At the end of each semester, students have the opportunity to shape our future learning by completing course evaluations. We should use these evaluations, typically biased against women and minorities, to help improve faculty diversity. Georgetown University’s administration must reconsider how it uses course evaluations, and students must reflect and minimize the bias in our evaluations.
The results of course evaluations — student evaluations of teaching, or SETs — are often skewed against female faculty, as economist Anne Boring found in a 2016 report. Boring argues that students of all genders evaluate female faculty lower even on objective measures such as time taken to return assignments. SETs are even more biased against faculty members of color, according to Therese Huston, a faculty development consultant at Seattle University. Students give lower ratings to Asian, Latinx and black professors than white professors, even controlling for type of course taught.
Bias in SETs perpetuates a faculty that is disproportionately white and male, a problem with which Georgetown is all too familiar. This year, Georgetown reported that less than 14 percent of its faculty identify as members of minority groups and 37 percent identify as female.
Like comparable institutions, Georgetown uses SETs to decide promotions and reappointments. The Committee on Rank and Tenure uses SETs to evaluate teaching, while the Collective Bargaining Agreement allows the administration to not rehire adjunct faculty based on poor course evaluations. While SET bias is neither specific to Georgetown nor the primary reason why the faculty is not representative of the student body, students control SET bias and participate in perpetuating this inequality.
By accounting for bias in SETs, we can support diverse faculty members who each bring their own benefits to our campus. Diversity is valuable in and of itself, but having diverse faculty also fosters better outcomes for students — especially in predominantly white institutions like Georgetown. Faculty members from minority backgrounds help students of all races build intercultural competency and value teaching and learning more than white faculty members, according to a 2013 report by Na’im Madyun, associate dean for diversity and equality at the University of Minnesota. Similarly, University of Texas researchers Joyce Carbonell and Yessenia Castro found female role models increase the likelihood that female undergraduates take on leadership roles. As students, we have a responsibility to support qualified and effective minority and female faculty members, for they bring unique skills to pedagogy.
If Georgetown is going to talk the talk, it needs to walk the walk of improving diversity in faculty, which means acknowledging potential bias in institutionalized practices like SETs.
Georgetown’s goal is to “employ qualified candidates, particularly minority persons, women, veterans, and persons with disabilities,” according to the university’s faculty hiring procedures. Nonetheless, Georgetown and similar institutions fail to adequately support underrepresented faculty members once they are hired. National studies find that female and minority faculty members are tasked with more unpaid service work than white male professors, which often limits their ability to rise to the better-paid and more prestigious ranks in academia, according to the Social Sciences Feminist Network Research Interest Group.
We as students must use our voices to support overworked, underpaid and underrepresented members of our faculty.
I am not criticizing Georgetown or calling for it to be more “politically correct.” But students and administrators alike would benefit from re-evaluating how we use SETs to improve education and professional outcomes. Other options could include taking inventory of pedagogical techniques or gathering qualitative feedback from students in person. At minimum, the administration should consider minimizing the weight placed on SETs in promotion and rehiring procedures.
Students of all races and genders have implicit biases, and we must reflect before submitting course evaluations. Are your female professors really “strict,” international professors “unclear” or minority professors “too political”? Take a moment before commenting on a faculty member’s dress, tone or looks.
I’m not asking students to boost evaluations of underrepresented faculty, which could be tokenizing, counterproductive and morally dubious. I am asking you to consider how race, gender and other intersections of our backgrounds could prejudice faculty evaluations and therefore shape our education.
The end of the semester is a good time for us to ask ourselves if we are using our voices as students effectively. At Georgetown, students and administrators have a special obligation to live up to the Jesuit value of inclusivity. We must use whatever powers we have in completing SETs to build a more diverse faculty that will better educate us, our peers and future Hoyas.
Larry Huang is a senior in the College.