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Using the External Program Review as a Lever for Change


Using the External Program Review as a Lever for Change

External Program Review

Many of our colleges and universities use the External Program Review (EPR) as an independent assessment of overall quality. These reviews typically take place every five to 10 years, with 10 to 20 percent of the departments participating annually in order to evenly spread the costs and administrative burdens. Aside from the accountability function of EPRs, they can also be done to address issues of chronic underperformance by a department, to assess unit readiness for a new initiative, and to resolve impasses among faculty members or between faculty and administration. Finally, a new, external dean may want an objective assessment of each of the school’s departments and initiate across-the-board EPRs.

For those institutions that routinely have their departments undergo periodic EPR, there can sometimes be a lack of enthusiasm from the department because faculty see this as an administrative agenda. However, there should also be room for departments to focus on areas where they would like some advice without impinging on the administration’s interest in gathering information and external input. It would seem wise for all departments to take full advantage of the opportunity to gain expert guidance on improving or expanding aspects of the unit. Ad hoc EPRs resulting from unresolved department issues or those seeking help with implementing a new academic or research program generally have good support from the departments. The assumption moving forward will be that the department embarks on the EPR process with a commitment to improving aspects of its operation. Of course, such a commitment mandates a change in standard ways of operating. 

Team selection

The first step in the process is the selection of the EPR team. Most members of the team will be from other colleges or universities, while there may be an internal member (or two) from another campus unit and perhaps someone from the local community. The internal member is present to help the team with local context and culture and as a mechanism for disseminating to colleagues on campus what the department contributes as well as opportunities for collaboration. The community member is often a representative of a discipline-related employer who is in a position to comment on several aspects of the department’s efforts, including the preparedness of it graduates.

For the best outcomes, considerable thought should go into selecting the members of the team. This task is generally delegated to the department possibly with approval of the dean. This usually means that the chair will play a major oversight role in the process and will likely be the individual making the contacts to invite the external colleagues selected. Selecting team members who are close acquaintances with individuals in the department should be avoided. Doing so could result in a conflict of interest, leading to a less-than-candid review.

A general recommendation is to choose team members from institutions, or at least departments, of similar type that are more advanced or highly ranked. In other words, they are aspirational peers. This means that those institutions have encountered similar challenges and solved the same problems that the home institution is facing, and it means that there are individuals on the faculty and in the administration who have knowledge and experience regarding what it will take to be successful. One can be even more refined if there are specific areas identified for improvement. For example, if the department wants to increase the quantity and quality of its graduate students, it would seek an EPR team member from a department at a similar institution with a robust graduate program that produces highly successful graduates. Alternatively, the department may want to reverse the enrollment decline it has experienced in its undergraduate program for majors. In this case a faculty member from a department where enrollments have been on the increase would be sought as a team member. 

The self-study

The next step (or one done in parallel with team selection) is the preparation of the documentation that the team will review before coming to campus. The primary element of the documentation is the self-study, a volume that capsulizes the academic, research, and outreach activities of the unit; provides workload and budgetary information; and lists personnel, enrollments, student profiles, degrees conferred, external funding, scholarly output, and a number of other related data sets. Most of these items should be presented historically over a period of years so trends are readily discernible. There can be a tendency to overstuff the self-study in the sense that the information is so dense and voluminous that the review team cannot sort through it to gain a perspective on what is really important. Ways to avoid the overload is to present data in tabular or chart form, where feasible, and to present only priority information or summary information in the self-study, relegating the rest to an optional-read appendix volume.

The self-study can be compiled to reflect the areas of department focus. Questions or expectations from the department or areas in which they are seeking help should be explicitly listed in the self-study. Data outlining these areas should be presented in full (“priority information” from above) to provide an evidence-based foundation to support the claim and to demonstrate to the team that the department has taken the initiative to gather relevant information to support targeted efforts at correction. In some cases airing department weaknesses is difficult. Individuals in academe often have a good deal of pride and expend a great deal of energy to put forward their best personal and collective traits while sometimes masking or obscuring weakness. This strategy will not help with the improvement expectation, and chairs must make the requirement for transparency clear at the outset and be vigilant during the entire process that it is fulfilled.

Again, using the examples of increasing the quantity and quality of graduate students and increasing the number of undergraduate majors, the department will want to provide several pieces of data that support the claim or goal as well as information that influences these data. Thus data on undergraduate GPAs, test scores, and number of applicants and admits for graduate students in the department would be provided along with comparative, national data obtained from disciplinary organizations. In addition, comparative data for competing programs in the region will be helpful to the team. Other types of useful information would be marketing strategy, website and printed materials, stipends (if applicable), research opportunities (if applicable), and curriculum. For the problem of loss of undergraduate majors, comparative data from other similar institutions would be provided along with retention numbers (is the institution matriculating students but not retaining them, or just not attracting them?) as well as information on student success rates of individual courses; the structure, flexibility, and relevance of the curriculum; and opportunities for student engagement outside of class. 

The campus visit

The final major element of the EPR is the campus visit by the team. There is typically an early meeting where the team is given its charge. The dean is present and the department is represented by the chair. Here the desired outcomes of administration and the department can be stated again. The team will be kept busy meeting with individuals and groups, but it is critical that time be set aside for those whose testimony is most relevant to the focus areas for the department. In the first example, the team will want to meet with graduate students and alumni; in the second, with undergraduate students and alumni.

At the end of the campus visit, the team will provide a verbal report that outlines its findings. This is followed several weeks later by the more detailed written report. It will contain specific recommendations for improvement and perhaps accolades for things well done. The recommendations may challenge the department and perhaps the administration to make some changes. For example, the department may have to reconfigure its entire marketing approach and recruitment strategy to solve the graduate student problem while administration may have to consider more dollars for competitive stipends. In fact, gathering together the self-study data outlining the two examples used here should have pointed to at least some of the root causes, but there seemed to be no consensus on the changes necessary for correction. The reason may be that change can be difficult, even painful, for some individuals. This can result in inertia or even active resistance to attempts to implement change.

The second example of diminishing enrollments in the undergraduate major provides an opportunity to illustrate this point. If the review team determines that the problem is the result of a stale and irrelevant curriculum, then most of the department faculty would have to retool and upgrade many of the classes. Alternatively (or in addition), the team may find that the problem lies with a single senior instructor of a required course who has an unreasonable expectation of student performance resulting in a very low success rate. Both scenarios will create discomfort for faculty and chairs and both will put the commitment to improvement to the test. There may be initial denials and justifications for maintaining the status quo, but the reasoned analysis coming from a group of respected, external peers is often sufficient to convince both faculty members and administrators to effect the necessary changes. 

N. Douglas Lees, PhD, is associate dean for planning and finance, professor, and former chair of biology at Indiana University-Purdue University


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