MSA requests release of information

Currently, professors are allowed to choose whether students can access evaluations.

Amber Kispert

At the end of each semester, when a professor walks into the classroom with a large envelope, every student knows what is about to happen: course evaluations.

One portion of the evaluations says “Student Release Questions” in bold letters at the top, but these are rarely released.

The Minnesota Student Association has taken an interest in getting these questions released, primarily the questions evaluating professors.

Unfortunately for MSA, evaluations are not allowed to be released unless consent is given by the professor.

Cathrine Wambach, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Educational Policy, is one of the key players in the issue of teacher evaluations.

“The decision to release is rather like asking students to release their grade for a course to the public before they know what the grade is,” she said. “Students also need to consider the ethics of publishing information that might damage the career prospects of graduate students and junior faculty.”

Joe Nathan, the director of the Center for School Change, has been a senior fellow at the University since 1989 and has released his evaluations every year.

“One of the most valuable types of feedback for a teacher is what students think are his or her strengths and weaknesses,” he said.

MSA At-Large Representative John Sharkey has taken an interest in the release of the evaluations. He said he is concerned about instructors being allowed to decide what information is released.

“It’s a pretty sweet deal, you get to decide what people see and what people don’t see,” he said. “There’s no reason, other than the goodness of their hearts, to give that up.”

MSA President Emma Olson agrees with Sharkey that instructors are reluctant to take on this issue.

“The faculty is not going to budge on this issue,” she said.

Over the past two years, two committees have been working on bettering the quality of questions on the course evaluations, those being the Durfee Committee and the Langley Committee.

“The new set of questions has caused much debate and discussion among faculty members,” Wambach said, “which is a sign of how important these questions are to us.”

Sharkey said improving the quality of instructor evaluation questions was a good thing, but questioned making improvements if no one is going to see them.

“I feel like it’s kind of being done backwards,” he said.

Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Craig Swan said he recognized the benefits that could result from releasing teacher evaluations.

“I think there is a strong case to be made for information to be provided to students when they are making course choices,” he said. “I don’t think we are where we need to be.”

Currently, the University of Illinois publishes a list of instructors each semester that passed a benchmark score on student rating questions called the Incomplete List of Exceptional Teachers – a list which compiles the names of the highest-rated instructors on campus and makes them available for students to view.

Wambach said she thinks this would be a beneficial system for the University to use.

“The incentives for faculty would shift from mostly negative to mostly positive,” she said.

Sharkey said he knew it will be a battle to release teacher evaluations because nobody is up in arms saying they want them to be released.

“There is no big public outcry, so that makes it tougher to make this seem like an important issue,” he said.

Releasing teacher evaluations to students will only benefit in the long run, Nathan said.

“I think it’s in the best interest of students and the best interest in improving the University of Minnesota,” he said.