Board Editorial: Alberto G. case reveals need for reevaluation of tenure review process

Editorial Board

The scale of the recent student protests regarding Assistant Professor of Spanish Alberto G.’s* tenure denial speaks not only to Galindo’s impact on those who have taken his classes, but also to a large-scale student frustration regarding the process of faculty members receiving tenure. Most of the 700 students who have signed the petition in support of Professor G. have never had a class with him. These signatures should be taken as a sign that the tenure review process at this  institution is inadequately designed to measure a professor’s impact on his or her students.

Illustration: Kelly Douglas

In the view of the Pioneer Editorial Board, there are two major problems with the current system. The first is a lack of transparency about how the tenure process occurs and, moreover, an  absence  of efforts to communicate to students as to how our opinions are considered in the assessment of a professor’s “Excellence in Teaching.”

Few of us realize as we scribble blithe comments on Academic Evaluations in the last few minutes of our classes that this input will be a part of our professors’ futures at this college. Even fewer are aware that we can submit letters of  recommendation  to the  Faculty Personnel Committee, and those who do may not know when their professors are going up for tenure review. While this information may be available  to those who seek it, to the best of our knowledge, it has never been advertised to students and recent alumni in any formal way.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, student evaluations themselves are a deeply problematic means of considering student input. Many studies have shown that these surveys are essentially popularity contests; attractive and charismatic educators tend to receive high scores on evaluations, regardless of the quality of their teaching. They have also found virtually no correlation between student evaluations of professors and student academic achievement in a particular class. A study on student evaluations in the St. John’s Law Review notes that “students’ contradictory and often hostile comments on evaluations of minority faculty, as well as their occasional direct references to gender or race, raise troubling questions about the role of bias in these assessments.”

Student evaluations do not take into account the advising that professors give to students on nonacademic matters or to students who are not in their courses during a particular semester. They often provide career advice, help students with personal projects, write letters of recommendation and contribute to the Whitman community in many ways outside of the classroom.

Professors of color, female professors and LGBTQ professors may be particularly helpful in identifying with students from similar backgrounds. Unfortunately, these professors tend to be underrepresented on college campuses as is, and studies suggest that they are also more likely to receive lower scores on student class evaluations.

According to Provost and Dean of Faculty Timothy Kaufman-Osborn, nine out of 10 faculty members who applied for tenure in the past two years were granted it. But how many professors have left this school instead of applying for tenure because they wanted to avoid the stigma that tenure denial would attach to their careers in academia? And how many were unfairly represented on end-of-semester evaluations by students who didn’t realize the significance of the form they were filling out?

Students are undeniably transitory at Whitman, however, we are also firsthand witnesses to a professor’s Excellence in Teaching. The limited and problematic means by which student voices are considered in faculty tenure  decisions marks Whitman College as an institution that is  out of touch with the reality of those whose interests it ultimately exists to promote. If Whitman is to sincerely embody the liberal arts spirit it champions, the tenure review process must be reevaluated.

*The name of the professor in question has been changed to reflect his first name and his last initial.