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Did Utah Valley University fire business prof for being too tough?

Published October 24, 2011 12:29 pm

Lawsuit • He says he was terminated because of student evaluations.
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Business scholar Steven Maranville left a tenured appointment with the University of Houston to teach at Utah Valley University two years ago, but officials fired him after a one-year probationary period when they concluded his teaching did not suit their students.

According to a lawsuit filed Oct. 14 in U.S. District Court, Maranville's lawyers allege UVU administrators justified the dismissal based on student complaints that his "capstone" course in business strategies was too rigorous and his Socratic style intimidated them.

"A number of students liked him a lot and said so. The brass came in and liked what he was doing. [Maranville] wanted students to get together in small groups and chew over the topics they were studying," said his attorney, Robert Sykes. "They get him up here and toss him under the bus because some of the students wanted high school."

Because of the pending litigation, UVU officials referred The Tribune to the Utah Attorney General's Office, which will represent the school in the suit.

"The professor was given a year to teach before a decision would be made whether or not to grant tenure. The university declined to offer tenure. We will defend the university and believe it had the right to make that decision," said an email from Paul Murphy, spokesman for the AG's office.

The lawsuit, which alleges breach of contract and fair dealing and state constitutional violations, touches on an issue that is raising concern in faculty groups nationally. Some believe universities' use of student opinion in promotion decisions is eroding professors' influence and creating incentives to make courses easy, lest they risk a torrent of negative evaluations. On the other hand, teaching-oriented universities like UVU aspire to be responsive to student needs and view them almost as customers.

Student ratings of instruction shouldn't be the only measure, but they do provide insight into professors' effectiveness, said Liz Hitch, Utah's associate commissioner of higher education for academic affairs.

"Students are in the class every day. They know what's going on and know whether they are learning," said Hitch, a former UVU provost whose dissertation examined student ratings. "If they consistently have poor evaluations, that generally is a problem."

UVU policy explicitly allows student evaluations to be used to "document the faculty members' professional responsibility performance and to assist in tenure decisions." Evaluations are solicited for every course and are kept in the professor's faculty portfolio for use in annual reviews of teaching performance.

Student evaluations may be a fine tool for helping professors adjust their teaching, but they are an imperfect measure of teaching ability, according to John Curtis, policy director for the American Association of University Professors.

"It's a problem, and it seems to be growing. Student evaluations shouldn't be the only criterion and shouldn't even be the primary criterion for evaluating professors. ... You're only looking at a piece of a piece and only taking the students' perspective," Curtis said. "We have a long tradition emphasizing peer review. Faculty members should be the primary judges of whether that person is doing the work."

Mixed opinions • Student reviews of Maranville's Houston courses posted on Ratemyprofessors.com are equally divided between those who cherished the experience and those who complained it was a waste of time and blasted Maranville's manner as condescending. There was not a lot of middle ground, but most agreed his courses were tough.

"His methods of teaching are absolutly [sic] on par with what you will experience in corporate america. If you only ever take one course that might actually challenge your intellect, take his business strategy class. It will help you tremendously throughout the remainder of your life. Wow!" one student wrote.

Another student posted: "i think this professor sucks he is really rude and an ass if i might say so he thinks that belittling students is fun. please dont ask him for help because u will get a no in return or he will say ask someone else but not me. i dont mind hard work but this is crazy."

Maranville, who is blind, said his idea of "engaged learning" — a reference to UVU's branding slogan — is to have students apply business principles to real-world situations and present their ideas to a critical audience, something that occurs in corporate boardrooms every day. But his attempts to engage students triggered complaints to administrators and negative evaluations, according to the lawsuit.

"I'm not in this business to just give degrees. I want students to learn," said Maranville, now an associate professor of management at Westminster College. "Instead of changing their behavior, they tried to change mine."

Unlike a tenure review, which is spread over five or six years, Maranville's prospective appointment entailed no faculty peer review, no opportunity to adjust to his teaching style in response to criticism and no avenue for appeal, Maranville said.

Maranville first came to Utah as an undergraduate at Brigham Young University and completed his doctorate in business administration at the University of Utah in 1994. He later achieved a tenured position at University of Houston's downtown campus, which is a large, urban, open-enrollment school like UVU. Maranville says he garnered an excellence in teaching award, the school's highest faculty honor, and published 17 articles in peer-reviewed journals.

He first sought a one-year visiting appointment at UVU in 2008, making a presentation to faculty and teaching a class as part of his tryout. An offer came too late for him to arrange for a sabbatical from Houston, so he declined that in lieu of a tenured permanent position that opened the next year, subject to probation.

"It was supposed to be a perfunctory thing," he said of the probation. "We would take a year to make sure I really was who I said I was. I felt I had been hired to help change the university's culture."

Maranville began in the fall 2009, teaching three sections of Management 4800, a required capstone course for seniors in which they reflect on the important concepts they learned as business majors and tie them to real world. But Maranville's sections averaged 50 students, double the size of typical UVU business classes. Many students were unprepared and merely interested in getting a degree, saying they just wanted to be lectured to and tested, he said.

But Maranville had other ideas. He divided his classes into small teams, which were required to meet weekly to discuss a reading and apply its principles to a case study. Each week a group would present in class.

"Students told me they had never been asked to do this kind of work before and weren't about to do it now. They have families and jobs and don't have time to do this," Maranville said.

According to the suit, students complained to then-business dean Ian Wilson, now UVU provost, prompting Maranville to invite faculty to observe his classes and provide feedback. In addition to complaining about the rigor, students said Maranville's sight impairment made him a bad teacher and that he was disrespectful. Wilson did not visit the class, but department chairman Scott Hammond did and told him his teaching method was acceptable, the suit alleges.

Wilson and Hammond, now defendants in the suit, later recommended against a permanent appointment for Maranville.

bmaffly@sltrib.com