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Response prepared by Jim Simmons

Memo to SRI Task Force, February 13, 2014

To:     SRI Task Forc
From: Jim Simmons, Co-Chair

Re:    Thoughts about SRI Numbers and Use of Student Comments in Faculty Reviews


I want to express my thanks to Sheila Rucki for the work that she did in preparing her February 3, 2014 SRI Task Force Proposal which was discussed at the meeting of February 4, 2014.  It is detailed and thoughtful.

I spoke briefly at the end of our meeting about several concerns I have about Sheila’s proposal, and wanted to write to all of you in advance of our next meeting to spell out these concerns about her proposal, and in fact, my opposition to it, in anticipation of our next meeting.

As you know, Sheila’s proposal is that written comments should either not be provided in review materials for summative purposes either at all, or until a review process can be implemented which would provide a method to attempt to guard against extreme outliers.  She advocates the use of student comments for formative purposes by the faculty member, chairs, and deans.

My current position is as follows:  for the following reasons, I believe it is helpful and useful to include student comments for all reviewers at all levels of review for summative purposes, subject to restrictions that I think this Task Force can meaningfully create.  Specifically,


1.  Having served on department, school, and Faculty Senate RTP Committees, I have found the comments to be data, when added to all the other pieces of information that our former dossier and our current portfolio systems provide.  An early consensus of our Task Force, which I do not believe has changed, is that the two SRI questions are good as they stand.  Another early consensus that I think still exists is that student comments should be gathered; our issues are how to use them.  But, I think that student comments provide information that is different in kind from the SRI numerical scores.  I think remarks by members of our Task Force in our various meetings have confirmed that they have had the same experience that I have had in finding them useful for obtaining a more complete picture of a faculty member.

2.  I think there would be, for lack of a better term, a “due process” problem if only the “supervisory chain” reviewers (chairs and the dean, and possibly the Provost, although Sheila did not include her in her proposal) have access to student comments, even if only for formative purposes, while department, school, and Faculty Senate Committee members do not have access to the comments.  In short, some will have access to more information about a candidate than others will, yet all reviewers within the system are tasked with providing evaluations on faculty in the areas of teaching (including advising), scholarly activities, and service.  I think there could be a possible legal problem in the event of a negative outcome for a faculty member’s submission in a system that provides some information to some reviewers but not others.

3.  As a practical matter, I think we can all acknowledge the folly of the commonly heard instruction in courtrooms by judges:  “The jury will disregard that remark.”  In a similar vein, how can we expect chairs, deans, and perhaps the Provost to use student comments that they have read for formative purposes only, and then put their thoughts about those comments aside when doing a summative task, such as writing a letter to recommend or not recommend retention, tenure, promotion, or post-tenure review?

4.  I think many of the concerns expressed in the Faculty Senate Letter of October 7, 2013 are valid, and I think a valuable contribution of this Task Force would be to recommend a meaningful set of restrictions about the availability and use of student comments that address many of the issues raised in that letter.  For instance, I think that we can recommend some or all of the following:

  • Comments can be uploaded to Digital Measures in a secure fashion yet to be determined.
  • Comments can be electronically removed from everyone’s view of a portfolio in Digital Measures at a pre-determined time, such as the conclusion of the particular review cycle for which the portfolio was submitted.   For instance, once a person is retained, say, after a third year review, all comments can be permanently deleted or blocked from Digital Measures.  The same could apply who has achieved promotion or tenure, or undergone a post-tenure review.
  • Perhaps the Task Force could recommend that student comments from just one class be uploaded each semester, not all comments for all classes.  The literature seems to suggest that the larger the class, the more representative the student comments would be.  Therefore, our recommendation might be to upload and make available comments from the faculty’s largest class each semester (or some other agreed-upon standard).
  • Statements can be incorporated in the Faculty Handbook that attempt to spell out how reviewers at all levels can sensibly review of the comments.  The Task Force, at least now, seems interested in developing a specific statement cautioning about the possibility of personal bias items in the comments (race, ethnicity, national origin, non-English first language issues, sexual orientation, gender, and gender identity).  A broader set can be developed and included in the Handbook.  The Appendix to this memo contains some direct quotes and some paraphrased principles and cautions that that other schools have posted on their websites for both faculty themselves and for reviewers to keep in mind then looking at both SRI numbers and student comments.  My belief is that our Task Force can develop a useful set of guidelines for reviewers in our system to use incorporating some of the principles listed in the Appendix, plus some we develop.

Thank you for taking the time to read this, and if you have written comments, please “reply to all.”  I trust we will continue our lively and interesting discussions on many of these issues at our upcoming meetings.

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