After student complaints, Utah professor denied job

November 24, 2011 at 5:34 pm 21 comments

Here’s another example of students-as-customers and ramifications of that perspective. If students dislike a teaching approach (even if it’s demonstrably effective, with empirical support), then the professor is not doing his job, if the job is defined as “satisfy students.”

Some students didn’t take well to Steven Maranville’s teaching style at Utah Valley University. They complained that in the professor’s “capstone” business course, he asked them questions in class even when they didn’t raise their hands. They also didn’t like it when he made them work in teams.

Those complaints against him led the university denying him tenure – a decision amounting to firing, according to a lawsuit Maranville filed against the university this month. Maranville, his lawyer and the university aren’t talking about the case, although the suit details the dispute.

Maranville and his attorney did not return phone calls, but the allegations in the lawsuit raises questions that have been raised and debated about the value of student evaluations and opinions, how negative evaluations play into the career trajectory of affected professors and whether students today will accept teaching approaches such as the Socratic method.

via After student complaints, Utah professor denied job | Inside Higher Ed.

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21 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alfred Thompson  |  November 24, 2011 at 6:18 pm

    I think that student evaluations are more useful if the student fills them out at least a year after taking the course. Seems like more students appreciate a teacher more after the passage of time once they have had a chance to evaluate what they have learned more. I’ve heard students talk very favoriably about HS teachers after they have had a year or two to find the value of what they learned in the classes run by teachers they complained about as students.

    Reply
    • 2. Bijan Parsia  |  November 24, 2011 at 7:21 pm

      There was a great study about this using…Navel academy students(?). They were randomly assigned to classes and they tracked their performance in *future* classes relative to the evaluations they gave in the intro classes. Generally, the tougher intro classes got lower evaluations (at the time) but those students 1) did better later on and 2) appreciated what they got only later on (I think this last part was there, but I’m not 100%).

      Re: this case, it’s a) nuts and b) an example, afaict, of uni higher ups overriding the dept in a clearly objectionable way.

      Sigh. I remember back in the day when profs were denied tenure for being radical or too popular with students…

      In any case, I’d be interesting to know how many high level disagreements with the dept recommendations go for tenure rather than against tenure. I personally know of one case where the dean requested a review of a tenure denial (but that decision was so obviously bogus and inviting of an EEOC investigation that it was only surprising that the chair didn’t push a granting through), but most of the cases I’ve heard involve the dean, president, or board denying tenure that was approved at the dept. level.

      Those seem inherently rather suspicious and a real threat to academic freedom.

      Reply
  • 3. Bijan Parsia  |  November 24, 2011 at 7:26 pm

    One thing that’s weird about this and similar cases is that typically teaching doesn’t matter unless they want to scotch you anyway. If your research is good, that generally suffices. OTOH, if there were a lot of complaints and they percolated up, then they might have fallen afoul of the “Don’t piss off the chair/dean/president” rule (which is a stifling rule).

    The failing lots of students I can see because that affects a dept’s bottom line, often. But mere complaints, if the candidate had an acceptable to good research record, seem to be a weird basis for denial esp. if the complaints are about *obviously good* practice.

    Reply
  • 4. Mike Byrne  |  November 25, 2011 at 1:55 am

    Wow, this case looks to be awful. Did you read this in the article?

    The department chair – Scott Hammond, who is named in the lawsuit – apparently agreed with how Maranville taught his courses and called him a “master teacher,” according to court documents. Hammond visited his class, and so did an associate dean.

    Your chair calls you a master teacher and you get fired for poor classroom performance? And then this:

    Students did not want to work in teams and did not want Maranville to ask questions. “They wanted him to lecture.” They also complained, according to the suit, that he did not know how to teach because he is blind.

    He should get some help from a small army of ADA lawyers on this one if that’s the case. That’s nuts.

    I suspect there’s a lot more going on here than just poor student evaluations…

    Reply
    • 5. Bijan Parsia  |  November 25, 2011 at 2:23 am

      Whoa! Totally missed:

      They also complained, according to the suit, that he did not know how to teach because he is blind.

      So we have “students-as-bigots” 😦 Horrible.

      Reply
  • 6. Garth  |  November 25, 2011 at 3:04 pm

    I had a biology professor in the 80’s who made transparencies of the textbook pages and would them put them on the overhead and using her finger would read the pages to us for 50 minutes. After a week of this I talked to her and she was not convinced this was not teaching. I was just out of the Marine Corp and was not much for being a wall flower and was paying my own tuition. I and about 5 other students went to the Dean and then to the University president. She was replaced mid quarter. Sometimes students do have to participate in their own education. I am not say this case is justified, just that sometimes there are circumstances requiring action.

