Despite investing significant time and political capital into program and department reviews, provosts and deans struggle to use them to drive institutional strategy. To create meaningful reviews, academic leaders must solve for the inherent flaws in the two most common types of processes:
- During traditional academic program review, chairs evaluate how their departments contribute to their disciplines, rather than their departments’ role in university strategy. Moreover, most program reviews take place every 5-7 years—and most chairs only stay in their role for about three.
- In formal program prioritization, provosts have to make a binary decision to invest more or fewer resources in programs instead of developing a unique, program-specific strategy for each department. As a result, prioritization is typically a stressful and contentious process that takes years to show results.
Departmental reviews should be an ongoing process to review data, set goals, and diagnose challenges. For EAB’s research study, Academic Vital Signs, we interviewed over 100 departmental, college, and university leaders on how they evaluate department success. We identified six principles that helped Southern Utah University and The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire create effective annual reviews:
- Meet with departments frequently—not every five years or more. Department leaders should sit down yearly with their dean or provost to discuss the department’s resource needs, strengths and weaknesses, and goals in an open conversation—not a grading exercise or judgment. Departments should emerge with a unified, discipline-conscious strategy to guide day-to-day decisions in the next year.
- Provide departments with a data set for reviews—don’t make them do analysis themselves. Most chairs have neither the time nor the quantitative skill needed to analyze their own performance data. They also risk coming to different conclusions than the provost if they analyze data on their own, which could be an unwelcome surprise when they finally sit down to discuss goals. At Southern Utah University, institutional researchers provide a standard, agreed-upon dataset for all departments to use when they submit reviews.
- Keep it transparent: let departments view each other’s data, not just their own. Though some department performance data might seem sensitive, the provost’s office at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire makes all data available in a performance dashboard. Chairs gain insight into resource decisions (for example, if another department that outperformed its goal got more funding) and opportunities for improvement (for example, if another department mentored twice as many students with the same number of faculty).
- Use discretionary dollars to reward departments that meet their goals. The provost at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire gives each department customized goals and sets realistic targets based on improvement over the previous year. Departments who meet or exceed their goals receive a discretionary budget increase for one-time expenses like faculty travel.
- Be explicit about how performance metrics factor into your resource decisions. Chairs typically request resources through the budget process, then wait to hear whether their request was accepted or rejected without much explanation provided. Instead, provosts and deans should use annual review meetings to discuss how they make decisions and help departments plan around their resources and needs.
- Pick the 2-4 most important goals to focus on. Like the old adage, “when everything’s important, nothing is.” Academic Affairs staff at Southern Utah University work with each department to set a small number of near-term goals to keep the department focused for the upcoming year. At the following year’s review, they’ll check in on these goals and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of their strategy.
See EAB’s Academic Vital Signs study
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