Fate of conservative UCLA prof hanging in balance

Keith Fink is considered one of the most popular professors at the University of California-Los Angeles, but that may not be enough to save his job.

Fink has been a communications lecturer at UCLA since 2008, long enough to trigger an automatic “excellence review” by his departmental colleagues under faculty union bylaws, which can result in either his promotion to Continuing Lecturer or his dismissal at the end of his current contract.

According to a letter from Communications Department Chair Kerri Johnson to Social Sciences Dean Laura Gomez, a copy of which was obtained by Campus Reform, nine faculty members were present and eligible to vote on the matter, drawing on course materials and evaluations provided by Fink, as well as other assessments solicited by the department such as end-of-term course evaluations and confidential letters written by former students.

Notably, Johnson has been at the center of an ongoing dispute with Fink involving her decision to cut the maximum enrollment in his popular course on free speech, which Fink alleges is an attempt to undermine his standing and prevent students from becoming exposed to his pro-free speech views.

[RELATED: UCLA prevents students from enrolling in free speech course]

Johnson’s letter begins by acknowledging that “collectively, these indices skewed toward a favorable view of Mr. Fink’s teaching effectiveness, leading some to hold a positive impression,” but then immediately casts that perception as naive.

“That said, the variability across multiple indicators, questions about the rigor of Mr. Fink’s assessment of his student[s] (i.e., exams and grades), and concerns about the climate fostered within the classroom led others to hold a more negative impression,” she asserted ambiguously.

Fink scored highly on quantifiable metrics such as end-of-term course evaluations, earning an average Instructor Rating of 8.17 and an average Course Rating of 8.14 on a nine-point scale, both of which figures his colleagues called “very high” compared to the departmental average.

He also received “highly favorable comments” in written evaluations, including those solicited by the department, with students describing his courses as “interesting,” “engaging,” and “stimulating” while praising him for “dedication” and “mentorship” extending all the way to former students’ professional careers.

Johnson, though, goes on to discount the significance of Fink’s positive student evaluations, even though they are among five criteria explicitly mentioned as “relevant materials” for excellence reviews in the faculty union bylaws.

According to Johnson’s letter, some faculty members argued that student evaluations are not a reliable indicator of teaching “excellence” because they can be influenced by the grades that students receive, but guidelines from UCLA’s Office of Instructional Development call for evaluations to be conducted during the final two weeks of the quarter, and prior to final exams.

Despite questioning the value of the positive evaluations, the review committee was apparently less circumspect about accepting unfavorable reviews, engaging in a discussion about “the tone that is set in the classroom” based on comments from students who described the classroom environment as “intimidating” and “humiliating” because Fink’s reliance on the Socratic Method entails frequent interruptions.

The faculty members agreed that the Socratic Method is “appropriate for the course content,” but questioned Fink’s ability to implement that approach effectively in a large class, noting that some students had complained of occasional difficulty hearing the exchanges, and that there had been allegations of cheating early in Fink’s tenure, which he has since addressed.

[RELATED: UCLA still targeting conservative prof’s free speech course]

Johnson concludes her letter by raising faculty concerns about “the variability across the documents,” since the evaluations solicited by Fink “were uniformly positive” whereas those solicited by the department “were more variable.”

She then points out that two of the student evaluations “contained identical concluding paragraphs,” but concedes that these letters “were obtained via independent means, one provided by the candidate, the other solicited by the department.”

For his part, Fink says he is equally skeptical of the written statements, noting that one student whose feedback the department solicited could only respond that “I apologize but I never took a class with Professor Fink and I have no personal experience with him otherwise.”

“Who made the decision to solicit opinions from students who do not know me? Are there other letters written by people who do not know me?” Fink wondered. “What was the Department’s objective in sending this student an email inquiring about my excellence as a teacher, when the Department is more than capable of determining that this person never took a class with me?”

Andrew Litt, Fink’s teaching assistant, added that the reviews are suspiciously broad in their condemnations, asserting that “all [of the] negative student reviews just curiously all seem to cover the gamut of negative things that could possibly be said about a teacher—unorganized, doesn’t know the material, too easy, turns a blind eye to cheating, racist, sexist,” etc.

He also pointed out that the criticisms of Fink's use of the Socratic Method were irrelevant to the topic at hand, and that humiliation can sometimes be an unavoidable part of the learning process.

"The 'issue' of whether Socratic dialogue can be implemented effectively in large classes, or whether or not students could hear comments, has nothing to do with the 5 criteria for excellence," he noted. "That argument is relevant to class size, not Keith’s excellence an instructor.

"In any class, when a student says something incorrect or stupid, they may be prone to humiliation," Litt added. "That’s how school works. It happens in every classroom. Fink doesn't apologize for eschewing UCLA’s progressive safe space method of teaching."

[RELATED: UCLA restricts enrollment in popular free speech course]

Ultimately, the review committee deadlocked on the question of Fink’s performance, turning in a split vote of 3-3-3 that necessitates a tie-breaking decision by Social Sciences Dean Laura Gomez.

As part of the excellence review process, Fink was required to submit a list of faculty whom he feels might have a bias against him, and he identified both Johnson and Gomez as potentially hostile colleagues “who may [might] not provide objective evaluations.”

Fink outlines his objections to the review process in an exhaustive response to the dossier compiled by the department, which not only reproduces email exchanges between Fink and Johnson but also includes retorts to seven of the unfavorable written evaluations, none of which, Fink says, “credibly argue that I am not an ‘excellent’ teacher.”

Fink is particularly critical of Johnson, recalling that he had enjoyed a positive relationship with the previous department chair, but that his support within the department “inexplicably took a turn for the worse after the appointment of Kerri Johnson,” under whose leadership he alleges that “the department has done everything it can to rig the Excellence Review process against me.”

[RELATED: Conservative prof subject to ‘biased’ review committee]

There is no requirement for faculty on such a “bias list” to be recused from the review committee, nor is there a formal process for the faculty member under review to request their recusal, allowing both to remain closely involved in deciding Fink’s fate as a UCLA professor.

Litt also pointed out that three of the faculty members who voted on the Excellence Review had been included on Fink's "bias list," suggesting that while the votes were cast in secret, it is not a coincidence that there were also three "no" votes.

"This 'excellence' review is a complete farce. Fink is the greatest debater in UCLA's history and won three National Championships for our school. There is no teacher on campus on that can hold a candle to his speaking skills," he declared. "Not surprisingly, this is why he has the highest metrics of anyone in the entire department. So if anyone in the Communication Studies Department is 'excellent,' it’s Keith Fink”.

There is no specific deadline for Dean Gomez to issue her final decision, which remains pending.

Campus Reform reached out to both Johnson and Gomez for comment on the situation, but did not receive a response from either in time for publication.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @kathryn_mary96