Making the Most of External Reviews: Part 3

The last thing you want to have happen after you receive your annual review report is to have it just sit on a shelf, writes Karlyn Crowley.

August 29, 2019
 
 
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In previous essays, I discussed how to strategize an external review of your institutional area -- from conducting initial in-house planning conversations to designing the campus visit. In this piece, I’ll discuss what you should do after you’ve received such a review.

The scenario often goes something like the following. The external review report arrives. Everyone reads and digests it. You crack open the champagne and confirm that the report has gone up the chain. And then you wash your hands of it.

What?

Unfortunately, all too frequently, that is what happens to reports. In fact, that is part of the reason no one wants to do them in the first place -- the worst of work culture can involve producing incredibly time-consuming reports that people file away to die. The infamous TPS reports of the classic 1999 parody of workplaces, Office Space, demonstrate how such rote, mundane and meaningless tasks can kill morale.

So how do you avoid this situation, even when it’s not clear your institution will actively apply many of the recommendations in your report? You can still seize some power and agency to make change happen, even if that change is not as dramatic or speedy as it might be.

The best external review processes focus on what matters most in higher education: teaching and learning, research, and service. They should explore questions such as: What systems and structures create the ideal circumstances for those three things to happen effectively for everyone? Does your unit or area help faculty members and students to mutually flourish? What should be improved?

Unfortunately, review processes are frequently not particularly lyrical or, dare I say, spiritual. But we can seize control of the narrative and remind ourselves and our colleagues of the reasons why we’re in higher education.

The irony is that as independent as most of us faculty members are, we cede power to hierarchies that we believe determine our vocations, jobs and work lives. I’m not being naive here -- I’ve been in this higher ed biz too long. But I’m suggesting that while, yes, deans and provosts heavily determine much of what goes on when it comes to budgetary, hiring, assessment and long-range planning issues, we can direct more of the destiny of our areas that we sometimes believe or claim.

In fact, when you are in a review process, I challenge you to ask a question: Where can your area claim agency and help define its future? The answer(s) to that question is ultimately what will keep your review -- which is really your area’s future -- alive.

The best external review process is tied to budgets as well as forms of accountability, even accreditation. Take out your institutional organizational chart. What structures effectively support, hold accountable and fund your external review? Will your area meet with some form of a curriculum oversight committee to report out the results of the review? Will you meet with academic affairs administrators to have a discussion about next steps? Do you have a way to argue for a budget increase or reallocation based on the external review’s recommendations?

Depending on the structure of your institution and your leadership, you may answer positively to none, some or all of these questions. But do not let the absence or presence of effective review practices determine your own review outcomes. Your area can suggest a budget appropriation tied to the review report’s feedback even if such a financial process is not part of your institution’s modus operandi.

Ideally, the external review you commissioned outlined some challenging suggestions for your area. If not, that’s unfortunate. You want reviewers who will propose ideas that you haven’t thought of and/or might struggle to propose. We rarely hear parents say, “My child is doing just fine. Don’t challenge them or force them to stretch. Thanks in advance.”

Similarly, when assessing and reporting back on the review, often to a committee, it’s important that you welcome constructive criticism. In many higher education contexts, program reviews can take on a quality of mutually agreeing to not criticize too harshly anyone’s discipline or department lest that lens one day be turned back on you. But upholding mutual mediocrity is a morale killer. In Radical Candor, Kim Scott suggests, based on her work at Google and Apple, that great leaders find the sweet spot of “caring personally while challenging directly.”

Finally, this review will last you around five years -- and maybe even 10 years or longer -- until the next one. When you determine the handful of things you long to implement, organize at least one strategic meeting with those same people from outside your area who met the reviewer and whose support and insight you will need. Don’t try to solve everything at once. You’ll be overwhelmed and demoralized. Choose just three or fewer items to tackle over the short term and save other things you want to accomplish for the longer haul. The good news is that now you have a road map of how to proceed.

External reviewers in higher education are a nerdy version of a professional fixer like Olivia Pope in the television show Scandal or George Clooney in the movie Michael Clayton. Their job is to clean up a mess -- any kind of mess. Of course, external reviewers are not fixing murder and mayhem like those fictional characters. But they still fulfill a small but key role in higher education: giving outside advice. They are academic consultants. Reviewers with clever, strategic minds, who are handed a focused self-study and set up with a thoughtful campus visit, can help imagine a new future and boost momentum and morale. That’s the ideal.

Ultimately, the main takeaway about conducting an external review is to not make a big process small through lack of vision. You should either handle your external review in an interesting, creative way or put it off and not do it at all. It’s too much work to think small. Make it worth it.

Bio

Karlyn Crowley is interim associate academic dean and professor of English at St. Norbert College. She writes and consults about social justice and higher education.

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