Statement on metrics

I oppose the initiative to incorporate external “metrics” into evaluating teaching and scholarship.

First, we already have a system for evaluating teaching and scholarship – the collective judgment of faculty and peer review. At the heart of this system are two principles: 1) only faculty themselves have the disciplinary expertise to evaluate colleagues’ work; and 2) while faculty draw on concrete evidence including publications, there is ultimately a degree of scholarly judgment involved that can’t be collapse into a mathematical formula. There is no reason to change this system unless the intention is to have administrative edicts take precedence over scholarly judgment.

The “metrics” proposal is to higher ed what standardized testing has been to K-12 education – where decades of experience attest to its failure.  For instance, research shows that the “subjective” grades given by high school teachers are better predictors of college success than the “objective” SAT or ACT scores – because teachers make a more holistic judgment of students’ performance.

The administration is seeking to quantify things that simply cannot be reduced to metrics.  Did a course expand students’ imagination?  Did it challenge the beliefs they held at the start of term, make them better critical thinkers, give them new ways to appreciate art, nature, poetry or humor?  Is a scholarly article truly original?  Does it cross disciplinary boundaries in a profound or just a perfunctory way?  There is no metric that answers these questions without need for human judgment.

At the same time, the administration has failed to provide metrics for a set of issues that are in desperate need of them: class size, for example, or the relation between high tuition and the time students must spend working to pay it.  UO students have too many large lectures and not enough small classes where they can learn how to write and make arguments.  In addition, when students have to work 30 or more hours a week to support themselves, it forces them to take an instrumental approach to their classes.

The UO’s foremost mission is to provide high-quality and affordable education to talented high school graduates from across Oregon – regardless of their family’s income.  That is the core of “excellence” for a public university.  To measure how well it’s doing at fulfilling that mission, the UO needs metrics to gauge the ability of poor, working- and middle-class Oregonians to attend the UO, including

  • The number of hours per week UO students work to support themselves and pay school fees.
  • The debt load of UO students of various demographic backgrounds
  • The number of classes with less than 20 students that each UO undergrad is able to take during the course of earning their degree.

True “excellence” is not captured by looking only at tuition income, grants and contracts, or numbers of articles.  Excellence must be evaluated based on a deep appreciation for intellectual life, and deep commitment to the right of students to a personal, intensive, engaging and affordable education.

Professor Gordon Lafer
Labor Education and Research Center at UO