Making the Most of External Reviews: Part 2

Karlyn Crowley offers advice on how to most effectively strategize and plan a review visit on your campus.

June 18, 2019
 
 
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In a previous essay, I outlined four ways to get ready so you can make the most of an external review. In this piece, I’ll share some best practices for scheduling on-campus review visits. The scheduling itself is not difficult, just time-consuming. The real effort is in the strategy, and it requires you to use goals, people and time creatively.

Plot the timing and meetings for the campus visit. It’s ideal if you can plan your review at a time in the year when: 1) people aren’t exhausted and 2) you can receive the review report before the school year’s end (after which it likely lies dormant for the summer). That often means the campus visit should occur in the fall, so plan accordingly.

If you need to do the review in spring, then have at least one meeting after you receive the review report. Set a few clear written goals to implement upon people’s return to the campus; otherwise, breaks in the calendar will mean losing momentum. Before summer break, for example, create the agenda template for your first fall meeting and place those review goals at the top of that agenda. Such ostensibly simple acts are part of evidence-based goal-setting strategy.

Once you schedule the review, how can you make the most of the time on campus? Most review visits are one to three days long. Day one of a visit might start with a travel day and then a dinner with people from the department or other area under review. Typically, reviewers meet with the individuals working in and overseeing the review area.

Day two is often a dawn-till-dusk affair, bookended by the administrator who has most authority over the area -- perhaps the dean of a small liberal arts college or the dean of a school or division at a large university. This bookending is designed to be most useful for the person with heavy influence over the area’s destiny. The reviewers will be focusing on what they need to ask and know at the outset, as well as what they can report back to be useful to that administrator at the visit’s end.

Some visits continue into day three, and some have an even fuller schedule on day one -- it depends. You can find a balance between your needs and the reviewers’ expectations in terms of time for the visit and stipend. As for the latter, stipends vary depending on the size of the program, institution and expectations of the report. You should ask around, but they are usually in the range of $1,000 to $3,000 per reviewer. Reports can vary in length from 10 double-spaced pages to up to 30 -- again, depending on the size and scope of the project.

You should schedule the most important meetings early in the day, as reviewers lose steam as the hours go by. If you know certain faculty members may only show up to speak to the reviewers if you serve lunch, then serve lunch. Give everyone better-than-usual food/drink/snacks all day long and promise treats in all the invites. It’s an enticement as well as a small thank-you.

Last, consider if you can get buy-in from some of the top leaders of your institution in the form of meeting with the reviewers. At small liberal arts colleges, reviewers may meet briefly with the president and other vice presidents. If such senior officials are willing to meet, plan them in your schedule early. It’s a chance for reviewers to champion you and talk about what and who you are from an outside perspective -- which is essential for your area’s long-term growth and visibility.

State big goals and select whom the reviewers meet based on them. On-campus review visits should be shaped first and foremost by your goals. This seems like a no-brainer. But many people shape reviews by the size of the institution, by what is being reviewed and then finally by the goals. For example, you shouldn’t start with, “What meetings should this reviewer have?” Instead ask, “What goals do we have for our area? As a result, whom should this reviewer meet to achieve those goals?

Before you plunge in and start inviting people, ask yourself these questions: Who is an innovator on your campus? Who else in higher administration is creative and might help launch some of your initiatives? Who speaks truthfully? Who tends to be a problem solver rather than a grumbler in meetings? Is there anyone outside your area whose insight you need, like someone in admissions, athletics or another department?

You can choose to put some, many or all of those people in meetings throughout the day or in a combined meeting together. It’s a great chance for a reviewer to ask questions like: What is your opinion of X (the department or area)? What are its assets? How could it grow? Is it valuable at your institution and how?

Try to give your reviewers a brief campus tour -- even a quick town or city tour. The politics of space and the context of the institution say a lot and provide context. You know what an institution values by the location, shape, size and condition of what you’re reviewing. Is the institution in a town that is struggling or thriving? Is the department in a basement with broken furniture or on the top floor of a brand-new facility?

If you’re planning the review of a center or program, who and what could be included to not silo your area? If you’re on the co-curricular side of the institution, are your reviewers meeting only with staff and no faculty? Then you won’t get the whole picture. Nor will you if you’re planning an academic review and have not included at least one meeting with constituents from other areas like fund-raising or admissions -- or, at a large institution, other affiliated departments.

