Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Program Reviews On Stage

What if you had to present your department’s five-year program review to the President and the cabinet orally?

We tried that this week.  It was mostly wonderful.

Most colleges have some sort of regular program review cycle, in which departments or programs (or clusters, or…) do some sort of self-examination every x years.  They usually combine some standard questions asked of every program -- enrollment figures, say -- with judgments by the members of the departments.  In some cases -- and I intend to mandate this starting next year -- they need to have at least one person from off campus provide feedback, as well.  The idea there is to get around the problem of unconscious insularity.

Because program reviews are typically done by the members of the program, they tend as a genre to fall prey to certain cliches.  Having seen enough of them over the years, I’ve learned to expect most reviews to include some or all of the following:

  • We’re great, but badly in need of more people/funding/stuff/love/publicity.
  • The marketing department should feature us and us alone.
  • The personal hobbyhorse of the department’s loudest member.
  • More!  More!  More!

These more or less flow inevitably from the idea of self-evaluation.

The black hole into which program reviews are assumed to fall also tends to reward a swing-for-the-cheap-seats style.  If you don’t think anyone will read it anyway, the thinking goes, you might as well at least get some catharsis.  At a previous college, someone once appended a new cover page to a review done ten years prior; I guess he thought I wouldn’t look.  I was torn between admiring the panache and wanting to tell him what to do with his cover page.  (I sent it back and let him know that I noticed.  If nothing else, he learned that the black hole was a myth.)

But having an in-person moment in front of the President, the vice presidents, and the deans changes the dynamics.

At that point, fraud or catharsis become ridiculous.  There’s much less room for unbridled narcissism.  It’s possible to make constructive suggestions, but coming across like a comments section on a blog post about gun control will just embarrass you.  It’s impossible to deny that you’re being heard, when all those eyes are staring right at you.  

The presentations were strong, which wasn’t a surprise; these folks were hired for their ability to teach.  The Q-and-A sessions after each one were particularly good, because they got people off of their usual talking points.  I was especially glad that the people from other parts of the college got a chance to see academics do what they do well; I live in that world, but most of my cabinet colleagues don’t.  That’s not a shot at anybody -- they have complicated jobs in their own right -- but it was useful to shed some light on a very different way of thinking.

Predictably, the prescribed time limits fell apart.  As with academic conferences, the idea that everyone will stick to their allotted time fails so often that I wonder why we keep assuming that the next time will be different.  It’s an occupational hazard.  

Still, even allowing for some clock issues, the discussion was more focused, honest, and constructive than any I’ve seen in the old “just hand in the report” format.  It gave me hope.  And it gave my administrative colleagues some useful insight into my world.  I only wish someone had given me the idea five or ten years earlier.