A battle is brewing in academia pitting students against professors. The focus of the controversy is Web sites that allow students to post professor evaluations anonymously.Many students applaud the practice as a way to give them more power and information when choosing which courses and professors to take. But some professors bristle at having their teaching methods - and sometimes their personality quirks - made available to the whole world. Some fear their reputation and their career may be at stake simply if one student seeks revenge for a bad grade.
Collegestudent.com, one of the biggest databases of evaluations, houses critiques from students at over 400 universities in the U.S. and Canada. Another -- Grade-It.com, also with a large database, rates professors according to the grades they give out and the amount of homework they load students up with.
Other similar sites, which are smaller, focus on particular regions or schools. One such site is Teacher Review, which provides evaluations of professors teaching at the City College of San Francisco and San Francisco State University.Ryan Lathouwers founded Teacher Review in 1997 while he was a student at the City College of San Francisco. After being disappointed with some of his professors, Lathouwers devised the Web site as a way to help students decide which professors would best suit their tastes. Now a senior at San Francisco State University, Lathouwers has been named as a co-defendant in a lawsuit filed by Daniel Corzon-Brown, an English professor at CCSF. Corzon-Brown claims postings on Teacher Review defamed him and other professors.
"You cannot grade if you live in fear or retaliation," says Corzon-Brown, who asserts he has felt pressure akin to blackmail from students who post on the site. "It gives too much weight to one side of the equation."
Although Lathouwers doesn't police the site, he insists that the lawsuit is "groundless." In his opinion, suing him would be analogous to someone suing the post office because they received a libelous letter through the mail. "I don't think I'm liable," Lathouwers said. "I'm not concerned about the lawsuit. I don't think it will ever make it to the court."
Neither Lathouwers nor San Francisco State University, which are named in the suit, has been officially notified of the claim. Corzon-Brown's lawyers say that's because the suit has been filed, but not served, a mere legality. Meanwhile, Lathouwers says his main concern is the students. "Students seem to find (the site) useful and that's my only concern," he said.
A number of students welcome the apparent shift in power that sites like Teacher Review offer. In a recent CPNet poll, 79 percent of students surfing our site said they would take the time to log on and complain about a professor. The overwhelming support in favor of the online evaluations suggests that students welcome more information in selecting professors.
Brian Beres, a freshman at the University of Virginia, says the sites are valuable because most schools don't make professor evaluations readily available to students. "I think the more you know about the class you're getting into the better," Beres said. "And half the class is the teacher."
Dylan Green, who is preparing to launch a teacher evaluation Web site of his own for colleges nationwide, draws an important analogy. The 24-year-old University of Maryland graduate says he usually reads reviews before deciding on entertainment, so the same logic should apply when deciding which classes to take. "When I go see a movie, that's only $7," Green said. "But I'm spending a whole lot more on a college education."
Green and others feel the review sites can actually help students maximize their learning experience by cataloguing professors' teaching styles. And while it's true that students with the strongest feelings are the most likely to publish a reply, not everyone posts a negative evaluation. Green says he got the idea to post his evaluations after taking a class from an exemplary professor. "There was no way for me to tell a lot of people, so I thought, 'Hey, I'll put up a Web site.'"
Despite the positive responses, the question remains - is it fair? Or better yet, is it legal?
Francis A. Beer, a political science professor at the University of Colorado and the chair of the school's faculty center, likens the anonymous postings to graffiti or hate mail. "Professors should have similar rights as students as far as privacy issues," Beer said. "As this technology goes forward, I think there's a legal question which deals with libel and slander."
At the heart of the legal issue is whether the evaluations are protected under the First Amendment. Law scholars contend that they are exempt from libel as long as they're presented as opinions or verifiable statements of fact.
"The only kind of statements that could be actionable are those that purport to fact," said Robert O'Neil, a law professor at the University of Virginia. He also said untrue statements calling a professor a drunk or a racist, or ones saying he or she was chronically late to class, would have a tougher time in court - meaning they could be considered libel. But, he added, speech is always protected by the truth. "If indeed the person is chronically late, that's something the university community ought to know," he said.
Student-initiated evaluations have existed on college campuses for much of this century, says O'Neil, who recalls contributing to the Harvard Crimson Guide as an undergraduate in the 1950s. The professor believes the practice may date back to the 1920s. But unlike the guides students at Harvard and Berkeley assembled, which rarely left the university community, online critiques are available to anyone around the world and can be posted by anyone, including someone who has never even been to college.
With Corzon-Brown's lawsuit pending in California Superior Court, some of the sites are taking steps to absolve themselves of legal responsibility. Both collegestudent.com and teacherreview.com say they police their sites and take down any posts that are obviously fraudulent or defamatory. In addition, collegestudent.com says in the future it will require students to provide a user name with their comments.
"It's not intended to be entertainment," said Griffin Davis, a spokesman for collegestudent.com. "We want people to be able to reach out to other people in their community, but we also want students to be accountable for what they put up there."