    Reply
    • 7. R. Wright  |  November 25, 2011 at 3:57 pm

      As I said on Twitter a while back, “possibly the most harmful idea in higher education right now is that students are qualified to judge instructor quality.”

      The following is a decent summary of just a little bit of the research that is uncovering the foolishness of using student evaluations:

      http://www.helium.com/items/1469003-on-student-evaluations

      Another eye-opener can be found here:

      Click to access carrell+west+professor+qualty+jpe.pdf

      From the abstract, “professors who excel at promoting contemporaneous student achievement teach in ways that improve their student evaluations but harm the follow-on achievement of their students in more advanced classes.”

      Reply
      • 8. Mike Byrne  |  November 26, 2011 at 1:18 am

        There are mountains of data on what really drives teacher evaluations. Most of the things that drive them, statistically, clearly have nothing to do with quality of instruction. “Expected grade” is one of the strongest predictors of teacher ratings–so, if you want higher ratings, be easier. Factors like race, gender, physical attractiveness–all of them are statistically reliable predictors of teacher evaluation scores.

        I’m not saying there’s no signal in there, but the signal to noise ratio is so low that teacher evaluations are pretty close to meaningless. Not quite, but close.

        Reply
    • 9. Bijan Parsia  |  November 27, 2011 at 9:20 am

      I don’t think anyone would deny that students should participate in their own education. It’s also the case that gross incompetence in teaching is detectable and should be called out. (BTW, I was a voracious critic of my instructors from at least grade 9.)

      But, student evaluations aren’t typically good evaluations (that is, useful evaluative judgements — they may provide useful data of various sorts). This isn’t just because they are always wrong but because they tend to track other things than instructional quality so you have to, at the very least, control for those factors and understand when positive evaluations are inversely correlated with instructional quality.

      In this case, when sensible analysis is applied (give what we know), the negative judgement of the evaluations is properly dismissed rather than used to fire someone.

      Reply
  • 10. Jesse M. Heines  |  November 28, 2011 at 9:27 am

    I can’t help thinking that there must be more to this than meets the eye. I just can’t believe that Utah Valley University administrators could be so short-sighted as to deny tenure based on such student comments, especially, as Mike Byrne points out, after Maranville had received a glowing teaching evaluation from his chair. Perhaps I’m naive, or perhaps I’ve been blessed by chairs and deans who have always supported me when I’ve been the target of student complaints, but something smells fishy here. Too bad there’s not a snopes.com for this type of story to really get to the bottom of it. It’ll be interesting to see what comes out in the lawsuit.

    Reply
    • 11. Robert Talbert (@RobertTalbert)  |  November 30, 2011 at 8:22 am

      UVU is a public institution, so while there’s no Snopes.com (that’s a great idea BTW) anyone could submit a FOIA request and ask for pertinent personnel records. I’m not sure what the privacy parameters are for things like this, but I know at my institution (a public uni in Michigan) people can access things like my tenure portfolio and student evaluations.

      Reply
  • 12. Robert Talbert (@RobertTalbert)  |  November 28, 2011 at 7:45 pm

    I blogged on this a while back: http://chronicle.com/blognetwork/castingoutnines/2011/11/02/was-this-professor-really-fired-for-being-too-tough/

    To summarize, I think there HAS to be more than meets the eye here. We don’t know, for instance, what Prof. Maranville was actually *doing* in the classroom besides employing his version of the Socratic method. Were there simple things that he could have done as an instructor that might have made the situation better?

    Also, not enough emphasis has been placed on the remarkably short-sighted decision to hire Maranville in with only a one-year pre-tenure probationary period. Given a longer period, he might not have gotten better evaluations, but the university and Maranville could have had more time and space to get to the bottom of the difficulties in the classroom he was obviously having. Instead the university basically had to make a snap judgment about tenure based on about 14 weeks’ worth of evidence. That should never have happened.

    Reply
    • 13. Roy Wright  |  November 28, 2011 at 11:39 pm

      You seem to take for granted that “better evaluations” are an objective good to be sought after, and that student complaints “obviously” indicate some kind of meaningful “difficulties in the classroom.” I strongly disagree, as I indicated before. Student evaluations are next to meaningless as indicators of teaching quality.

