Departmental External Reviews
The goal of our external review program at Colorado College is to continue to improve the quality of the academic program and to strengthen conditions for teaching and learning.
Requests for external reviews may be initiated either by the Dean or by the department1. Under current policy all departments and programs undergo a review every eight to ten years. It is wise to schedule reviews when all or nearly all department members are on campus.
The department chair should contact the Dean’s Office the year before the department wants the external review to occur to let the Dean know what the department is planning. This will enable the Dean’s Office to budget appropriately for upcoming external reviews. The Dean and the department chair also begin conversation about the reviews, and go over the steps involved.
Preparation for an external review should begin well in advance, preferably a full year before the review visit. The department arranges for a special meeting, or series of meetings, and/or a retreat to discuss what they hope to get out of a review. At this point, the department should begin collecting the information and creating the materials it intends to provide for the reviewers. The Office of Institutional Research can provide data concerning the department in preparation for the review.
Preparation for an external review entails a careful internal review of the department’s program(s):
- Goal Setting: What are the program’s goals and its approach to teaching and learning? Where does the department want to be in five to ten years? Include the department’s mission statement.
- Implementation: How does the program seek to achieve those goals (curriculum, sequencing of courses, teaching practices)? How does it assess whether it meets the goals?
- Data Collection: The department should begin assembling evidence and collecting data. How are the goals and initiatives assessed? How is the curriculum assessed? If there is not sufficient data available, what data should be collected? The department should begin assembling evidence and collecting data.
- Self-Study Conclusions: What is the department’s own “pre-review” assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of its program(s), especially in regards to curriculum, sequencing of courses, teaching practices and scholarship?
- Agenda for External Review: What general and specific issues or questions does the department wish the external reviewers to examine? What does the department hope to gain from the external review? How does the department compare to other departments at similar colleges? At this point, the department should identify the significant issues with respect to curriculum, major requirements, interdisciplinary commitments, personnel issues, philosophical disputes, future directions for the department, scholarship, and other issues it would like the external review to address and draft a charge to the review team.
These items are to be shared with the Dean and the external reviewers.
The Dean then meets with the whole department (or with the steering committee of the interdisciplinary program) to go over the agenda for the review and the review process. Dean and department members discuss their individual responsibilities and deal with questions regarding any aspect of the review process.
The chair assembles materials to be sent to external reviewers for their study prior to the formal visit. Some of the materials will be collected from existing materials and others will have to be created for the review. In addition to the assessment of departmental strengths and weaknesses and the agenda for the external review discussed above, external reviewers should receive vitas for all members, statements of teaching and research philosophy from all members, examples of publications, departmental handouts, syllabi from courses (possibly including a statement of how each course fits into the major or functions as a service course), major requirements, examples of senior theses (if applicable), departmental strategic planning documents if any, information about department alumni and what careers they follow, and any other materials department members feel will be useful.
Information about the block plan and its impact on how teaching and learning occur also needs to be supplied to reviewers. It may be appropriate to include a reviewer who has been a block visitor to the College.
We then choose external reviewers. The department will create a roster larger than the number actually needed in case someone cannot come. The composition of the team should be wide enough to cover the span of the department’s offerings and outlooks. At least one member should be from a comparable liberal arts college. It is often good to choose someone from a research university where our graduates have gone for further study since there needs to be a balance between the internal integrity of an undergraduate program and its connection to the larger academic world. How the department understands this relationship is part of what the review should explore.
Usually, there will be a team of three, two of whom are chosen by the department in consultation with, and final approval by, the Dean, one of whom is chosen by the Dean in consultation with the department.
Occasionally a team of two is sufficient, occasionally four might be asked, depending on the size, complexity and particular needs of the department. The department chair issues invitations to reviewers after their approval by the Dean.
A date mutually agreeable to the Dean and department is set. Visits last two to three days, preferably over a weekend to avoid excessive travel costs. Typically, a team arrives on Thursday, meets the department, and spends Friday and Saturday on campus with a Sunday departure. Departments must schedule an exit interview with the team and the Dean.
The department creates a detailed schedule which includes meetings with the President, and the Dean, all regular members of the department faculty, students from the department, the divisional executive committee, colleagues from cognate departments or programs, and anyone else that the department, the Dean, or the review team might designate. Each member of the review team should visit a class for a sustained period of time (hour or more). Departments may consult schedules set up for earlier reviews as guidelines.
The Dean has an exit interview with the entire review team to find out their first reactions. Sometimes reviewers have specific questions, arising from the visit, about how the report should be written. For example, there are occasionally things the team wants to say orally to the Dean they do not wish to say in writing that will be read by all involved.
Sometimes if schedules do not permit the Dean to have the exit interview, an alternative is a conference call within a few days or a phone call with a designated representative of the team. Departments need to make these arrangements well ahead of the team’s visit.
The reviewers are expected to provide a comprehensive written report in a timely fashion-no more than a month after the visit. Typically, the reviewers will consult with one another after their campus visit and will submit a joint report; occasionally, reviewers will submit separate reports. The report comes to the Dean and is then distributed to all members of the department and to the President.
The reviewers are normally offered $1,000 plus expenses (least-cost travel, accommodation and meals). The Dean’s Office pays for this. The total cost for a review averages $7,500. Departments should submit a budget to the Dean’s Office before the visit.
A complete and candid written evaluation with constructive recommendations for improvements is required of each review team. Once the written report is received, the Dean discusses the report with the President, then the department, conveying to the chair the President’s views.
The department may wish to hold a second retreat or on-campus meeting to ‘debrief’ and plan for the future after the external review has been completed. The department should produce a written response to the report; this response may form the basis for the development of a departmental plan for the future.
The department and the Dean discuss the recommendations in the report, and plan a course of action in light of them, as informed by any views the President may have expressed. How often meetings between the Dean and the department occur will depend on how much agreement or disagreement there may be among all concerned about what to do. Sometimes recommendations involve both short and long term plans. In the latter case, there may be an indefinite period of regular consultation between the Dean and the department. The department should keep a written record of its plan of action with modifications as they are made over time.
Overall, a department must assume that this process can take the better part of a year and a half from start to finish. There is much more to a successful review than the actual visit by the reviewers. A significant proportion of the success of the review depends BOTH on the quality of the preparation for the visit and the dialogue among colleagues that takes place after the visit.
External Reviewers’ Suggestions about the External Review Process
A team of external reviewers who visited a Colorado College department in the ‘90s offered the following reminders to departments planning external reviews. Their suggestions are good to keep in mind but are not binding upon any particular department.
1. An advance schedule for the visit should be distributed to the review team members for their comments and proposed changes.
2. The entire review team should meet with every department member.
3. Less time should be spent meeting informally with students. EACH member of the review team should either sit through an entire class or attend a single class for a lengthy period of time, rather than having each team member shift between two or more classes.
4. The whole department should be gathered for an exit interview. Opening the visit with a department-wide discussion is fine, but certain issues arise during an on-campus visit that may need to be addressed in a group setting.
5. Visiting faculty, especially full-time and multi-year visitors, should be invited to participate in the external review visit. If visitors prefer not to participate, they should have that option, but the visitors’ observations may be very helpful.
6. When it receives background materials, the review team should be made aware of any pending personnel decisions.
7. Information about the department’s financial resources, such as endowments and named professorships, should be volunteered to the review team.
1 WE USE DEPARTMENT IN THE TEXT TO INDICATE ACADEMIC DEPARTMENTS AND INTERDISCIPLINARY PROGRAMS