth.” The OEO’s way of investigating reports only aims to find out if someone was discriminated against.
“The report was valid. Anyone has the right to make inquiries about discrimination and the OEO has the responsibility to report it,” Furlich said when asked about his thoughts on the report. Furlich, a grad student, has been part of the RPT process for several years and at one time was the chair of his SAC. “I understand low statistics, in population sciences, is hard to deal with,” Furlich said.
The report did stir action: first a move to completely remove the student input completely and then a process to amend the policy wording through the Academic Senate.
McLean remembers that Wildermuth “brought to our attention a couple of years ago” the question of student input in the RPT process. She remembers a “suggestion that the line about SAC input be removed, entirely getting rid of the student input.” After hearing that the students’ voice may be taken away, the Associated Students of the University of Utah (ASUU) became upset.
They created a petition for students to sign about their rights as students and what may happen if SAC input was taken away. According to McLean, the petition received over 500 student signatures. “We intended to submit the petition to Wildermuth’s office but it became a moot point after the OEO report,” she said. The Academic Senate was unaware the OEO had released their findings before the meeting at which they planned to discuss the changes.
“We came very prepared to the next senate with the understanding that we would have the floor to discuss the issue. However, Wildermuth, without any warning, stood in front of the room and said she had submitted the numbers to the OEO, [which had subsequently] found systemic bias, causing an uproar from the students,” McLean said. As for the petition and points prepared by McLean and other students, their presentation was never heard. Discussion ended after the release of the OEO’s findings. McLean said they were told “the policy violates OEO policy and will be removed without a vote.”
During this time it “seemed like some members of the Academic Senate and some members of the U’s administration seemed to be making moves to remove the student input, or at least take away the student vote,” Morgan said.
“We, as students, feel any bias should be eliminated and minimized,” McLean said. She claimed the issue was not with the findings in the OEO report, but instead with the way that students felt the situation was being handled. “Despite these findings, we believe a compromise could be made where still student input would be valued,” she said. She said students were worried that, without a say in RPT, faculty would not “feel accountability to those they teach.”
Wildermuth “proposed the plan and didn’t plan to let anyone know,” McLean continued, “Amy [Wildermuth] stated that no other R1 institution use student formal votes in RPT. We found that to be untrue; at least one other institution, Oregon State, has a formal student vote.” The students learned this through a friend at Oregon State, who participated on a SAC that voted during the RPT process.
“ASUU saw a problem and they were trying to fix it,” Furlich said in regards to the actions taken by the student government during this time. “I think the college-level government had good intentions.”
“Since Amy left, the push has been different,” McLean said. She explained, “less institutional push in either direction has occurred” which has “slowed the roll of the removal of the current policy.” McLean, Morgan and Hopf all said that students and faculty met to discuss a new, temporary policy, still in place at the time this article was written.
Temporary Student Input Policy
After receiving the OEO report and Wildermuth’s suggestion to change the policy, President Watkins “demanded that ASUU be involved,” Morgan said.
Morgan, McLean and Wildermuth met to create a temporary policy that, according to McLean, “did not include a vote but did include a training video.” Under the temporary policy, students still review the faculty member, but do not vote. With the training video, the administration and ASUU “wanted students to be more informed about their implicit bias,” Morgan explained.
According to Morgan, under the previous policy the SACs “used a vote to shield themselves from providing actual feedback.” Morgan said they are currently “working with the departments and colleges making sure they are going to provide an implicit bias training, in addition to explanations why doing RPT review is important, what the student piece looks like and how it fits in with the rest of the process on campus.”
Another part of this new system combines the departments in the colleges to all combine to create one SAC for the college, where each individual department previously had their own SAC. “There was “push back from bigger colleges with diverse departments,” McLean said. These colleges didn’t want students giving input or being part of the discussion on faculty members in departments where they did not understand how the teaching process works.
Each department would create their own system but the “core of each SAC will be the same.” This would give SACs a more uniform way of giving more consistent and productive feedback to the faculty. Morgan said another problem under the previous policy was that “the vote [of students] was being disregarded systematically by colleges and departments across campus.” The hope is the new policy will keep this from happening. He said the temporary policy “mandate[s] that, once the SACs make their report, the faculty have to consider what the SAC said.”
