According to the American Association of University Professors, non-tenure track faculty account for over half of all faculties in higher education. There is a big career difference for faculty who do receive tenure, including annual salary and job security. It is intentionally difficult to fire a tenure track faculty member, but it is equally difficult to be awarded that classification.
All universities have a unique process of promoting a professor to the tenure track. It takes a lot of paperwork, review and committee meetings to reach this goal. The promotion depends on the evaluation of many small details, even the responses of students who have sat under the professor’s teaching.
Students play an indirect role in this process by completing the mandatory surveys at the end of the semester called course evaluations. The University of Southern Mississippi is one of the schools that keep these evaluations in mind.
Denis Wiesenburg, current professor in marine sciences, served as the provost in 2014. During that time, Wiesenburg took part in a seminar for faculty members seeking tenure.
“Student evaluations are reviewed generally with the comments students include,” Wiesenburg said. “The evaluations are used to assess the quality of the classroom instruction.”
While this method makes logical sense, it does not account for the percentage of students who fly through evaluations, mindlessly awarding five out of five stars just to get it over with and access term grades. This insincere grading system could hurt a professor’s chance at tenure.
Jacqueline Fontenot, a sophomore history major, said student evaluations are just obstacles separating her from term grades. She would rather get them over with as soon as possible.
“Student evaluations don’t really matter,” Fontenot said. “I answer ‘neutral’ on everything. I just want to see my grades.”
She pointed out that she might take the evaluations more seriously if they were required earlier in the semester. “If I had to take them before the final exam, I might be more honest.”
It takes a lot for Fontenot to give these candid answers. One factor is receiving accommodations for her learning disability.
“It takes a lot for me to give a bad evaluation,” Fontenot said. “I am registered with the ODA and I am supposed to have notes. If a professor ignores the fact that I need notes and extra time for taking my exams, they are setting me up for a disastrous GPA.”
Whereas students may see student evaluations as unimportant, there are ways these surveys can be beneficial, especially in identifying trends. Dr. Michael Anestis, professor in the Department of Psychology and suicide researcher, is a tenure-track faculty member in his fourth year at Southern Miss. He said these evaluations can provide good information but should be taken with a grain of salt.
“Student evaluations are helpful in detecting patterns across semesters,” Anestis said. “For instance, if a professor is consistently graded poorly it suggests that there is a serious problem, especially when their ratings fall below the university or department average.”
He also pointed out that it is important to pay attention to the comments. When students across semesters and classes report a teacher to be mean-spirited or unethical, it is more likely these accusations are true.
“I feel like students give me bad evaluations when they feel I don’t care,” Anestis said. “But I do care. I have big classes and I don’t get to know every one of you.”
When Anestis goes up for tenure review in his sixth year, he is confident that his credentials will reflect his quality of work, instructing only playing part of the bigger picture.
“Student evaluations can reflect teaching, but not all factors that go into deciding tenure,” Anestis said. “There are so many other things that define a good professor. I am confident in my research and contributions to the university.”
Anestis was hired on as a suicide researcher. His research is valuable in making the university prestigious, and he also teaches aspiring Ph.Ds.
Southern Miss gives a well-balanced review of tenure applicants, keeping in mind the full range of factors that make them good faculty members to keep around. Student evaluations are looked at to reflect teaching, but do not overshadow the value of one’s research and accomplishment.
Wiesenburg said faculty members at Southern Miss are set up for success at tenure, from the day they get the job.
“One of the most important things is the hiring process itself,” Wiesenburg said. “The University of Southern Mississippi is very selective and thorough when hiring new faculty members. Therefore, there are a higher percentage of faculty members who successfully receive tenure.”
After hire, professors at USM are set up for success by being provided information about the tenure process as early as their third year. In September of the sixth year, faculty start the tedious journey of applying for tenure, the review gradually working its way up the academic ladder.
A faculty’s application must go through their department, then the college and eventually on to administration when the president writes his recommendation.
“It is hard work,” Wiesenburg said, “but as long as you continue to work towards the goal and meet the expectations of the university it is likely you will be successful.”