So far 2016 seems to mark a year of progress in higher education: women are pursuing college degrees at the same rates as men, and higher education is one of the hottest topics in the presidential election. But even in today’s climate, women account for only 37.5 percent of all tenured faculty in American colleges and universities. The numbers are worse for women of color, who fill only 8 percent of tenured positions. This major discrepancy is at least partially due to implicit biases in student evaluations against women and minorities, which really bite during salary negotiations.

College students across the country fill out forms at the end of each course they take called Student Evaluations of Teaching (SET). These evaluations are an effort to standardize reviews of professors and refine teaching methods. Many of the surveys request quantitative and qualitative information, asking students if they agree with statements like “the professor used class time effectively” on a 1–5 scale, 1 being “do not agree” and 5 being “agree completely.” The results compose a quantitative profile of the professor, supplemented by student comments.

While we should always encourage higher quality teaching in all levels of education, these SETs do not measure professor quality as well as they claim. Studies repeatedly show that students are biased against racial minorities and female professors in their evaluations.

According to a study published by Innovative Higher Education, students perceive their male professors as “brilliant, awesome, and knowledgeable,” while the same teaching styles, when thought to come from a woman, are “bossy and annoying.” The degree of bias is subjective and varies depending on many factors such as the student’s gender, the age of the professor, and the area of study. As such, researchers have concluded that there is no way to control for all these variables.

Source: nprEd, "How We Talk About Our Teachers", http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2015/02/23/386001328/how-we-talk-about-our-teachers?auto=format
Source: nprEd, “How We Talk About Our Teachers”

Such bias has the power to directly affect an instructor’s employment. Last year, Iowa state Sen. Mark Chelgren introduced a bill calling for schools under the Iowa Board of Regents to pressure professors with student evaluations. The Republican legislator proposed the implementation of a rating threshold professors must earn into each semester in order to keep their jobs. Even those who make the threshold cut but rank among the bottom five professors are subject to a vote by the student body on whether or not the university should renew their contracts.

The bill ultimately failed, but these evaluations still play a heavy hand in determining the fate of an academic’s career. Administrators use SET results to determine factors like promotional status and tenure. This is especially true in schools that place a greater emphasis on teaching rather than researching, like liberal arts colleges, where SETs may be the only way for a department chair to evaluate teachers.

In reality, this hiring system and reliance on SETs could violate a whole host of federal laws and regulations overseen by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

In reality, this hiring system and reliance on SETs could violate a whole host of federal laws and regulations overseen by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 prohibits determining wages on the basis of sex, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 mandates that institutions and business are forbidden from using discriminating promotional practices on the basis of race or sex. Using biased review surveys in determining salary and hiring practices could be similarly illegal.

In an effort to level the playing field at a time when women continue not to receive tenure with the same frequency as their male counterparts, Cornell University Science & Technology Studies Professor Sara Pritchard suggests giving women a boost in their quantitative evaluation scores:

“The bonus should be determined by average gender bias in teaching evaluations at their institution or national averages. Professional reviews should then be based on these adjusted data, not those laden with unconscious (and possibly conscious) bias … Such a policy would offer one concrete way to actually fix such inequalities,” Pritchard wrote.

Pritchard’s plan could help account for some of the biases women and racial minorities face in SETs, but the jury is still out on how exactly this could be quantified. The amount of the “boost” that would be needed is so variable that it could conceivably change based on the demographics of students enrolled in each course. While this could work as a band-aid solution, a long-term approach is needed for real systemic change.

Instead, universities could implement alternative ways of measuring professor success. Physicist and education-specialist Carl Wieman developed a new approach that takes inventory of the practices a professor uses that have been shown to correlate with student success, such as whether or not the professor regularly provides useful feedback to students. This rubric-based system, which considers a course from the professor’s perspective, could eliminate the gender and racial biases picked up in professor evaluations while still addressing the need for an efficient teacher evaluation system.

Regardless of the methodology, it is the duty of colleges and universities to change their methods for faculty review.

Regardless of the methodology, it is the duty of colleges and universities to change their methods for faculty review. But there is enough responsibility to go around: the accrediting agencies should take note of these discriminatory practices and press colleges to ensure that quality teaching is rewarded, regardless of the race or gender of the professor.