How to Organize an Outside Review

Elisabeth Israels and Lewis Perry, October 2002

Editor's Note: History departments occasionally call the AHA to request names of expert reviewers who would be willing to evaluate the department. To facilitate this process, the AHA compiles and maintains a list of qualified reviewers and provides this information, when called upon, to deans and department chairs (this list can be obtained by contacting Noralee Frankel). But the review process is benefited not just by good reviewers; the evaluation becomes more effective if departments contemplating external reviews are well prepared. To this end, we asked the authors of the following essay—both experienced reviewers—to share their thoughts on the best ways of organizing the review process to make it as smooth and painless as possible for all concerned.

Many departments have long found benefits in annual consultation with a board of visitors. More typically, a dean or provost will schedule a department for an external review at regular intervals. Perhaps the reviews will be keyed to major changes in a college. These changes may be positive (a major gift, a new degree) or negative (budget shortfalls, declining enrollments). A department may initiate a review. It may find itself at a crossroads, facing a series of resignations or retirements, for example, and might find that outsiders can provide a useful reality check as the faculty charts out a future path. It is easy for departments to get locked into patterns that make it hard to consider new alternatives. And, of course, some departments have never been reviewed and hope to keep that unexamined streak going. But then, this essay is not for them.

When a department faces an outside review, its faculty members may send up a collective groan. Even when they know the review is necessary, they also know how much thought and preparation they will have to put into it. However, they should also know that the results they get out of the review will be in direct proportion to the effort they put into it.

For departments that are going to be reviewed and seek to benefit from the experience, information about how to prepare and organize is hard to come by. Since we've both been involved in conducting such reviews several times and at different kinds of institutions, we hope that what we have to say can help departments (and deans) plan and conduct such evaluations to the satisfaction of all participants.

Choosing the reviewers

The first step is to choose the reviewers. Often departments forward a number of names to deans, who then choose among them. If deans aren't comfortable with the names a department suggests, they can seek out recommendations from professional associations, such as the AHA. They need to select reviewers who represent different areas of expertise and diverse groups, if possible. At least one reviewer should come from an institution similar to the one where the review will take place (state, private, religious, selective, large, small, or with similar teaching loads and educational philosophy). In looking for reviewers, deans will usually consider scholarly reputations, but they should also look for people known for their general good sense and diplomatic skills. Committee members who have been department chairs or who have worked in a dean's office can lend especially helpful perspectives. If the department proposes to move in a new direction (a new field or degree, for example), it makes sense to find a reviewer who is informed in that area, but it will never be possible to have all fields represented on the committee. Two reviewers may sometimes suffice for small departments, but usually there are three and occasionally four.

Preparing for the visit

The dean's office should send institutional catalogues so that the reviewers can visualize how the department fits into its larger setting. But the department's own self-study is the critical next step. The study must open with an articulation of the department's sense of its mission within the context of the larger institution, an evaluation of its current status and sense of its problems and needs, and a strategic plan for the following five years. The department's current curriculum and statistics about its enrollment should accompany these statements, along with faculty curricula vitae and syllabi. Some departments survey their majors and graduates and garner important information. Most departments are expected today to assess learning outcomes. These are more useful than student course evaluations. A discussion of recent and approaching retirements and criteria for allocating new positions may be important in the self-study.

Though the chair may write much of this document, a good self-study will require the participation of other department members. The best self-studies we have seen had been discussed so thoroughly by the faculty that all, or almost all, stand behind it.

Scheduling the visit

Reviewers will need two full days, perhaps three if the department is an especially large one. Time for travel to and from the site needs to be figured into the schedule. The reviewers need to meet with the relevant deans to find out what kinds of issues they would like the reviewers to cover in their report. They need to meet with the chair, with the program committees (or at least their heads), and with all of the department's faculty members, preferably in small groups (tenured, untenured, or divided by fields, for example) or individually, depending upon the department's size and circumstances. The reviewers should also interview department staff, groups of graduate and undergraduate students, and if possible, meet separately with minority and women faculty members.

Organizing the visit

Introduce the reviewers to the entire department at the start of the visit. This can be at an evening social or an early-morning meeting. Such a gathering allows the visitors to put faces to the people whose c.v.'s they have read and possibly to pick up signals that will help them understand local issues. Don't overschedule the reviewers. The energy required in talking with many new people about serious issues is considerable, and your reviewers will need time to relax, reflect, and discuss among themselves. Some reviewers might appreciate opportunities to spend a few free moments in the bookstore, campus recreation center, museum, or chapel.

Costs

Organizing an outside review is a costly business. Paying for the reviewers' travel—often in the middle of the week—and meeting all of their meals and hotel expenses can amount to a considerable sum. They should also be paid a generous honorarium, in the range of what any highly trained professional would earn as a consultant (in 2002, that would be a minimum of $1,000). The work they do is demanding and draining. It begins when the self-study and institutional materials first arrive, and continues through the hours of travel to the site and during the long days of the review itself. It does not end until all of the reviewers have written their portions of the report and agreed to the contents of everyone else's.

Writing the Report

Make sure your reviewers know when the final report is needed. It is important to set aside some time for them, before they leave, to plot out its main elements, assign responsibilities among themselves, and agree on a schedule. Over the days of the visit, the deans, department chair, and faculty will have made clear which issues are the most important to them and what they would like the evaluators to cover. Reviewers need not restrict themselves to those issues, but they should not neglect them either. Reviewers should not involve themselves in departmental tenure or promotion issues, even if pressured by some individuals to do so. This is not why they have been called in.

When the process is over, both department and deans should share their responses to the report with one another. Not all of its conclusions and recommendations will please everyone. But there should at least be broad areas of agreement and a clearer vision of the department's future development. Backed by the recommendations of the outside reviewers, the department will feel more confident about arguing for the resources it feels it needs to achieve its goals. Deans can also turn to the report to support their own policy decisions. If the review has gone well, the goodwill achieved will benefit everyone involved.

—Lewis and Elisabeth Perry are co-holders of the John Francis Bannon Chair in History at Saint Louis University.