[COMMENTARY] Asian-Americans Need Protections, Too

Editor’s Note:

There’s a startling increase in anti-Asian hate crimes across the country, so much so that Asians fear for their safety. Hanfu Mi, a professor at UI Springfield, fears for his safety and his job. Asians are the second largest racial group in academia. And studies have shown that student evaluations  — over-relied upon by universities to decide promotions and tenure — of Asian professors are lower. Professor Mi fears an academic hate crime: that anti-Asian sentiment will infiltrate his and his colleagues’ student evaluations. He has a solution – adjust their scores to account for this.

The United States is currently witnessing a massive spike in anti-Asian hate crimes, a whopping 1,900 percent increase, that experts attribute in large part to former President Donald J. Trump’s rhetoric around the novel coronavirus and its origin. It’s so bad that the Department of Justice recently announced that it will prioritize identifying and prosecuting these crimes.

(Photo by Leonard Ortiz/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

In this type of social climate, foreign-born Asian-Americans like me fear not only for our safety but also for our jobs, an aspect of our lives that law enforcement can’t protect.

The second-largest racial category in academia, after white academics, is Asian. In fact, when all levels of academia are evaluated together, about 12% of university-level faculty are Asian, which is equal to the percentages of Black and Latinx faculty combined. Among assistant professors, those academics on a tenure track but still not yet guaranteed that professional security, 14% are Asian, and only 8% are Black and 6% are Latinx.

Academia is much like owning a restaurant or a store; our success often depends on the whim of people who review us.  Student evaluations determine our teaching assignments, and sometimes our employment. In fact, some experts have even argued that the tenure and promotion processes overemphasize student evaluations of teaching.

These evaluations are loaded with bias and they always have been.  But they’re actually even more of a threat to Asian academics.

A study published in the journal, Language and Society, showed that Asian professors don’t get the same evaluations as their non-Asian counterparts; teachers with non-Asian names received higher scores for both clarity and helpfulness, sometimes 0.60 to 0.80 points higher on a five-point scale.

If bias is already present in these evaluations even without a new wave of anti-Asian sentiment, then it’s not a stretch to think that the wave of anti-Asian hate may filter into student assessment of Asian faculty. It’s important to note that even tenured professors like me risk having our courses assigned to someone else if our reviews are bad; they actually get worse for tenured academics.

In fact, bias against Asian faculty was so bad before the pandemic that the presidents of two large research universities had to make public statements of support for these professors and teachers. About two years ago, the administration at the University of California – Berkeley  “received several reports of negative comments directed at our Chinese-American faculty.” A few months later,  Massachusetts Institute of Technology President L. Rafael Reif had to send an institution-wide email warning the community about “a toxic atmosphere for ethnically Chinese researchers” that was developing.

If someone’s so committed to expressing their hate toward someone that they’re willing to risk prosecution by committing a crime of violence, then they may feel even bolder behind an anonymous survey on a campus where hateful attitudes have already taken root. These academic hate crimes would target someone like me.

The solution to this problem may be the same as was suggested by a fellow academic, a Cornell University professor named Sarah Pritchard who in 2015 argued that women professors’ evaluations should be adjusted and weighted to account for sexism in the process. That is, Pritchard said women should be evaluated on a curve.

Pritchard’s idea invited tons of blowback. Fox News objected vociferously to it, making the idea of equity in evaluations a viral success but not a practical one. No college or university has decided to do this, despite warnings from professional organizations that say that these evaluations have limited utility.

But that was six years ago. We’ve learned a lot about fairness since then, and how it’s so easily prevented by unconscious bias. Equity is the new mantra and as our new Vice President says, it’s different from equality.

Perhaps it’s time to try adjusting evaluation scores for minority and ethnic teaching professionals. Any group of academics that’s facing an unprecedented level of hate should have their evaluations corrected for that — otherwise bigotry can infiltrate the academy without university administrations ever knowing about it.

It’s not as if this anti-Asian, or specifically anti-Chinese, sentiment is all that subtle. Throughout American history, Asians have been described as inscrutable, mysterious, and all looking alike. No matter what we do, what friends we make, we have been isolated, alienated, and reminded repeatedly that we don’t belong. We’ve been told to “Go Back to China!

It easily spreads to the academy. Chinese faculty were the biggest target among foreign-born faculty; inflammatory rumors that all Chinese people are spies incited wave after wave of attacks on Chinese intellectuals in the United States. The racialization of national security and anti-China rhetoric combined created a climate of panic and caused irreparable personal and professional harm to academics and their families who were falsely accused of espionage and then proven innocent.  Because of this, Asian and Chinese faculty have been on the defensive for years.

Targeted faculty deserve protection and exercising caution with student evaluations is only one way to do it, but it might be the most appealing. Multiple studies have shown that student evaluations aren’t reliable in assessing teaching excellence, anyway, whether hate motivates the responses or not, and some schools are already reevaluating their reliance on them. Having to scale evaluations to correct for anti-Asian bias might be a moment to re-evaluate how modern academia has shifted into a business model where the customer is always right, even if they know less than the people teaching them.

Abandoning teaching evaluations entirely in the midst of this racial crisis isn’t the way either. They provide valuable feedback. The question is whether that feedback should be determinative of future paths especially when it may be rife with prejudice.

About the contributor:

Hanfu Mi is a Professor of Literacy Education and Linguistics and a former Dean at the University of Illinois Springfield, and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.

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