College administrations say that student opinions matter. Now Princeton University is trying to prove they mean it.
Earlier this month, Princeton’s Dean of the Faculty began placing ads in the campus daily newspaper seeking student feedback on professors, in response to complaints from students.
“My underlying goal here was to make Tenure [sic] a less mystifying process, to make it more transparent to students,” Matthew J. Margolin, president of Princeton’s Undergraduate Student Government, wrote in an e-mail. Margolin said that before, few students wrote letters, and only when professors were up for tenure. Now, the administration hopes, students will provide feedback year round.
While Margolin said he doesn’t know to what degree the letters have influenced tenure decisions, he wrote that “students have been writing more letters than ever and the administration seems happy with the state of student involvement.”
Although Harvard does not actively solicit student feedback, members of the administration said they believe their input is considered.
“Tenure recommendations are based on multiple, often intersecting, criteria,” Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby wrote in an e-mail. Kirby wrote that the administration takes professors’ teaching records “very seriously,” and student letters “are read when the file is discussed by the FAS Academic Deans.”
“There is already a very strong role for students in the tenure process (and in junior faculty hiring),” wrote Associate Dean for Social Sciences David Cutler in an e-mail.
Undergraduate Council President Matthew W. Mahan ’05 said that that role is not strong enough.
“A large number of students would be interested in having more of a say—especially when it comes to issues of diversity and teaching quality,” he said.
Last year, the Committee on Undergraduate Education (CUE), which includes student representatives, met to discuss the tenure process—providing students at least one forum for such discussion. But Mahan said this meeting was merely an “informational” one.
“We expressed concerns about the process, but no substantive change came about because of it,” he said. He suggested using the Social Studies Committee, which includes two students and makes decisions that guide the department, as a model.
Even though the administration currently accepts student input about professors’ teaching abilities, Mahan said it can do even more. “If they take it seriously, that’s great—why not advertise?” he said.
But Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Vincent Tompkins wrote in an e-mail that he foresees problems with soliciting feedback, and wasn’t sure Harvard would pursue a program like Princeton’s.
“One potential problem with it is that you would presumably only get this sort of input on internal tenure candidates,” he said.
Council President-elect Matthew J. Glazer ’06 said he will have the council’s Student Affairs Committee, of which he is currently the chair, investigate the issue before he assumes his new office in February.