April 4, 2008

CALS Discusses Disclosure of Course Evaluations

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Following up on last February’s vote to release course evaluations to students, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences faculty senate convened again to discuss a proposal draft meant to address the policy change.
One key point in the draft said that faculty members would have to authorize the release of their own evaluations before the start of each semester. Additionally, students’ comments would not be included based on advice from the Cornell Legal Office, that warned of subsequent exposure to libel claims.
The draft also specified conditions under which evaluations could be released. A professor teaching a course for the first time would be exempt from releasing evaluations. Data from classes of fewer than 15 students or with less than a 66 percent response rate would not be included. Additionally, only courses at or below the 400-level would be included.
Most of the details in the proposal drew fire from various faculty members. Following the input given by CALS faculty, the subcommittee that proposed the original draft will revise it for a final vote at the next senate meeting on May 7.
The most discussed or criticized issues included the faculty’s authority to open up their own evaluations, the 66 percent response rate requirement, and the lack of comments for students to see.
“Why would I want to make my poor evaluations known?” asked Prof. James Lassoie, natural resources, with regards to the section that allowed faculty members the option to withhold evaluations. “I’m only proud of my good evaluations.”
He and several others were mainly concerned that the only people who would be willing to release evaluations would be those whose scores have historically been high.
“It seems like it takes the spirit away from the vote that we made [last February],” said Prof. Carl Hopkins, neurobiology and behavior. The proposal draft mainly came from the work of a subcommittee of about 10 faculty members and two students and not from the entire CALS faculty senate.
With regards to the qualifying 66 percent response rate, the opinions of senate members varied widely. Some, like Prof. Olena Vatamaniuk, crop and soil sciences, suggested increasing the response rate to 75 percent as an incentive for more students to reply. But others like Prof. Paul Soloway, nutritional sciences, thought that 66 percent was too high given that the traditional CALS online evaluation has approximately a 60 percent response rate.
“If our response rates are currently at 60 percent, then we cannot impose the cutoff at 66 percent because we’ll have nothing to show,” Soloway said. He instead offered the alternative method of offering prizes, like iPods, for students who respond.