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Rating College Professors

For my college courses, we are asked to rate and comment on our professors at the end of each semester. Is it lashon hara (gossip) if I write truthful negative comments about my teachers (many of whom are Jewish)?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

In general, lashon hara may be spoken (or written) if there is a beneficial purpose – namely, if the information is needed by others to avoid harm. That would seem to be the case here as well – if your warnings will help other students avoid teachers who are not appropriate for them.

However, there are many conditions which must be fulfilled before speaking (based on Chofetz Chaim X), and I’m concerned that it will not be possible to fulfill them all in this case. Let me list the conditions and then I’ll discuss their application in this case.

1. You must know the negative information firsthand.

2. You should not conclude too hastily that what you saw or heard is negative, but you must investigate the situation thoroughly.

3. Before telling others, you must first talk to the person himself and try to convince him to improve.

4. You may not exaggerate in the slightest.

5. Your sole intention in reporting a person’s negative qualities is to help others – not to “get back at” a person you dislike.

6. Before speaking to others, you should find other ways of resolving the problem.

7. Your speech will not cause any more damage to the person than he deserves. Likewise you should communicate the information only to people who have a legitimate need to be aware of it.

Many of the conditions are clearly fulfilled in your case – certainly 1, 2 and 6. So long as your are careful not to exaggerate in your report, you fulfill 4. And if can trust yourself that you are not writing out of resentment but a sincere desire to help others, you fulfill 5 as well.

What about 3 – talking to the person himself first? This would be required. Before reporting to others about a professor’s bad teaching abilities, you would have to bring the issue up with him first to see if it improves. If that is too awkward for you, perhaps you could write him an anonymous letter during the semester. This condition would not be required for something which you are certain cannot be helped by talking to the teacher himself – say the teacher has a peculiar accent you have trouble understanding or has poor command of the English language.

Finally, condition 7 would seem to be particularly relevant. You will need to find out who receives these reports. It might well be that they reach the professor himself alone – as valuable feedback for his teaching style. If so, the issue of lashon hara does not even begin since you are telling the information to the relevant party alone.

If on the opposite extreme the reports will enter the public domain and may be read by all the students (unlikely), then you should not participate, being that there is no guarantee they will be seen only by relevant people.

The third possibility is that the reports are presented to the professor’s superiors, who will use it to evaluate his performance. If so, it really depends on how they will use the information. Chances are they will not hastily fire or demote an instructor based on a few negative reports, but will carefully evaluate the information themselves first. If you have concerns otherwise, though – say the board is known to be capricious towards the professors, it would definitely be better to play it safe.

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