You can be forgiven if you thought that Wisconsin was on the bleeding edge of new ways to kill higher education. Iowa state senator Mark Chelgren has just put forth a new bill that makes Scott Walker’s policies look downright positive by comparison. As one friend and colleague of mine put it, the bill is Surivor meets RateMyProfessor.com, applied to professor retention.
First, I want to provide a little background on Chelgren before we move on to his bill. He was elected in 2010 as part of the tea party surge, but his campaign wasn’t spectacularly surgey. He won his seat by ten votes, and won reelection in 2014 by 374 votes (a 1.8% margin). Yet again, we are reminded that your vote actually does count, especially at these smaller levels of government.
So what is this new survival horror reality show that Chelgren wants to institute in Iowa’s three public universities (Iowa State, the University of Iowa, the University of Northern Iowa)? Well, here’s the text of the bill. These are the salient parts.
The first part of the bill requires all professors at the three universities named above to teach at least one course per semester employed. Goodbye sabbaticals. Goodbye fellowships taking professors away from campus for any length of time. As a result, say goodbye to publications and awards which bring prestige to their departments. The university’s job of producing knowledge is hamstrung if the professors (who produce the knowledge) have their ways of doing so taken away from them.
But that’s only the beginning. Chelgren would like to institute a new use for student evaluations, completing the corporatization of higher education. Student evaluations are currently a part of how professors are evaluated for tenure and promotion, but these newly proposed rules would make student evaluations the be all and end all of an academic career.
How so? Well, professors will be fired “regardless of tenure status or contract” if their student evaluations dip below some unstated threshold.
Now, let’s think about how universities in this country work. We operate off the German model, and we have a rather large number of courses that we require every student to take, regardless of their field of study. Courses like this are courses almost no student is actually interested in. Sometimes they’re even difficult, designed to provide a rigorous introduction to the skills needed in later years. Sometimes they’re easy.
Student evaluations are meant to be a way for teachers to see where the wind blows and adjust their teaching to better serve students. They’re not meant to determine if students learned anything, or if the teacher did their job well. Richard Hake, Emeritus professor of Physics at Indiana University puts it succinctly:
The question is “VALID FOR WHAT?” I think SETs can be “valid” in the sense that can be useful for gauging the affective impact of a course and for providing diagnostic feedback to teachers [see, e.g., Hake & Swihart (1979)] to assist them in making mid-course corrections. However IMHO, SETs are not valid in their widespread use by administrators to gauge the cognitive impact of courses [see, e.g., Williams & Ceci (1997); Hake (2000; 2002a,b); Johnson (2002)]. In fact the gross misuse of SET’s as gauges of student learning is, in my view, one of the institutional factors that thwarts substantive educational reform (Hake 2002c, Lesson #12).
Courses that are seen as too difficult or too easy by students more often result in poor evaluations. Courses taught by women and racial minorities more often result in poor evaluations compared to courses taught by their white male colleagues. Student evaluations, in short, reveal much more about the student than about the instructor.
As if this inane hinging of employment on exceeding whatever minimum bar for competence is being proposed weren’t enough, even if you do exceed that bar you may still be in danger of losing your job. Here’s where Survivor enters into the picture.
The five professors whose ratings average out the lowest of those who exceed the minimum bar will have their names put up on the university’s website for public shaming. Not only that, but student will then be given the opportunity to vote for who they think should keep their job. The professor who receives the fewest votes will be terminated, again regardless of tenure status or contract.
If I’ve kept a level head here so far, it’s only because I hadn’t yet provided that bit of information. So pardon my French, but that’s some fucking Looney Tunes shit if I ever saw it. This isn’t going to shame professors into teaching better, because teaching better doesn’t even have any real effect on student evaluations. Even if every professor managed to produce perfect evaluations, someone would be named, shamed, and fired.
This isn’t about serving students. It’s about destroying any remaining sense in which higher education exists for the pursuit of knowledge. It’s about sticking it to the so-called intellectual elite who teach at those public universities and make such exorbitant salaries, who corrupt our children by pointing out that we don’t live in shiny happy Jesusfunland, where everyone’s equal and friendship is magic, but that we live in a deeply racist, sexist, classist society that believes if you aren’t fellating its very specific version of Jesus then you are violating their religious freedoms. This is about scaring university faculty into toeing the line and not educating their students, not exposing them to the fact that in the world we live in everything is most certainly not awesome. And that itself is an attack on students.
Fortunately, Iowa’s senate is unlikely to pass this bill. But here’s the thing. It’s been thought of. It’s been introduced. The very idea that this can be done has now been formalized. It may not happen in Iowa, but killing this bill here will only mean it might try to take root somewhere else, somewhere where the senate’s soil might be more hospitable to it.
If you value education in any way, this is what you’re up against. At this point, the anti-education lobby has thrown aside all pretense. Until recently, their goal was only implicitly the destruction of public education. Now? They’re now explicitly trying to destroy it.
If by some anti-miracle this bill passes into law in Iowa, you can expect Wisconsin’s brain drain to seem like a drop in the bucket.