Arbitrator Rules University Is No Longer Allowed To Use Student Evaluations When Deciding On Promotions And Tenure For Professors feature image

Arbitrator Rules University Is No Longer Allowed To Use Student Evaluations When Deciding On Promotions And Tenure For Professors

Professor evaluations are a popular way for university students to share their thoughts on professors they’ve taken courses from. Many universities use these evaluations when completing performance reviews of professors or determining matters such as promotions and tenure decisions. However, a recent arbitration decision has forbidden the use of professor evaluations when making employment-related decisions.

The use of professor evaluations had been an issue between the faculty association (the “Association”) and the university since 2003, and no agreement could be reached on how they should be used by the university when making employment-related decisions. Despite mediation stemming from a grievance in 2009, there had been no mutual agreement reached by 2015.

The Association’s position

The Association argued that the university’s use of average scores of evaluations should not be used because they provided no useful information, adding that the questions in the evaluation forms did not speak to teacher effectiveness. Additionally, the Association argued the results were skewed by bias and could contravene the Human Rights Code.

The university’s position

The university’s position was that notwithstanding any identified problems with the evaluations, there is relevant information to be gathered from them. They argued the averages were useful data points, and while they could not be determinative to a promotion or tenure decision, they were useful when considered with other relevant information in that they helped identify trends and concerns. Another position taken by the university was that any changes to the use of evaluations should be done gradually and with appropriate study and review.

Weighing the value of evaluations

The arbitrator started by noting that the university’s reliance on evaluations was substantial, and as a result, a review of their use should be done with a high standard of justice, fairness, and due process.

The arbitrator stated that while evaluations are easy to administer and have an air of objectively, the reality is that there are serious and inherent limitations in their value. The arbitrator found there to be no meaningful insight to be gained on teaching performance of effectiveness coming from the evaluations.

Evidence before the arbitrator, which was largely uncontested, found evaluations could reflect personal characteristics such as race, gender, accent, age, and attractiveness. There was also evidence that the answers provided by students who complete the evaluations online were different from those completed in the classroom, and that these differences needed to be better understood. Furthermore, overall response rate needed to be considered because the lower the response rate, the smaller the sample size of data. Students could also take their grade expectations into account when filling out evaluations.

The arbitrator also listed a number of characteristics of classes themselves that could affect the responses in evaluations, including:

  • Course characteristics, such as elective vs required
  • Class size
  • The difficulty of the class
  • Quantitative classes vs humanities
  • Traditional teaching vs innovative

The arbitrator concluded by stating “The fact of the matter is that (evaluation) results have demonstrable limitations that raise real issues about their use as a measure of teaching effectiveness in tenure and promotion decisions… There is no demonstrated value in comparing average results across course formats, levels, topics and disciplines. This is statistically unhelpful and only exacerbates the confounding biases earlier referred to.” In offering an alternative to the use of student evaluations, the arbitrator said a better method to assess teaching effectiveness would be through an assessment of the teaching dossier and in-class peer evaluations.

The arbitrator’s ruling directed the university to no longer use evaluations to measure teaching effectiveness for promotion or tenure.

While this case dealt specifically with university professors, it does raise important points about how all employers should approach employee job performance evaluations, particularly in that evaluations should be clear in how they relate to job performance, and should also have a fair methodology. The Employment Team at HMC Lawyers works with employers, employees, and independent contractors in all manner of workplace disputes. We believe a careful review and consideration of contracts and policies can clearly establish rights and obligations, allowing parties to a contract to avoid potential litigation before issues arise. Please contact us online or by phone at 403-269-7220 to talk today.



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