      Also, I find the assertion (in your comment and that of Jesse M. Heines before you) that there must be more to this case than meets the eye to be groundless. I think we all know how very common it is for administrators to judge the quality of a faculty member’s teaching almost entirely on student evaluations, though I find it difficult to imagine a charitable explanation for why this clearly wrongheaded practice is still so prevalent.

      Reply
      • 14. Bijan Parsia  |  November 30, 2011 at 7:23 am

        I’ll go further and say that the reasoning in Tablert’s article is rather poor. For example, just from the first point:

        It can’t be as simple as the meme of: Professor is tough -> Students complain -> Administration caves to student demands -> Prof gets fired. What actually happened in Maranville’s classes? Do we know? There are profs using the Socratic Method all the time, being tough and holding high standards with students not that different from UVU students, who don’t get complaints on this scale or lose tenure.

        First, is that the meme? Is that the interesting meme? I don’t think the admin *caved* to student demands (did past students demand he not be granted tenure?). I think the admin used it as an excuse to deny tenure. But it’s a crappy excuse and should be vigorously attacked.

        Second, what’s the scale? Afaik, we don’t know the actual amount of complaining. So comparisons on “scale” are meaningless at the moment. (But even if the “scale” were unusually high it remains that poor teaching (PERIOD) is not standard grounds for denying tenure. He didn’t show up drunk, talk about inappropriate things, fail to cover material, abuse students, etc. Assuming his research was reasonable (and remember, he came from a tenured position, right?), then this is silly. If his research was unpromising, then offer that as a reason!) The implicit equating of “getting complaints” and “losing tenure” is very misleading.

        Which brings me back to

        What actually happened in Maranville’s classes? Do we know?

        We have some pretty good evidence: He was peer observed by his department chair and rated a “master teacher”.

        Obviously, there could always be more and damning facts we don’t know, but your analysis of the prima facie case seems rather off even before we get to the notoriously and well documented disconnect between student evalutions and quality teaching.

        Just to throw in one more, you wrote,

        Specifically, what did he do when it became clear that students weren’t learning (for whatever reason)?

        Why do you think they weren’t learning? Poor student evaluations do not correlate with lack of learning (in lots of circumstances as recent experiments show they correlate with more learning).

        Reply
        • 15. Robert Talbert (@RobertTalbert)  |  November 30, 2011 at 8:08 am

          If you look around the web at the responses to this case, it’s certainly the meme, if not the assumption, that it’s a case of student complaints causing the admin to react by firing the prof. Almost every article I read about this prior to writing my own took this approach, and I just question whether this is the whole story or whether it’s what we academic types tend to project onto such cases.

          Your second paragraph illustrates my point exactly: There’s a lot we don’t know about this situation, and it would be nice to know some facts.

          What I am referring to by what “really happened” is a question about pedagogical practices, not whether one superior thinks well of the guy. The article says he uses the Socratic method. Well, that can look like a lot of things. Was it being used effectively? Was he supplementing this method with other complementary teaching techniques? What was he doing to earn the students’ trust? There’s a lot more to good teaching than just selecting a style that sounds like it’s effective, and one data point from a department chair for me — and for most P&T committees — simply isn’t enough.

          I stand by my questions here: What was Prof. Maranville doing in the classroom exactly, and is this merely a case of bad evaluations unjustly given by students, or was there something happening that gave students just cause for giving bad reports? Perhaps the former is true, but again: we don’t know from what the news is reporting, and it behooves anybody who really wants to understand this case to try to see both sides.

          Reply
          • 16. Bijan Parsia  |  November 30, 2011 at 2:20 pm

            First, let me stipulate that there could always be other facts we don’t know about. I trust that’s boring. We’re talking about the prima facie evidence based on the article, plus perhaps some speculation.

            If you look around the web at the responses to this case, it’s certainly the meme, if not the assumption, that it’s a case of student complaints causing the admin to react by firing the prof. Almost every article I read about this prior to writing my own took this approach, and I just question whether this is the whole story or whether it’s what we academic types tend to project onto such cases.

            What do we have from the article:

            But a few months later, during the spring semester, Maranville received a letter from university president saying that his classroom behavior was not suited to his being granted tenure.

            This is the given reason for the denial of tenure.

            On the actual assessment of his teaching we have:

            In Maranville’s case, students did not see the value of his approach, the court records suggest. “Some students were quite vocal in their demands that he change his teaching style, which style had already been observed and approved by his peer faculty and administrative superiors,” according to the lawsuit. Students did not want to work in teams and did not want Maranville to ask questions. “They wanted him to lecture.” They also complained, according to the suit, that he did not know how to teach because he is blind.

