Systematic review program to include external evaluators

By MaryCate Most

The University is rolling out a new process this year for systematic reviews of the University’s 80 academic departments with help from external reviewers, according to University officials.

At a Campus Town Hall meeting last April, Provost Ilesanmi Adesida spoke about this new review process, which will begin this academic year with three “pilot” departments.

“We are going to provide our departments and colleges functional and useful methods to gauge their effectiveness and to identify areas where they can continue to improve,” he said.

Prior to the reform, departments, such as the department of agricultural and consumer economics, were evaluated through a self-review process, said Paul Ellinger, head of the department. But this year, special committees from other universities will begin reviewing each department. These committees will talk to students, faculty and staff and will assess the strengths and weaknesses of the respective departments, he said.

“A lot of universities do this,” Ellinger said. “This isn’t that unique. This is something that is probably overdue, but it is also something that is difficult to start up … and get in that routine of doing.”

He noted that external reviewers from other institutions have perspective on the types of changes departments can reasonably make that may not occur to University employees. 

“I think that does give us some direction at this point in time,” he said. “We can sometimes have a bit of tunnel vision from the inside so it is helpful to get someone looking in from an outsider standpoint.”

From an administrative perspective, the use of external reviewers will also ensure that these reviews are consistent across departments, said Stig Lanesskog, associate provost for strategic planning and assessment, in an email. 

However, Matthew Ando, chair of the department of mathematics, said individual departments also see benefits to these reviews. Even before the University revised its review process, his department had made the decision to conduct an external review this year, he said.

“External reviews are a very healthy way for the department to get some feedback on what it is doing,” Ando said. “And they are a very valuable way for the administration to see how the department is functioning.”

Each department will be reviewed externally once every eight years. This year, three departments — sociology, agricultural and consumer economics, and mechanical science and engineering — will act as “pilot reviews,” allowing the Office of the Provost to assess the new system and evaluate how it is working, Lanesskog said.

He also said that each department will conduct internal reviews in addition to the new external review process. Based on the results of these two separate reviews, the department will adapt to the suggestions that were made and find ways to improve their programs.

Ellinger said departments sometimes face a lack of additional funding when trying to make suggested reforms. As a result, the department must attempt to make changes without a budget increase.

“The real fundamental question is: What are three or four things that this department should be looking at as strategic initiatives, without additional resources?” Ellinger said. “Everyone has great ideas if there were millions of dollars thrown at you, but that is not the situation here.”

Ellinger attributes the lack of systematic reviews to the budget cuts that have affected the University over the past decade.

“I think it is something that campuses have been thinking about for quite a while,” he said. “They might have decided that it might not be the right time, when we are going through budget cuts, to sort of put this extra burden on top. So I think now they think it is a good opportunity to do so.”

MaryCate can be reached at [email protected]