External Reviews of the Schools:
The Goals and the Process

by Michael Wachter, Deputy Provost

During the past two years the University and the schools have each adopted a strategic plan with the paramount goal of achieving or retaining first-rank status throughout the schools' programs, departments, and institutes. To evaluate the schools' progress in meeting both their strategic goals and the University's, the Agenda for Excellence called for the establishment of "a rigorous, normative protocol for external review and assessment of each school and inter-school program every five to seven years." Working with the University's Academic Planning and Budget Committee, a school review process was established in academic year 1996-97.

School reviews are designed to provide an opportunity for a school to take stock of its strengths and weaknesses, to evaluate its strategies and goals, and to receive assistance from an External Review Committee of academic leaders in the school's disciplines. The review process helps schools determine whether their programs are cohesive, coherent, effective, and true to their mission. The structure of the school review process is modeled after the departmental review process conducted by Penn's larger schools. It also draws from models adopted by other universities with a school-review process. The process is informal enough to accommodate the culture and goals of individual schools and flexible enough to adapt as the University learns from conducting the reviews.

The Office of the Provost is responsible for oversight and staffing of school reviews, working closely to coordinate activities and to facilitate the process with the Office of the Dean in the school under review and with the External Review Committee appointed for the review.

The Timing of the Review Process

School planning strategies are often developed or adjusted by deans at the beginning of their tenure. The timing of the review process is designed to support deans in the regular review of the school's progress in achieving its strategic goals. Typically school reviews will occur in the middle of a dean's term, but this may vary. The scheduling of the review should afford a new dean time to develop an agenda and to introduce strategic initiatives. Feedback from the review can provide the dean and faculty with an assessment of the school's progress in achieving its goals and also help identify opportunities for the future.

When a dean serves a second term, the subsequent review will be scheduled during the dean's ninth year, though this may vary. In addition to evaluating the school's progress under the incumbent dean, the second review can provide valuable information for the selection of a new dean. In schools where deans do not serve a second term, the review will revert to the schedule for first-term deans.

The Structure of the Review Process

The review process consists of two steps. First, the dean will direct the preparation of a self-study. The self-study provides an opportunity for the school to judge its own success in establishing and meeting its goals and the goals of the University. A key part of the self-study is the school's critical assessment of its strengths and weaknesses in its teaching and research programs and, where relevant, its clinical programs. The self-study will also provide current and past data on the school's programs, including its national rankings, faculty size, sponsored research, student enrollments, and budgetary information. Preparation of the self-study can be done using the school's existing planning and budget structure or by appointing a group specifically designed to assist in the self-study.

Second, an External Review Committee, consisting of three to five members, is chosen by the President and Provost, in consultation with the Dean of the school. Appointments may include deans of peer schools and other leading academics in the school's disciplines. Depending upon the size and complexity of the school, the review is conducted over a two- to three-day period. External reviewers need to gain an understanding both of the scope of programmatic offerings in the school and the school's effectiveness in delivering its programs. They focus on the coherence of programs within the school and on the balance among programs. In those schools without a departmental structure, the reviewers spend time familiarizing themselves with programmatic issues. In the larger schools, the committee is furnished with a full set of departmental reviews.

The schedule for the review committee begins with the External Review Committee receiving its charge from the President and Provost. Following this, the committee meets with the Dean of the school; the chairs of the major departments, institutes and centers; representative faculty; and students. The External Review Committee also has opportunities to meet with the school's planning and budget committee and administrative leadership. After a period of discussion and preliminary drafting of the written report, the review committee meets first with the dean and then with the President and Provost to present oral reports in exit interviews. Following the on-campus visit, a written report is completed for the President, Provost, and Dean. The Dean then has the opportunity to discuss the report with the school's faculty and to write a response to the review.

Some of the Themes Covered in the Review

The review focuses on the academic quality and relative standing of the school compared to peer institutions and on the school's efforts to achieve or sustain excellence. The goals and outcome measures of the school will be evaluated by the External Review Committee and, combined with the University's strategic plan, will provide the context for assessing excellence.

A school's quality and standing depend primarily on the quality and reputation of its faculty and their effectiveness in delivering excellent teaching and research programs. The reviewers examine the intellectual leadership and productivity of the school's departments. The school is asked to demonstrate how it supports and rewards its excellent departments and programs and how it encourages others to improve. The review focuses on ways in which innovation and excellence in teaching and research are encouraged and rewarded. It also looks at the success of school efforts to achieve diversity. The quality of a school is reflected in the quality of its students. The review, therefore, considers trends in applications and standards for admission as well as program completion rates and placement of graduates.

Schools not only achieve but also sustain excellence if their leadership and planning are effective. The school's strategic plan is reviewed for its clarity and appropriateness. The plan should be mission-driven; relevant to the school's disciplines, to the realities of competition and external forces; and should take into account the University's broader goals. There is also an examination of the development of strategies for adapting to changes in the school's disciplines and in the higher education environment.

Because it is essential that schools be managed effectively and efficiently, the review considers the managerial strengths and weaknesses of the school; the quality of its investment decisions; the management of school development activities; and the effectiveness of communication efforts. Schools demonstrate their effective use of facilities and the strategic employment of new technologies. The review considers the ways in which schools deploy, develop, and reward their staffs. Schools explain how they make decisions governing resource allocation and how they intend to secure resources for new initiatives.

The review process should not be viewed as a vehicle for persuading the University to allocate new resources to the school. Rather, the review should identify opportunities and possible strategies through which the school itself can increase its resources to support strategic goals.


Volume 43 Number 31
April 22, 1997

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