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Student Evaluations at Center of American University Tenure Fight

Carolyn Brown, an assistant professor at American University, is appealing the provost’s decision to reject her tenure application, saying the rejection is based upon a “flawed and biased” analysis of her teaching efficiency.

The School of Communication professor says that AU’s provost, Dr. Scott A. Bass, unfairly evaluated and denied her tenure application for promotion on March 10 despite the fact that he received six “stellar” external review letters, and favorable recommendations for her tenure from senior colleagues.

Brown, who is Latina, filed an official appeal of the decision with the Committee on Faculty Grievances on June 5, and alleges that she is also being reprimanded for her advocacy on race and gender issues at the university.

The AU Faculty Manual says that an appeal must meet certain criteria: if a tenure denial is the result of discrimination, if the denial decision process deviates from the requirements of the manual, or if “evidence that existed before the provost’s or dean of academic affairs’ decision was not discovered through appropriate diligence on the part of any party and is likely to change the outcome of the decision.”

Brown, who was appointed to a tenure-track position in the journalism division in 2010, submitted her application for tenure and promotion last October. The application included letters of support from external and internal reviewers who recommended her for tenure and promotion.

Internal AU faculty reviewers—associate professor Maggie Stogner, professor Charles Lewis and Journalism Division Director Dr. John Watson—praised Brown in their letter of recommendation to Dr. Jeffrey Rutenbeck, who is the dean of the School of Communication.

The reviewers described Brown’s service to the university, her impressive filmmaking accomplishments about the Latino experience, her service to the Diversity Committee, and her mentorship of students of color on campus.

They also made clear that student ratings in the courses Brown taught, “historically have not been high overall, irrespective of who is teaching them,” the letter said. The internal reviewers also agreed that broadcast journalism classes rarely yielded scores that reached or exceeded the college’s mean, a basis in which Brown’s tenure was denied.

Brown’s case also raises questions about how much value the administration should place on student evaluations, which experts have said are not always reliable.

In her letter of intent to appeal the decision, Brown said the provost “ignored empirical evidence showing inherent bias in student evaluations of minority professors.”

She also said the provost “based the denial on a flawed statistical analysis, and does not have the subject-matter expertise to reverse recommendations of experts in her field” and that he ignored other evidence of her teaching record that demonstrated satisfaction of the teaching criteria for tenure.

Grace Ries, a student in one of Brown’s journalism courses in fall 2016, said, “The reason a lot of students may have rated her class poorly isn’t a lot to do with her teaching, but that the expectations of her class are extreme,” Ries told The Eagle, AU’s student-run newspaper. “That is a reflection of what the reality is when you go into the journalism industry.”

The faculty mentioned that they worked closely with Brown and assessed her teaching efficiency with other methods.

“The senior faculty are cognizant of the unique nature of these courses and accordingly have also assessed how effective Brown has been teaching the skills listed as learning outcomes,” the letter to Rutenbeck added. “In a professional school, such outcomes are as valued as other metrics. Her students have been found to have acquired admirable levels of competence and even mastery.”

After reviewing Brown’s file and the recommendations of the internal faculty reviewers, Rutenbeck, wrote a letter of recommendation determining that Brown was indeed qualified for tenure.

Brown then submitted the required materials to the provost’s office to no avail. Bass denied Brown’s tenure application due to variability in her teaching performance reviews.

“While your scholarship and service has met American University’s standards for tenure, your teaching has not,” Bass wrote. “According to the student evaluations, there are significant problems in your teaching and they revolve around consistency from one course and/or one term to the next.”

Bass considered the range of evaluation scores for several of Brown’s courses and concluded that while she had the ability to teach well, her variability in quality increased, the quality was inconsistent, and therefore, her “teaching record is not tenurable.”

Brown said previous pre-tenure reviews of her teaching record, or the faculty manual, do not mention the use of standard deviation in teaching evaluations as a significant role in judging a professor’s teaching performance. She added that the decision process for her tenure denial came “completely out of left field.”

Watson, who is Brown’s direct supervisor and mentor, said that in his 18 years at the university, he has “never seen anyone denied tenure on the basis of student evaluations,” he told The Eagle.

Watson and the senior faculty in the School of Communication unanimously sent a letter to Bass, past president Dr. Cornelius M. Kerwin, current president Sylvia Burwell and the board of trustees, calling on the provost to reconsider his decision in the “interests of the Journalism Division, the School of Communication and American University as a whole.”

If the appeal is unsuccessful, Brown’s tenure denial means that her teaching contract at AU will end in 2018. She will be one of four faculty of color leaving the School of Communication, she told Diverse. The others are two Asian Americans and one African American.

“Professor Brown’s departure would bring to four the number of SOC faculty leaving us and her leaving is based on a questionable rationale that focuses on her teaching,” the SOC faculty letter read. “Professor Brown’s student evaluations certainly had to do with the fact that she is a woman and a member of a minority group. National studies of evaluations do not tie the low scores for minority faculty to conscious bias, but the correlation of evaluation and the teacher’s identity is undeniable.”

Brown’s colleagues also highlighted the differences in evaluating effective teaching and highly evaluated teaching. The unanimous letter stated that under normal circumstances, teachers who challenge students are “lauded,” but teachers from minority groups must “tread that line carefully.”

When asked for comment, the provost’s office told Diverse that they were not able to comment on the specifics of the case because Brown’s grievance is still pending.

“We look forward to the matter proceeding through the University grievance process,” said a university spokesperson.

Other diversity issues at AU

Conversations on race and diversity remain a challenge at AU, according to Brown.

In recent months, several bananas were discovered hanging from nooses on a tree after a Black student was elected president of the student government. The FBI is currently investigating.

Brown’s grievance adds that the provost’s decision to deny her tenure also stems from her push for greater diversity within AU’s faculty.

A snapshot of faculty diversity at AU shows that roughly 60 percent of the faculty are White, and a university source says retaining faculty of color is becoming a problem.

The university has lured Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, a well-known scholar, from the University of Florida to AU. Kendi will lead an anti-racist research center.

A university professor, who requested anonymity, told Diverse that AU is not the exception, and that this is a widespread problem in higher education.

The professor also says that many institutions, including AU, are concerned that some faculty members are so vocal about race or other diversity issues, making it harder to fully engage in their scholarship without needed support.

“As long as you do not have people of color in real power positions, not much will change,” the professor added. “Diversity has become so watered down, that people are afraid to talk about race, so they make it about every other diversity issue.”

Brown says that she’s also dealt with students treating other minority students poorly in class, and that the university previously labeled her as a “Latina Documentary Wonk,” according to her grievance.

Brown said that the culture at AU makes honest conversations around race very difficult and that “there is a lot of lip service given to diversity, but it is not meaningful or impactful.”

Brown and several other faculty members are pushing for more transparency in the tenure decision process and for more support for minority faculty.

“It becomes an interesting circle,” said the professor who requested anonymity. “Universities pat themselves on the back for hiring diverse people, but when they don’t help them succeed, then it is okay—because at least the university tried.”

The Committee on Faculty Grievances will conduct a preliminary review of Brown’s grievance to decide if the appeal meets the criteria for a tenure decision appeal.

Tiffany Pennamon can be reached at [email protected]. You can follow her on Twitter @tiffanypennamon.

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