Iowa Legislator Wants to Give Students the Chance to Fire Underwhelming Faculty

Charlie Neibergall, AP Images

State Sen. Mark Chelgren of Iowa: “Do I think that students who range in age between 18 and 30 years old, who are spending thousands of dollars to get an education, are qualified to make those decisions? Absolutely.”
April 23, 2015

A bill circulating in the Iowa State Senate offers a novel (and cutthroat) way to hold professors accountable: putting their fates into students’ hands, Survivor-style. Every year the professor most disliked by students would be voted off the campus.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Mark Chelgren, a Republican, would require the state’s public universities to rate professors’ performance based solely on students’ evaluations of their teaching effectiveness. Professors whose evaluation scores didn’t reach a minimum threshold would be automatically fired by the university.

Then comes the competition. The names of the five professors with the lowest ratings above the minimum threshold would be published online. Students would then vote on those professors’ future employment — and the professor with the fewest votes would be fired, regardless of tenure status or contract terms.

Iowa’s professors don’t need to look over their shoulders just yet. The bill has been languishing in the Education Committee since it was introduced, in late January. It’s the latest example, albeit an extreme one, of state lawmakers' taking a closer interest in how public universities serve their students.

The Chronicle spoke with Mr. Chelgren about his ideas behind the bill. Following is an edited and condensed version of the conversation.

Q. Tell me about how you saw a need for this bill. What was the idea behind it?

A. The concept here has to do with the amount of debt that we have for our students. When we talk about ways to reduce the debt load and make sure that we get quality education, sometimes it comes down to whether or not the professors work for the students or the students are privileged to be in the professors’ classrooms.

There doesn’t seem to be any qualification where the professor understands that when they leave at the end of the school year, they’re leaving with a couple hundred thousand dollars, but that the students they’re teaching are paying these huge amounts of money to be there.

If it was a free-market system, I would say that the professors need to understand that their customers are those students. Even though I want professors to hold students accountable in making sure they’re doing their work and getting things done, there needs to be a level of accountability on the other side — which means that the amount of money these students are paying is worth it in the end, that they’re getting the education and knowledge that they’re paying for.

And if they’re not receiving that, there should be some mechanism for the students to be able to say, This professor isn’t worth the money.

Q. Do you think students are qualified to make the decision to fire a professor?

A. Do I think that students who range in age between 18 and 30 years old, who are spending thousands of dollars to get an education, are qualified to make those decisions? Absolutely.

Why wouldn’t a student be qualified to make those kinds of determinations? They’re the ones paying the money.

Q. Well, if a professor gives a student a bad grade or has a hard class, the student can rate him or her poorly. What’s the incentive for professors to still grade fairly?

A. A professor needs to have a level of integrity where they’re actually doing their job. There are some great professors out there who really hold accountability and do a good job. There are some crappy professors out there also.

If the schools themselves aren’t willing to remove poor professors from the classrooms, there should be another mechanism. And those who are paying the bills should have some say in who those professors are.

When I went to school, the professors who graded the hardest were among my favorite professors, not among my least favorites. The ones who seemed like they were just going through the motions and weren’t actually doing their jobs were the ones that were very frustrating. Instead of me working with that professor, you’d be pushed off to a TA or you’d simply deal with a professor who was so arrogant that you couldn’t actually ask questions without being demeaned in class. You talk about education in general and avoiding bullying issues, but a professor runs their classroom like they’re some kind of dictator.

In every scholastic environment, there are those who abuse the system. This is a way for some accountability to be brought back to the system.

Q. This system doesn’t take into account professors’ research or service; it’s just focused on teaching. Was that intentional?

A. Absolutely. The university is designed, if I read the Iowa Constitution accurately, to impart knowledge to students. We have turned it into a laboratory, which is fine — state dollars can be spent on employees, and if you want to develop R&D, that’s fine.

But there are professors who are phenomenal in the classroom and may have poor research-and-development techniques. There are those who are phenomenal in research and development but have poor techniques in the classroom.

We need to make sure we differentiate between the two. If you’re going to be a professor who is simply an R&D individual, you should be hired as an employee who is doing the work for the university. Unfortunately, we’ve merged those two things, and I believe it’s been to the detriment of the quality of our education.

Q. Do you think this will make it harder for universities to recruit faculty members who are top researchers?

A. I don’t think it’ll make it harder. I actually trust our students. I trust our kids who say, This is a poor professor, we don’t want him here. I think you’re going to be opening up avenues to bring in fresh talent.

Part of doing work is a passion to do it well. I’d like to make sure we bring passion back to education.

Q. Have you heard from professors and university officials about the bill?

A. I’ve had some contact around the bill. It’s great to have a conversation because I don’t believe that a lot of professors think of their job as being in service and as having customers they have to take care of.

There are definitely some professors who feel that way but not the majority, in my opinion. I’m hoping this wakes some of those professors up and says, Listen, we have a situation in this country where we are having these young adults leave college with massive debt. I want to make sure the education they are receiving matches the amount of debt they have or the amount of money they’ve spent. I think this is one of the first steps to make sure that happens.