The physics and astronomy SAC has operated under the temporary policy and Furlich was involved in that process. “We did the same report but we did not get to vote,” he said. He feels they were “still thorough and offered ways [the faculty member being evaluated] could improve.” The main difference, according to Furlich, is that “nothing was referred to the UPTAC.”
The student vote is removed in the temporary policy, and likely will also not be included in the permanent policy, according to Hopf and Morgan, but a complete removal of student input did not occur as was feared. “There is a consensus with most of the stakeholders that student input is important,” Morgan said, “I don’t think there is really anyone on campus who doesn’t want student input to be involved,” although “ASUU was concerned that students would be removed.”
“In an ideal world there would be a student vote,” Morgan said. For now it looks like the final rule will not include that vote. He feels that “students lost power, at least on paper, but in the grander scheme of things, [now have] more of a voice in the RPT process.”
Morgan thinks the final version of the policy will look similar to the temporary one, where they will “install safeguards” to make sure student input is not disregarded as it has been in the past. “Kaitlin and I have had a meeting with Harriet Hopf to discuss what the new policy may look like.”
“No file was sent to UPTAC simply based on students this year,” said Hopf. She feels this is a sign the temporary policy may be working well so far. She also said she is making an effort to get a committee to create the permanent policy to meet together soon.
As of the publication of this article, the committee meant to create the new permanent policy has not convened but said they do intend to meet.
Physics and Astronomy SAC
When Hopf visited physics and astronomy department, she told the director, “Your students get it.”
Their department was one of the most outspoken against getting rid of the student vote. Eugene Mishchenko, a professor in the Physics and Astronomy Department, wrote a letter to president Ruth Watkins expressing why getting rid of the SACs’ votes would be a mistake. Mishchenko sent the email with the support of his college’s SAC. Furlich said that “to completely get rid of [SACs] and not recognize them I think is a step too bold.” This sentiment was echoed in Mishchenko’s email.
“There was a lot of variation from department to department,” said Flo Doval, a graduate student and the current SAC chair in the physics and astronomy department. The process in the physics department was different from most. Most SACs only look at responses to the course evaluations that every student is asked to fill out at the end of a semester. The physics and astronomy SAC still goes over student evaluations — recognizing that there are biases there that may exist from those — but goes a step further. They additionally interview fellow graduate students and the faculty member under evaluation.
There has “always been a question about the [relationship between] graduate students and their mentors,” McLean said. She said the physics and astronomy SAC believes this is a very important factor to consider when looking at who should be retained, promoted or receive tenure. In her opinion, this may not be a priority for faculty members involved in the review and may be missed without strong student input.
“If you get rid of student-on-student interviewing, you would miss out on information, and I fear that is when bad things happen,” Furlich said. Doval agreed.
“Triggering UPTAC was [also] an important part of the evaluation process,” Doval explained. She and Furlich both said they don’t take a ‘no’ vote lightly. If they vote no, it is because they want something about that faculty member to be looked at seriously.
“My SAC has shown that we can do [reviews] rigorously with good intentions,” Furlich said. “We have a strict guideline we follow to keep the standards the same.” Doval said she shares this belief and expressed that they “took a lot of time and effort in creating our reports.”
Although the physics and astronomy SAC also meets with the entire college of science, Furlich felt it was important for his college’s SAC to meet independently because, “we have had some issues we needed to deal with,” specifically the suicide of one of the graduate students in their department. The suicide, which occurred in 2017, brought into question the lab environment created by the student’s mentor. Furlich thinks things like that are “not going to be revealed in teaching evaluations.”
According to him, the bad environment was noted in the SAC’s report about the faculty member while they were up for tenure, but was disregarded. This faculty member later received tenure, before the student’s death.
The way the voting process worked under previous policy was “majority rules when voting but record how many people voted each way,” Flo Doval said. Their SACs always made sure to include minutes from their discussions as well as meticulous details about why they voted a certain way — trying to alert faculty to concerns that might otherwise be missed.
Not all faculty were on board with changing the RPT policy. Mishchenko, who wrote the letter to president Watkins, did not see anything wrong with the way students voted and even believes it was against policy for them to try to get rid of student input. “I was surprised to learn this was to be abandoned or changed,” Mishchenko said.
“Student voting was just one vote in the process of many equal votes,” he said. It would take more than a student voting ‘no’ in the RPT process to keep a faculty member from achieving tenure or a promotion. The student vote usually only meant the case would be reviewed by UPTAC and examined again.
