Turning the Tables


Student newspapers struggle for access to professor evaluations





When Joseph Hughes, a Marshall University senior, started a Web site dedicated to giving students alternative ways to purchase textbooks, he wanted to find a way to get people to visit the site regularly.

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\n He thought that posting professor evaluations might be a good way to draw students to the site.

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\n ''People simply didn't know about [the site] so I needed something to get people's attention,'' Hughes said.

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\n What Hughes did not bargain for was the battle he would face in accessing those evaluations. His Web site has since become a timeline of his efforts. He first attempted to get the evaluations in November 2000 under the assumption that they were considered public records, but a visit to his college's office of institutional research proved unsuccessful when they told him the records were confidential.

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\n In the months that followed, Hughes filed a freedom of information request, which was denied citing university policy. A subsequent appeal was also denied, citing the same policy. Hughes has continued his pursuit because he believes the records are public under the West Virginia public-records law.

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\n Hughes obtained legal counsel to assist him in his attempts to access the evaluations this spring. He filed a lawsuit against Marshall University in April for violating the state's open-records act.

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\n Hughes and Marshall University are not alone in the conflict over whether professor evaluation results should be available for student review. Some think making the results available benefits students by allowing them to make informed decisions about the classes they take; others believe releasing the results violates the confidentiality they believe should exist between professors and the administrators reviewing the results.

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\n Laws guiding access to professor evaluations vary from state to state. Some states consider the evaluations to be public records; others see them as confidential personnel records. But regardless of the state in which a school is located, opinions vary widely. Some feel that students should have access to the results no matter what -- that they deserve to have them so that they can make informed decisions about their education -- while others contend that allowing access will only be detrimental to the professors involved.

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\n In the midst of this debate are student newspapers and student governments -- the groups most likely to try to access professor evaluations so that students can review the results.

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\n The Utah Statesman, the student newspaper at Utah State University, publishes professor evaluation results on its Web site. Jay Wamsley, faculty adviser, said the paper has never had a problem getting access to evaluation results because the university makes the results available to all students at Utah State. In fact, they are available for review in the campus library.

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\n Like the Statesman, other student newspapers have made the decision to publish professor evaluations.

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\n At Florida Atlantic University, the student paper published evaluation results in one of their most popular issues ever.

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\n ''Two years ago, we went through every one [of the evaluations] and ran a special issue ranking each professor,'' said Michael Koretzky, adviser to the University Press, the FAU student paper. Koretzky said he thinks students should have access to the results because they are ''customers of the university.''

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\n ''They should know what they're paying for,'' he said.

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\n At Georgia Southern University, professor evaluation results have been available at the campus library for several years. A few years ago, the student government worked with the student newspaper to publish evaluation results in two 16-page sections over a two-semester period. They also posted the results on a Web site.

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\n Georgia Southern Student Media General Manager Bill Neville said he believes making the results available can be beneficial to students willing to seriously consider all their options when choosing which classes to take in a given semester.

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\n ''A professor's evaluation instrument is just one of many pieces of information a student considers before selecting a particular course in which to enroll,'' Neville said. ''Word of mouth, scheduling, course content, adviser input and recommendations from other teachers all are weighed by serious students who are pondering which course to take and from whom. I'm a big proponent of letting it all hang out. Put all the information out there and let the students decide. Serious students will make serious considered judgments, frivolous students will opt for frivolity.''

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\n Still, some think that student access to professor evaluations may not be a good idea because the results could be misleading for a variety of reasons.

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\n Bill Dinome, student media coordinator at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, said he does not know of any attempts by The Seahawk, the UNC Wilmington student paper, to access professor evaluations, and he questions whether making the results available would serve a useful purpose.

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\n ''Oftentimes, student evaluations of faculty are less reliable as performance or effectiveness data than as popularity surveys,'' Dinome said. He said he thinks the professor evaluation results alone may not be as reliable as they would be when considered in conjunction with supervisor and peer reviews and when looked at with other evaluations taken over a period of time.

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\n Cathy Johnson, adviser to the Ram Page, the student newspaper at Angelo State University in Texas, said the paper has not tried to get access to faculty evaluations. She said she fears that student perception of professors and their classes could be influenced by previous evaluations, causing them to rate a professor negatively ''based on a preconceived notion arrived at through reading the [student] paper.''

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\n When it comes to student newspapers, however, student access seems to be favored, as many believe that the results are public record and should continue to be so in the future.

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\n Dale Harrison, director of journalism at Youngstown State University in Ohio, said the student newspaper there has never been denied access to evaluation results, and he thinks that is the way it should be.

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\n ''Students ought to be able to review information that can help them make important decisions about their education, which includes which professors are most appropriate for particular students,'' Harrison said. ''Open information also helps alleviate concerns about tenure. In most institutions, consistently poor teaching is grounds for termination even if a professor has tenure.''

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\n But some believe that evaluation results may be misleading in some instances and that privacy should be a concern when discussing student access.

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\n Alison Plessinger, adviser to The Collegian, Butler University's student paper in Indiana, said that professor evaluations should not be public and should instead be looked at like other employee evaluations that are not considered public record.

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\n Plessinger said many factors could contribute to a professor receiving lower marks on an evaluation, sometimes unfairly.

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\n ''Sometimes students can be vindictive in evaluations of courses in which they have not performed well, and these comments and the corresponding numbers are then not especially accurate,'' Plessinger said. ''Students who simply have a personality conflict with a professor may score that professor lower, and professors who are tough graders or give a larger amount of work sometimes receive lower [scores on their] evaluations.''

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\n Back at Marshall University, where the battle to obtain professor evaluation results has just begun, Hughes says if he is successful in his attempts, he will make the results available online via his Web site.

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\n ''It's still my contention that [the evaluations] are not used in any meaningful way by the administration, and I think that they could be used by the students in a way that would actually be useful,'' Hughes said. ''I plan on publishing them in a searchable format so that students can just go in and type the name of a course or a professor and pull up the listings.''


Fall 2001, reports