Evaluation bias

Photo illustration by Chalice Keith/The NewsPhoto illustration by Chalice Keith/The News

Racial bias questions in student evaluations of faculty in the Mathematics and Statistics Department

Story by Alicia SteeleStaff writer

Photo illustration by Chalice Keith/The News

Photo illustration by Chalice Keith/The News

Last month, Robert Donnelly,  professor of mathematics, sent an email to faculty, staff and student leaders to bring attention to claims of racial bias professors have found on student’s evaluations in the Mathematics and Statistics Department.

“I am deeply concerned about the serious implications of this claim for our university,” Donnelly wrote in the Feb. 18 message. “I believe the seriousness of this issue demands the attention of the university community.”

Donnelly wrote that any recipient of his email likely knows that student evaluations of instructors are “a major component of the performance reviews of Murray State University faculty members,” and he wrote that he didn’t believe these claims could be handled within a “low-level” committee such as his department’s tenure committee.

“I put this issue before the university community in general and before the [Institutional Diversity, Equity and Access] Director in particular,” Donnelly wrote.

Donnelly’s message comes as groups across campus are debating bias within student evaluations. The Faculty Development Center held two discussions on Feb. 24 and Feb. 26 about gender bias in the evaluations as part of the center’s Coffee and Conversation series. The Women’s Faculty Caucus discussed the same topic at their kick-off event on March 8.

Elizabeth Price, interim coordinator for the Faculty Development Center, said every department evaluates tenure differently, but they all take into consideration teaching, research and scholarly activity, as well as university service. 

“Each college I know has different levels of what they consider good,” Price said. “And there is some research that shows that teaching evaluation numbers are different depending on disciplines.”   

Price said many years ago Murray State was supposed to put together a uniform policy that told chairmen and deans how to interpret evaluations when making personnel decisions, but it never became official.

In response to questions about Donnelly’s message, Camisha Duffy, executive director of the office of Institutional Diversity, Equity and Access (IDEA) sent a statement to The Murray State News.

“In short, the university considers all inquiries related to non-discrimination serious and upon receiving such inquiries begins the process of a review,” Duffy wrote.

Duffy included Murray State’s non-discrimination policy, which says Murray State does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age, veteran status or disability.

“Further, the university community trusts IDEA with its inquiries and expects that the inquiries be handled with both sensitivity and care,” Duffy wrote. “To that end, it would be inappropriate for IDEA to comment on any specific inquiry to protect the community trust.”

However, Duffy did not respond to a follow-up request for additional context, such as how these claims are investigated and how Murray State should use student evaluations if there is inherent bias.

“I appreciate that so many at this university are taking very seriously the concerns I have raised, and I am very hopeful that there will be constructive outcomes from the discourse I have started,” Donnelly said.

However, Donnelly said he believes that at this point it is best if he takes a step back to allow the university process to work.

Price said she hopes Murray State faculty and administrators become more aware of the possibility of bias in evaluations. She said there’s been conflicting research over the years, some of which was done by companies that administer the evaluations, saying there is no bias.

However, Price said recent studies are using technology to measure the presence of bias differently than they have before.

“That perhaps opens the doors to this being a little bit more of an opportunity to address some things,” Price said.