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Research Report

Academic Vital Signs Study

Aligning departmental evaluation with institutional priorities

August 14, 2019

This research report will be free to access for the month of June to highlight EAB’s work on department and program review. Check out Strategic Advisory Services to learn more about how we work with higher ed leaders to solve their toughest challenges.

Explore 14 analyses to guide department-level strategy, root-cause diagnostic tools for academic unit leaders, and guidance for implementing regular departmental review processes.

From faculty hiring to course scheduling to promotion and tenure, academic departments make or influence myriad decisions that affect the strategic priorities of institutions of higher education.

These priorities include cost efficiency, enrollment growth, student outcomes, scholarship, and faculty diversity and inclusion. Improving on these goals requires a more data-informed approach to decision-making and resource allocation at the department level. Unfortunately, the metrics and goals that apply at the institutional level do not help departmental and faculty leaders understand how their regular responsibilities and decisions drive institutional change.

This study will help you translate institutional goals into 14 department-level analyses that direct unit leaders toward clear actions aligned with higher-level priorities. Also included are six principles to creating the infrastructure for a sustainable departmental evaluation and planning process. Finally, root cause diagnostic tools will help departments identify specific best practice case studies to guide improvement efforts.

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Pre-reading activity: Take the diagnostic

This resource is divided into two subsections, organized by the major institutional priorities: cost efficiency, enrollment growth, student outcomes, scholarship, and faculty diversity and inclusion. The graphic below explains the two sections in more detail.

  1. Root Cause Diagnostics: What analytical questions should department chairs and other academic leaders ask if departmental metrics reveal underlying concerns? Root cause diagnostics help academic leaders pinpoint the reason(s) for underperformance on a given analysis.
  2. Resource and Practice Recommendations: What EAB resources and/or best practices exist to help departmental leaders remedy root-cause problems? Resource and practice recommendations follow the diagnostic to help guide institutional action after diagnosing the cause of underperformance.

Take the Diagnostic

Unit activity impacts institutional priorities

For each institutional strategic goal, there is a common set of performance metrics familiar to most university leaders. They appear in strategic plans, on institutional research websites, and in annual reports. While these metrics help ensure presidents, boards, and major donors that the university is improving on mission priorities, institutions should avoid overreliance on them at the department level.

Criteria for selecting departmental metrics

  • Aligned

    Do department-level changes in the metric inflect the relevant goals?

  • Measurable

    Can the institution collect longitudinal information about the metric?

  • Actionable

    Does the department have direct influence over this metric?

This section of Academic Vital Signs is divided into several subsections, organized by the major institutional priorities: cost efficiency, enrollment growth, student outcomes, scholarship, and faculty diversity and inclusion.

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Cost efficiency goals

Most strategic plans do not explicitly state cost efficiency as a goal, but the desire to stay financially sound drives (or should drive) almost every decision on campus. Operating expenditures and instructional costs are monitored every day by provosts and CFO, but departments usually cannot (and should not) change their most important driver: faculty salary and benefits.


“I have no visibility into releases at the time they’re rewarded. A lot of one-time backroom deals remain in perpetuity.”



Regional Public Master's University

Departments could monitor standard faculty workload or average class size instead, but these metrics obscure opportunities for improvement among outliers and more nuanced, granular considerations.

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Enrollment growth goals

As state funds remain uncertain and reliance on tuition increases, enrollment growth is a priority for almost all institutions, whether institutions are focused on growing enrollment overall or on increasing access to specific student populations.

Case study: Villanova University
A 10-year decline from 78 majors to only 18 led the chair of the philosophy department to launch new introductory courses targeted toward students in high-enrollment programs such as pre-medicine.
Read the case study.

Institutional indicators of enrollment growth, such as number of majors, size of the entering class, and credit-hour generation, are useful to monitor at the department level but do not always take departmental differences into account. Looking closely at these indicators suggests that departments need to identify their specific niche in the institution’s enrollment strategy, whether it is recruiting first-years or generating service credit hours.

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Student outcomes goals

In the face of demographic shifts, outcome-based funding, and political pressure to provide “return on education”, most institutions are investing heavily in student outcomes. At the institutional level, most measure the six-year graduation rate, the first-year retention rate, student engagement data, and postgraduation indicators such as students’ first destination and debt upon graduation.