            That is, we have negative student evaluations with a strong suggestion that they were particularly problematic (e.g., we know that people with disabilities, women, etc. can easily get low student evaluation that don’t track learning outcomes).

            Do we have any other presented evidence? Yes!

            The department chair – Scott Hammond, who is named in the lawsuit – apparently agreed with how Maranville taught his courses and called him a “master teacher,” according to court documents. Hammond visited his class, and so did an associate dean.

            We don’t technically know what the associate dean thought, but presumably if there had been something so severe as to affect a tenure decision, it would have been mentioned to Maranville at the time.

            Thus, prima facie we have negative, but problematic, student evaluations and a tenure dismissal based on “classroom behavior” where there was counter evidence (peer review; the basic structure of the instruction; the content of the complaints) that the teaching was fine.

            While, per usual, it is entirely possible that there are hidden facts, I just don’t see how your skepticism is remotely reasonable. Given the literature on student evaluations and the content of the articles, I don’t see that your questions are any more apropos than “Well, maybe he was ritually slaughtering sheep in front of the class.” That’s inappropriate classroom behavior as well!

            Reply
      • 17. Robert Talbert (@RobertTalbert)  |  November 30, 2011 at 8:20 am

        “You seem to take for granted that “better evaluations” are an objective good to be sought after, and that student complaints “obviously” indicate some kind of meaningful “difficulties in the classroom.””

        Not at all. Student evaluations are one source of evidence about teaching effectiveness, but we all know they could merely indicate axe-grinding on the part of students. That’s why typically one or two bad evaluations does not lead to any sort of negative impact on a person’s tenure/promotion decisions. If student complaints rise to the level such that the admin feels compelled to take personnel action, I think it’s fair to ask whether or not the students had just cause for making their complaints and to start asking specific questions about the prof’s pedagogical practices. In other words — if it gets that bad, then a full and circumspect analysis of the classroom situation is warranted. Maybe this comes out entirely in the prof’s favor. Maybe not. But you have to start asking.

        Did UVU do such an investigation? This is never mentioned in any of the news items I’ve seen about this case. Hence my questions in the article, and the things I mentioned about what I’d be looking for if I were the Dean (shudder) or on a promotion/tenure committee looking into this matter.

        Again, it’s more damning to the university that they allowed a situation to happen where a thorough analysis of how the class went was basically impossible because of the tiny window for pretenure evaluation given to Maranville.

        Finally, as to the comment that student evaluations are “next to meaningless”, I’d refer you to this paper that summarizes 15 years of research on student evaluations: http://www.theideacenter.org/sites/default/files/Idea_Paper_32.pdf (PDF) It’s more complicated than you are making it out to be.

        Reply
        • 18. Bijan Parsia  |  November 30, 2011 at 2:42 pm

          (Curses…first draft eated.)

          Finally, as to the comment that student evaluations are “next to meaningless”, I’d refer you to this paper that summarizes 15 years of research on student evaluations: http://www.theideacenter.org/sites/default/files/Idea_Paper_32.pdf (PDF) It’s more complicated than you are making it out to be.

          That paper is from 1995 with the validity experiments being done in 1980 and 1989. The correlation of student scores and learning outcome (short term) was acknowledge to be tenuous due to the possibility of selection bias.

          I alluded to and Roy linked to a more recent paper:

          Click to access carrell+west+professor+qualty+jpe.pdf

          Student evaluations are positively correlated with contemporaneous professor value added and negatively correlated follow-on student achievement. That is, students appear to reward higher grades in the introductory course, but punish professors who increase deep learning (introductory course professor value added in follow-on courses). Since many U.S. colleges and universities use student evaluations as a measurement of teaching quality for academic promotion and tenure decisions, this latter finding draws into question the value and accuracy of this practice.

          Obviously, it’s perfectly possible to have negative evaluations for a bad professor, but the general trend and the given content (as presented in the original article) strongly suggest otherwise. That the administration might have done a special extra investigation and found that the complaints were based on something real that the chair missed is…well…rather generous to the administration (to put it kindly).

          Reply
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  • 21. Jenny  |  December 29, 2012 at 5:49 pm

    The one or two obnoxious remarks or nearly delusional falsehoods do make me angry sometimes, mostly because they are anonymous. That is one aspect of evals that should change.

    There should be another venue for students to anonymously send emails of complaint to deans or chairs or whomever, but it is patently unfair – absurd really – that students are free to lob attacks at professors without revealing their identity. (Of course they already misuse this freedom online by trashing profs on twitter, Facebook and rate my whatever.com.)

    Reply

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