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The Point: Metric Systems


Greetings, Colleagues!

As part of its response to the Faculty of Color report the Executive Committee of the FSU has begun a sustained process of self-reflection and redress.  The compelling data gathered in the 2019 report made it clear that the FSU has much work to do to ensure that its leadership represents the concerns and demographics of its membership.  A central challenge presented by the FOC report has to do with the status of data itself: the FSU Executive Committee acknowledges that it must begin to act as an engine of research with respect to faculty life in the context of the systemic racism that shapes life at UMB. 

We are, at UMB, scholars engaged in a thrilling range of quantitative, qualitative, and mixed-method research projects. It is long past time for us to use our skills to develop the data we need to understand how systemic racism and other hierarchies of power are perpetuated in our own workplace.  Last week in The Point we challenged the claims made by our interim chancellor (and by the system president) that online education will be a cure-all for the dual pandemics of our time. Such facile rhetorical calls—magical metric thinking—demand rigorous responses from faculty.  We can no longer allow the administration to be source, analyst, and purveyor of the data we need to have in hand as we strive to build a more just community.

How much longer, for instance, will we allow the administration to use course evaluations as a defining metric for personnel matters, given that this data is rooted in the poisonous realities of systemic racism and patriarchy?  More than once an upper administrator at UMB has remarked that while the data found in course evaluations is warped by racism and sexism, it is still possible to read the data selectively. Can we continue to support a system of tenure and promotion that relies so heavily on toxic data?  Thanks to our  colleagues in the Philosophy Department, we already have receipts: now it is time for us to follow the lead of the writers of the Faculty of Color report who made it clear that we must jettison the use of course evaluations in all personnel matters.

In this urgent moment we have to begin asking, as Victor Ray has, whether the use of skewed data is a feature and not a bug of university life.  Data is never neutral, of course and we all live in a variety of systems that confirm this: in recent days we have only begun to come to terms with what Safiya Noble calls the  algorithms of oppression and what Ruha Benjamin frames as  “the New Jim Code.”   “Undoing racism” is not just a slogan: it is a process of engaged, self-critique and change.  Can we, as teachers, scholars, and citizens at UMB continue to rely on course evaluations in personnel matters? Similarly, can we keep using corporate standardized tests in the application process even though we know that they reproduce systems of privilege and oppression? 

Our ethical challenges surrounding data collection and deployment are not matters to be taken up by another taskforce or working group: they are as urgent as today’s headlines. Can we defend our contract with Salesforce, a “customer relationship management” platform that also does business with Customs and Border Protection? Reports are mixed on just how crucial Salesforce is to recruitment and retention at UMB; one thing that is absolutely clear is that the platform has been crucial in helping CBP “drive efficiencies around U.S. border activities.” (If you are not fluent in corporate-speak, that last phrase basically translates as “help separate migrant families and put children in cages.”)

We must scrutinize the data that energizes our academic projects—our research, our teaching, our community engagement.  Faculty must take leadership in reasserting our shared values and must fight to make our voices heard in consequential conversations about access and achievement.  If we don’t, then we have to acknowledge that the turf has been ceded to corporate EdTech interests, high-paid consultants, and campus administrators who consider their main constituencies to be the system president’s office and the Board of Trustees—not our students or the communities surrounding our university.

If we are to begin a process of transforming UMB into an actively anti-racist institution we will have to engage in some serious self-evaluation about how we measure our work.

This is your union: how do you think we should be engaging as a union in this project? Let us know at


Jeffrey Melnick

Graduate Program Director, American Studies Department

Communications Director, Faculty Staff Union Executive Committee

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