For example, at a small liberal arts college, I was part of a review that included a variety of key potential stakeholders from outside the review area. This is unusual. The effect? We heard insight from across the campus about the department that we needed to hear, particularly from administrators who worked in athletics. Yes, athletics. This college had enrollment challenges, and considering the perspective of such administrators was key in promoting this department in admissions materials. Had we not met, that insight would never have occurred.

Actively share review evidence and documents. The review organizers should set up folders and documents for reviewers, ideally on a shared platform. Again, while this seems obvious, having centralized, clearly organized documents has been the exception rather than the rule in my experience as a reviewer.

If I’m on a review team, I often take the initiative to create shareable folders that include key pieces of evidence and documents for taking notes while on our campus. I like to make certain that all reviewers have access to such documents before we arrive on campus. I don’t want to get there and lose precious time solving administrative and technological issues that can be dealt with earlier. As a reviewer, I have said to other reviewers, “Would you be amenable to me setting up X and Y before we arrive?” No one says no.

I also copy and paste the review schedule into the note-taking document so I know exactly who is in the room and take notes below the schedule description throughout the day. Thorough notes can significantly improve the report and make it easier to write.

Review teams of more than two people rarely have a lead person, but I encourage colleges to appoint such a team leader to set up such documents and organize the flow of meetings throughout the visit. It wouldn’t mean that the designated lead has more power, but that point person can organize materials and start meetings.

Set clear expectations and deadlines with the reviewer. Once you schedule your review dates and reviewers, you should create a common internal document that outlines the event and that everyone involved can see. Taking this step means that senior administrators, faculty members and staff are all completely clear about who is doing what tasks. Otherwise, it is easy for various offices across campus to not be fully informed and lose details in the project management.

One time, I was sent to the wrong hotel because of a miscommunication. Another time, when reviewers were not paid over two months after the report, it was unclear whom to contact about payment issues. These are not monumental problems, but a reviewer observes everything about a college or university. You want reviewers to leave remembering the hospitality, organization and visionary work of your institution -- not the snafus.

Also, to avoid confusion, you should set out expectations of the reviewers in the official hiring letter, which also serves as a contract. State a rough deadline for the report, frequently about six weeks after the visit, and name the person to whom the report should be sent. Also list the individual reviewers should contact with concerns, particularly if it is an administrative assistant who may be emailing them less often. Include the length of the trip in the letter, as well as the names of all the reviewers.

Templates of all these items should be carefully archived so you or someone can use them again for the next review. The archive should be complete enough that anyone on your campus who needs review documents never has to start from scratch again.

Organize your review visit as if every single thing reflects on your institution. It’s an intense two to three days for your reviewers as well as for you and your institution. If you’re the review organizer, it’s easy to forget how “on” reviewers have to be, because you’re only seeing them for about one-third of their day. So make sure to ask them if they have dietary needs or require special accommodations.

Once, my co-reviewer and I ate pizza from a box at classroom desks using bathroom paper towels when lunch with students was an afterthought. It was fine; I’m not fussy. But such an approach can indicate that: 1) the institution doesn’t prioritize external reviews, 2) the institution is less than ideally organized, 3) the department or area and administration aren’t coordinating well, or 4) all of the above.

In contrast, one campus asked for food preferences in advance and offered fresh, healthy choices at every break. Everyone who entered to meet reviewers oohed and aahed at the snacks. It was a small gesture that also said to the campus community, “We recognize your typically unacknowledged labor.” Your welcome to reviewers speaks nonverbally about the state of your unit, so be aware.

A few final tips: schedule brief downtimes for the reviewers to check in with each other after lunch, since lunch is often used to meet people. Reviewers can quickly compare notes and think about how to use the rest of their day. Also, even if reviewers don’t ask for it, schedule 45 minutes to an hour for reflection. It’s also beneficial for reviewers to have at least an hour at end of the visit to plan the strategy for writing the report.

Now that you’ve completed the on-campus review, what do you do to keep it alive and viable into the future? I’ll discuss that in an upcoming article.

Bio

Karlyn Crowley is professor of English at St. Norbert College, where she directs the Cassandra Voss Center. She writes and consults about social justice and higher education.

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