How Title IX Coordinators Should Manage Harassment and Bias in Student Evaluations of Teaching

By: Amy Zavadil, Ph.D., Associate Vice President for Community Accountability, Response & Emergency Services at Barnard College, and ATIXA Advisory Board Member

What can we do with faculty concerns about harassment in course evaluation comments?

Student evaluations of teaching have been used as a means of assessing faculty effectiveness and course content in higher education for many years; in recent times there has been a call from faculty to reconsider their use as performance indicators. There is research that documents bias in evaluations, particularly gender bias, and at least anecdotal evidence that anonymous platforms are ripe for responses that individuals would not share if their name was attached. Recently, there has also been an increase in allegations that course evaluations are being used as a conduit for harassment with requests from faculty seeking to identify the authors of anonymous responses and subject them to harassment complaints. Identifying individuals in anonymous evaluations and pursuing discipline is not the means to address this problem. There is a larger conversation to explore regarding expectations of course evaluations.

Course evaluations can be a useful tool if there is clarity about how the tool is used. While there is potential for bias in responses, there is also potential for responses to provide important feedback to instructors. As the Title IX Coordinator or a member of an equity team, it is helpful to be familiar with your institution’s course evaluation process. Specifically, what are the expectations and instructions in place and how are these expectations communicated? For instructors: (1) what are the expectations for who has access to responses; (2) what are the expectations of reviewing responses to one’s own course evaluations; and (3) how are evaluations used in any institutional decision-making processes. If there is regular review of course evaluations, indications of climate concerns may be identified and addressed by the instructor or department for early intervention or corrective action. 

Institutions should provide faculty members with options for seeking support or reporting concerns found in their course evaluation reviews. It is also important to discuss classroom management responsibilities. While a faculty member may be “certain they know who” submitted problematic responses in evaluations because a student was disruptive throughout the course, it would be better for the faculty member to have the tools to address the behavior prior to end-of-term evaluations. If resources have been provided to encourage addressing classroom management challenges during the course, this may reduce inappropriate evaluation responses. Finally, do academic affairs administrators talk with faculty at orientation or department meetings about how to review evaluation responses and how such evaluations are (or are not) used? If evaluations are incorporated in a tenure or merit process, are they reviewed to weed out the extreme responses? In what way are they used? 

Students are the second piece of the course evaluation equation. In what way does the institution explain the purpose and/or parameters of the evaluation? What instructions does the institution, department, or instructors provide to students regarding the difference between an evaluation and a complaint? Consider offering information in the instructions about how concerns of bias or faculty misconduct can be reported to the appropriate process, so that it is clear that the course evaluation is not the appropriate method for raising such concerns.

Some faculty members have found success with seeking feedback mid-semester/course that can be helpful in providing feedback opportunities and minimizing dumps of frustration in evaluations at the end of the term. Setting clear expectations for what course evaluation is and is not may reduce inappropriate responses and could redirect genuine concerns to appropriate reporting options. Sometimes, the anonymous feedback provided in such evaluations isn’t going to lead to a formal complaint but will show a Title IX or equity office there is a hotspot, need for training, need to clarify policy, or other remedial actions that may correct a problem going forward. Finally, remember that setting community standards and civility expectations in the classroom can also carry over into the feedback process.   

Take a deeper dive into exploring practices at your institution. Here are two example faculty evaluation policy statements (one private, one public):

Example one

Example two

Also, recent scholarship related to bias and harassment calls for institutions to rethink the use of evaluations:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/340513498_Academic_Contrapower_Harassment_and_Student_Evaluations_The_Gendered_Experience_of_Bullying_Intimidation_and_Entitlement

https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/02/27/study-student-evaluations-teaching-are-deeply-flawed


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