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Broken Faculty Governance

Gulliver.jpgPerhaps the most dispiriting moment in recent memory — a point at which something positive could have easily been done for the life of the College — was the tabling at May 5th’s faculty meeting of the motion to open up student course evaluations to review by students. The Student Assembly Academic Affairs Committee and the Committee on Instruction had unanimously supported the idea for a change to College procedures that had ample successful precedent at other Ivy schools, but at the meeting itself, the faculty nitpicking started. Small points were made about aspects of the course evaluation itself, about how students might misinterpret it, how certain professors might unjustly be slighted by the process itself, and so on.

All the comments were narrowly valid as far as they went, but as in any decision in life (where to go to college, where to work, whom to marry, etc.), it is easy to find negatives, if that is what you are seeking.

One professor, to his credit, opined that, despite the Lilliputian drawbacks, opening the evaluations to student review would improve course selection immeasurably over the present state of affairs at the College. Regrettably that point, a commonsense one, did not carry the day.

Let’s step back a moment and look at the process. There were perhaps 60-70 faculty members in the room — a fraction of the College 396 voting members of the Arts and Sciences faculty. And observers noted that professors from the hard sciences and leading departments like Economics were scarcely represented. Furthermore, the usual voices from the same departments and programs dominated the proceedings (you know who you are).

This state of affairs is just plain wrong. It’s high time that the procedures for faculty governance be reformed, chiefly the requirement that faculty members be present at meetings in order to vote. Perhaps there was some rationale for this many years ago when people traveled less and communications were more expensive and slow. But today the effect of such a restriction is the disenfranchisement of the majority of the faculty.

Certainly there is precedent for faculty on-line voting in other areas. For example, professors routinely vote over secure links for the faculty members who will staff the College’s key committees. That system has been in place for many years. And committee members themselves communicate their wishes by e-mail in terms when many members are travelling.

I like to think that the great majority of faculty members would have supported open use by students of the College’s course evaluations, if they had had the chance to vote. It’s high time that the faculty made this change.

Addendum: The College records all faculty meetings with an impressive array of audiovisual equipment. Transmission of the proceedings to professors who wish to view them prior to casting votes would be a simple matter.


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