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Making the grade

Hardly anyone admits that online ratings of teachers matter. So why would a Carolina law professor campaign to boost his score?

It might come as a surprise that a performance review website owned by MTV would register on the radar of a distinguished law professor.

But, a site where college students can grade their teachers and order pizza from Domino’s at the same time, certainly got under the skin of University of North Carolina School of Law professor Michael L. Corrado.

After learning that he had mostly bad ratings from just a few students – and that at least one student was thinking about avoiding his class because of the ratings – Corrado turned to the most logical source for help: other students.

Corrado’s story quickly spread after first appearing on Above the Law, a legal news blog that reprinted the Feb. 21 email in which the torts professor sheepishly asks his former students to take to the Internet and rate him. He made a point of asking for honest, rather than favorable, ratings.

“I think that overall I would get much better ratings if a number of people did this and just gave their honest views,” Corrado wrote. “This is not only embarrassing and humiliating to have to ask, it is also something that I hate doing because it promotes the website, making it something that people take seriously, and I really don’t want to do that. But in this case I don’t really have another option.”

The effort paid off. Reviews poured in for Corrado and most were positive. His overall rating improved and he even got a red chili pepper icon for being “Hot,” not bad for a balding law professor with Sam Waterston’s eyebrows.

Corrado’s quirky dilemma raises questions about the significance and influence of sites like RateMyProfessors. Why would Corrado, or any other law professor for that matter, care so much about anonymous, unverified and arbitrary ratings from (supposed) students?

Unfortunately, Corrado did not respond to multiple interview requests. UNC law school Dean John C. Boger was likewise unavailable for comment, but told a spokeswoman that he’d never heard of RateMyProfessors.

Another UNC law professor, John V. Orth, who serves on the university’s promotion and tenure committee and is a past member of the post-tenure committee, said website reviews have no sway over a professor’s standing. Like most other schools, UNC uses written student evaluations and peer reviews to determine whether a professor is doing a good job.

Interestingly, however, law school deans often visit RateMyProfessors – the largest site of its kind – when combing the Internet for information about prospective hires, according to University of South Carolina School of Law Dean Robert M. Wilcox.

“Probably all of us have gone on there to see the reviews,” said Wilcox, who was echoed by Charlestown School of Law Dean Andrew L. Abrams. He said he visits the site out of curiosity.

“If I know a candidate is coming to the office I’ll do a Google [search] and see if there’s anything,” Abrams said. “If RateMyProfessors pops up, you click it and it takes 30 seconds and you say, ‘Ah, this seems to be a popular professor, or not so much.’”

The site, however, has never influenced a hiring decision, Abrams and Wilcox said. They said the ratings system, which covers a 1-5 scale and includes categories for easiness, helpfulness and clarity, is completely unscientific and unreliable. Students may also leave comments and professors have the option of writing rebuttals.

“Most faculty really tend to look at it with amusement or a shoulder shrug and move on,” Abrams added. “But there’s no question that if you’re getting ripped on a public site you’re not going to like it.”

Melissa A. Essary, dean of the Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law at Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C., said her daughter, an undergrad at UNC-Wilmington, informed her about RateMyProfessors. While Essary disregards the site, she also applauds Corrado for taking action to improve his rating.

“I admire him for doing that. People who go to these sites have an ax to grind,” she said. “The one time that I’ve been tempted to write a business review online was when it was a negative situation.”

RateMyProfessors also lets students post critiques of their schools. A slew of bad ratings potentially could bruise the reputation of an institution or even drive down enrollment, but the deans who spoke with Lawyers Weekly were not particularly concerned.

“If our ability to attract students, the quality of students we want, has come down to them making decisions based on, they are welcome to go somewhere else,” Abrams said.

A second-year student at Charleston School of Law, Whitney Wilder said she has no use for professor rating sites because the reviews are too often biased. She said a professor she admires but declined to name was recently joking with her about being ridiculed on RateMyProfessors.

“You’re really going to call a professor who went to Harvard or Berkeley stupid or bad?” she said. “How do you, as a student, pretend to know more than a professor who has argued before the Supreme Court?”

But John T. Gentry III, also a 2L at Charleston, said RateMyProfessors helps students share information about professors and their habits, much in the same way that lawyers trade hints about dealing with certain judges.

“It gives you an idea of who they are, how they run their class, how accessible they are outside of class,” he said. “After having a class with a professor and looking at what’s on the website, I’d say it’s pretty accurate.”

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