“Should we oppress student opinion? It’s an additional chance to make sure there are no serious problems with [the] case. In at least one case, students’ vote uncovered something that everyone else missed,” Mishchenko said. He believes getting rid of the vote means things may be overlooked — like in the case of the death of the physics grad student. His ideal solution would be to keep the student vote.
Hopf doesn’t necessarily agree. She explained that a student really only sees one aspect of the faculty at the U: their teaching. She said, “A vote doesn’t, in some ways, doesn’t make sense because they’re voting on a piece instead of the whole thing.” Hopf feels the students aren’t just voting on a faculty member’s teaching ability when they take the vote, but on everything the faculty member is responsible for. Students may not understand those other responsibilities.
Even if Hopf doesn’t believe the students should necessarily get a vote, she told The Utah Chronicle, “I think student input is crucial to the promotion process.” Getting rid of the vote doesn’t mean the end of student input and voice in the matter of RPT. “I think it is a strength of the University of Utah that we involve students in the process,” Hopf said.
“I think the reality of our old process was: students voted and they felt like that gave them a voice, but often times everybody just ignored what the student voice was and didn’t incorporate it,” she said. Hopf hopes the permanent policy yet to be put in place will allow for students to be heard and to stop faculty from just disregarding their feedback.
The administration also believes student votes can be “harmful to our ability to retain faculty.” Hopf alleged that an awarded faculty member once left the U because a SAC voted against them over what she calls “a personal grudge” and other faculty members subsequently didn’t support their tenure. The Chronicle could not verify this account. Hopf believes some faculty members fear that students have too much control over their future at the U. She said there should be a way to give students a voice without scaring off possible employees.
There are “a lot of ways we can strengthen [their] voice in the process,” Hopf said “The idea that students having a vote is the same as the students having a voice is the incorrect piece.” When creating the permanent policy, she said that voice should be “within the limits of what students know about what faculty do” and the policy should give them an “understanding of how to give better input.”
“Taking away the voice of the graduate students is not the way to [fix the problems with SAC’s input in RPT],” said Flo Doval. She wants the vote to continue. “I think the SACs play a very important role in student input in RPT and I am against the changes to student input in RPT.” However, Doval is not completely against a revision of the policy. “I think a good thing that could come out of changing the policy is a standard of review.” Doval hopes a standard of review would ensure there is a certain level of effort and care put into the SAC reports.
From the beginning of the process, Doval said it “seemed like someone didn’t want the students to vote and found a way to make that happen.” She feels the move to get rid of student voting in RPT was calculated. She is also frustrated with administration’s communication with her. “I have tried to get more information from upper administration but no one seems to want to talk about it. I have sent a lot of unanswered emails,” she said.
When asked what she thinks would be the best outcome, Doval said they should “change it back to the way it was, with some quality training videos to improve the way things were.”
Furlich said he understood that administration was trying to make improvements on the previously existing policy, but feels “they fell short on what they were trying to achieve.” He recognizes that “our involvement in RPT is different than most schools” but felt “frustrated they didn’t want to give us a voice.” He said he is “curious to understand why they were making these changes” and thought it was “a malicious move by some of the administration to take student input out of RPT” at the beginning.
Furlich also said he wondered “what the results would be if someone came to the OEO and said they think faculty are [biased] in their reports.” He explained, “We were stripped of our vote. Would the faculty be stripped, too? I think the answer is ‘no’ and it makes it feel like it was politically motivated.”
Like Doval, Furlich felt as though the students in the SACs were left out of the loop and wondered “why didn’t we receive any feedback on how to improve our reports, why were we just shut out?” Furlich also said he disagreed with claims that the SACs were voting ‘no’ without any explanation. “An RPT candidate deserves a reason why it’s a ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” Furlich said.
“People in [the college of science] feel very strongly that a vote could be maintained,” McLean said. “I personally feel very strongly a vote should remain. However, if a formal input process would be more impactful, then that is what we should do.” McLean said that overall she wants “to make sure [SAC input will] actually will make a difference in the review.” She recognizes that “because it has been flawed for so long, the student vote has not been regarded highly in the past.”
“I don’t think students had a meaningful voice in the way we used to do things, but I think we will have a meaningful voice with the new policy,” Morgan said.