Wieland v. Board of Regents of the Nevada System of Higher Education, No. 23-15339 (9th Cir. 2023)

On August 20, 2023, the AAUP and Nevada Faculty Alliance (NFA) filed a joint amicus brief in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in support of Dr. Alice Wieland, a former assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, who was denied tenure largely based on the tenure committee’s assessment of student evaluations of her teaching. Dr. Wieland filed a lawsuit against the university, alleging that her tenure denial violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964’s prohibition on sex-based discrimination. The AAUP and NFA’s joint amicus brief argues that courts should take account of a large body of empirical evidence showing that gender bias often plays a role in student evaluations of teaching, and that, in certain circumstances, the use of student evaluations in connection with adverse employment actions such as tenure denial can constitute evidence supporting a claim of sex-based disparate treatment under Title VII.

In 2017, Dr. Wieland, an assistant professor in the university’s school of business, applied for tenure. From the time she joined the university in 2012, Dr. Wieland received an impressive array of awards for her research, teaching, and service—the three categories upon which tenure review at UNR is based. Nonetheless, her application was ultimately denied, largely because the tenure committee assessed her teaching performance as unsatisfactory based on student evaluations of her teaching. Dr. Wieland unsuccessfully requested reconsideration of the tenure denial, citing a large body of research demonstrating that gender bias often plays a role in student evaluations. She subsequently filed suit against the university, alleging that the denial of tenure violated Title VII’s prohibition on sex-based disparate treatment. A federal district court granted summary judgment against her claim, and she appealed.

The AAUP’s joint amicus brief, which urges the Ninth Circuit to reverse the district court’s grant of summary judgment, consists of two parts. The first part summarizes the sizable corpus of empirical research demonstrating that gender bias tends to affect student evaluations of teaching, often resulting in diminished assessments of female instructors at the university level. This part then reviews AAUP statements that have long stressed the need for judicious use of student evaluations because of limitations on their reliability and accuracy as measures of instructional quality. Such limitations include the intrusion of extraneous considerations, including gender bias, into the assessments. The brief notes that improper use of student evaluations runs contrary to professional standards, and that when decisions on matters such as tenure “turn on metrics that are not only unreliable but that also reflect gender or other unacceptable biases, they result in impermissible discrimination and run afoul of fundamental professional standards.”

The second part of the brief begins by noting that the AAUP “has long opposed discrimination on the basis of gender and other protected characteristics.” It then argues that courts charged with applying Title VII’s prohibition on gender discrimination should take account of empirical evidence that student evaluations of teaching tend to reflect gender biases and should recognize that, in certain cases, the use of such evaluations by decision-makers can be a factor supporting a claim of disparate treatment.

UPDATE: On February 27, 2024, the ninth circuit affirmed the judgment against Dr. Wieland’s claims, ruling that she did not point to any evidence that the student reviews were in fact biased.