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USenate drafting resolution to make evaluations public

Some members of the University Senate say that CULPA is no longer enough–but many faculty members say they’re unconvinced.

The University Senate’s Education Committee is drafting a resolution to make all University course evaluations public, senator Alex Frouman, CC ’12, said.

Frouman has been working this semester on the proposal, which would encourage all schools to make their evaluations public to students and faculty. A few schools, including the School of Engineering and Applied Science, already do.

Frouman, who was reelected to the senate this week, called this resolution his top priority in the senate.

“The desired service is apparent, for example in CULPA, which is almost impossible to use during registration due to such high levels of traffic,” Frouman said, referring to the unofficial rating site for Columbia professors. “We know people want this information.”

University Senator Paul Brenner, a graduate student at SEAS, believes that course evaluation access would allow for more open communication than independently-run review websites.

“I believe that students would benefit from the information provided by open evaluations and that faculty would benefit from that information being provided under a common framework,” Brenner said.

Frouman and Brenner cited the extreme nature of the opinions on CULPA as an example of the site’s limited usefulness, saying that students would benefit from seeing the more even-handed course evaluations that students fill out at the end of each semester.

“Such sites tend to accumulate more extreme opinions from students who feel passionately in favor or against a class,” Brenner said.
But some faculty members are wary of making all evaluations public.

Economics professor and University Senator Michael Adler said that public course evaluations could cause professors to adjust their teaching styles to receive better reviews.

“It will put pressure on instructors with low ratings to improve their style and reach out more to students,” Adler said. “I understand that instructors have to be sometimes unforgiving when they are attempting to teach a hard, high-workload course.”

Biology professor and University Senator Ron Prywes agreed, saying he worries that making evaluations public “would change them from a constructive tool for evaluation and improvement to a bludgeon for punishment of instructors students don’t like.”

Adler added that he has heard other faculty voice the concerns that some professors would attempt to improve their popularity by “dumbing” their courses down and that junior faculty and teaching assistants could be adversely affected if evaluations were made public.

University Senator Esteban Reichberg, a TA and student in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, said that releasing evaluations could lower enrollment in classes taught by “either newer or less popular faculty members.”

He added that newer faculty members might suffer from small sample sizes.

“If evaluations are made public, they should be released only after a robust amount of feedback has accumulated, after new teachers have gained experience,” Reichberg said.

Frouman acknowledged that junior faculty might be against the policy.

“They get bad course evaluations at first, and they are afraid that it may tarnish their reputation,” he said. “This is a very important concern.”
Those concerns are shared by some TAs, Brenner noted.

“TAs are especially concerned that evaluations could be taken as an official evaluation of their teaching ability at a time when they are still supposed to be learning to teach,” he said.

Still, Frouman said that there is some support by professors for making their evaluations public.

He said that he once asked a math professor to recommend other courses in the department to him, but that the professor didn’t feel comfortable doing so because he didn’t know which professors students preferred.

“He is always hesitant to recommend faculty because he doesn’t know how they relate to undergraduates,” Frouman said. “And relating to the undergraduates is the point of the story here.”


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Anonymous posted on

Providing students with course evaluations was routine in the 1970s and 1980s at Columbia, when "Course Guide" was published. It had both raw statistics and wonderfully witty qualitative reviews, and was indispensable during course planning. It was run by and for the students. Provided first (and perhaps second) year instructors are spared, there is no valid reason why the evaluation of instructors should not be made public and put on-line by the university. Perhaps the instructors who score poorly might spend less time worrying about their image and more time putting in the effort to (as we say) learn how to teach their way out of a paper bag. As to the claim that instructors will alter their style or their standards to obtain good ratings, that is both risible on it face and a contemptible characterization of both instructors (as craven) and students (as lazy). What would actually result from public disclosure is likely to be higher performance from both students and faculty.

Richard M. Pious
Adolph and Effie Ochs Professor, Barnard College