Many institutional leaders face resistance from departments when they disaggregate these metrics by major. Too many confounding variables impact student success, especially before major declaration.

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Scholarship goals

Across different institutional segments, faculty have highly variable expectations for scholarship, research, and other creative activity. Most institutions focus exclusively on the tangible outcomes of those activities, such as research expenditures, patents, and publications.

Though important, these metrics fail to capture the breadth of faculty activity. Instead, institutions should encourage departments to report all of their activities that contribute to institutional priorities around scholarship and creative activity.

Research effort metrics help identify gaps, target scholarly effort

  • Is the department submitting the right types of proposals?

  • Is the department submitting the right number of proposals?

  • Do the department's outputs meet quality standards?

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Faculty diversity and inclusion goals

The final institutional goal to address is diversity and inclusion, specifically regarding faculty composition. Departments are responsible for two aspects of this goal: recruiting a more diverse pool of faculty and supporting these individuals throughout their careers.

Simply measuring the share of underrepresented faculty will, unfortunately, not lead to desired change. For example, an institution could meet its goal of increasing women in STEM just by hiring more professors in typically female-dominated fields such as nursing, masking wide disparities in other fields such as engineering.

Second, relying on this metric alone can be unfair for departments whose fields have a relatively homogenous Ph.D. pipeline. The metric is also unspecific about whether departments should focus just on hiring and ignore retention and promotion disparities if they exist. It does not guide departments to identify how they can reduce or eliminate instances of bias (both conscious and unconscious) when they recruit faculty, assign them to activities, and review their portfolios for merit and promotion. Finally, it lacks a clear timeline, and diversifying is often a slow process of culture change and faculty line allocation.

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Audit promotion rates

Beyond the hiring pipeline, departments should investigate disparities in faculty retention and career advancement. If faculty from underrepresented groups leave the institution at higher rates than their peers, it may point to an unwelcoming departmental culture. If they take longer to be tenured or promoted to full professor, it might be due to unconscious bias in faculty review or to the well documented “invisible” service burden. These faculty often take on additional mentoring, advising, and committee service compared to peers in order to ensure diversity in these roles, restricting their time for research activity.

As one example, leaders at a state flagship university analyzed their associate professor pipeline and their recent promotions to full professor. They discovered that African American associate professors were promoted at lower rates than their peers for two reasons. First, African American faculty were less likely to even enter the promotion process, even though they had met all of the criteria.

What departments should focus on

  • Pipeline stage conversion rates

    Demographics of candidate pool at each stage of the hiring pipeline

  • Retention and advancement disparities

    Faculty attrition and promotion rates, disaggregated by demographic groups

Departments lacked concrete, objective criteria for promotion, creating an environment in which white faculty, as members of the majority group, were more likely to have unwritten rules and expectations communicated to them. Second, African American faculty lacked informal mentors who might encourage them to apply for promotion. Department chairs worked with the Office of Faculty Advancement to add development opportunities, and the number of African American professors more than doubled over the next four years.

Complete the Diagnostic

Sustain momentum through ongoing evaluation

Solely having the right data and analyses in place does not guarantee that they will inform and guide departmental action. Provosts and their teams, working with academic units, need to create an ongoing process to review data, set goals, and diagnose departmental challenges. Six principles provide the foundation for effective and action-oriented departmental evaluation.

  1. Hold formal evaluation conversation, at least annually
  2. Minimize reporting burden on department chairs
  3. Share data on internal and external benchmarks openly
  4. Reward improvement with recognition and resources
  5. Connect performance and data to major resource decisions
  6. Prioritize a small number of goals to focus on each year

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3 dashboards for your annual performance review

Having the right data and analyses in place will not guarantee that they inform and guide departmental action. Provosts and their teams, working with academic units, need to create an ongoing, annual process to review data, set goals, and diagnose departmental challenges. The process must provide clarity as to what actions departments need to take, how they will take those actions, and why they are important.

Explore the three example dashboards below that will help you design effective academic department reviews.

Download the Study