ASSU Must Insist on Public Availability of Course Evaluations

Posted by at 12:06AM

Write to the Registrar at registrar@stanford.edu
It was my sneaking suspicion that the Registrar would not be releasing (and making readily available) the results of its new Online Course Evaluations. E-mails to the Registrar’s Office last week were replied to with simply “You can find some information on our website.” Genius.
Today, the Daily confirmed that the Registrar currently has no plans to make the results available to students. It was always inexcusable that it is so hard to find out how students rate their professors, but now that the Course Evaluations are online and sport a 90% completion rate, it’s a shame. Transparency should be the University’s default, not its exception.
The ASSU must insist that the full results of Course Evaluations be made available to students, including at least a random sampling of student written comments.
I recently spoke with one of my favorite professors, democracy and Iraq expert Larry Diamond, about this lack of transparency from the administration. I was venting about how, in my opinion, the teaching in the Economics department is mediocre but that, like the rational economists they are, they would never improve unless they were given proper incentives — i.e. the possibility of embarrassment — by the availability of student ratings of the courses.
Professor Diamond was surprised that this information on the performance of professors and departments was not already available due to his leading of the original effort at the ASSU to get courses evaluated in the first place. When the Daily published its article today, I wrote to Professor Diamond and asked him to comment. Here’s what he said (this letter should also be published in tomorrow’s Daily):

I was disturbed to read today that the results of the course evaluations are not routinely and systematically made available to the student body. The current policy (or lack thereof) is ill-considered and indefensible for a number of reasons. The most obvious one is that students and their families are paying over $30,000 a year in tuition (or as much of that as they can possibly afford) for the privilege of taking these classes. The least that Stanford could do—and the minimum I think it is morally required to do—is to make this most fundamental piece of consumer information available to students before they spend something like $3,000 on a class.
Related to this is the difficulty students have in making informed choices about classes and professors. Four years go by very quickly for a Stanford undergraduate. There are often painful opportunity costs to taking one course instead of another. In terms of maximizing the quality and richness of their undergraduate experience, students should have as much information at their disposal as possible.

There is a third reason that should concern the University. The public availability of course evaluation information is an important incentive for professors to do their best in the classroom and to devote serious time to their students outside the classroom as well. Over the last three decades, Stanford has done a great deal to reward, motivate, and improve good teaching. But it is easy to become complacent, and complacency thrives in the absence of transparency.
Finally, a historical perspective may be useful here. The requirement that essentially every course be evaluated every time it is offered was one of the principal recommendations of a student-faculty Task Force on Tenure and Teaching Quality appointed by the ASSU thirty years ago. As the chairman of that task force, I recall our feeling that the widespread availability of this information was an important tool for improving the quality of teaching and for raising the weight given to teaching in tenure, promotion, and salary decisions. That is why we recommended that as much information as possible be made available to the ASSU Course Guide. That is also why, today, we need the return of the Course Guide as soon as possible.
Larry Diamond, ’74, ‘80
Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution
Professor by Courtesy of Political Science & Sociology

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3 Responses to “ASSU Must Insist on Public Availability of Course Evaluations”

  1. liz says:

    I could not agree more!

  2. Troy says:

    I agree, as well. Thanks, Galen, for going to a knowledgeable and eloquent source to discuss this important issue.

  3. Edward says:

    The problem is, what can we do about this? Who should students complain to? The registrar? Provost? VPSA? There’s no clear way to make our voices heard, other than writing to the Daily.

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