March 8, 2001

Reviews Geared Toward Strengthening Programs

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Four and a half years ago, Cornell instituted a centralized, internal and individual review of 73 University departments and programs across campus. The reviews are currently being conducted and carried out by the Faculty Senate Committee on Program Review (FSCPR), created in 1996.

“This is not something to be published, nor is it something that results in a ranking,” said Prof. Steven Hamilton, human development. “This is a device to try to keep people from resting on their laurels,” he said.

FSCPR reports back to the provost, and both Prof. Peter Stein, physics, and Walter Cohen, vice provost and Dean of the Graduate School, credited Hunter R. Rawlings III with introducing the idea of a centralized program review.

“Cornell had not [conducted reviews] in a regular, systematic way until [the committee’s creation],” Stein said. Stein chaired the FSCPR from its inception in 1996 until December 2000.

The review is a way for individual departments “to reflect on where they are,” said Hamilton, who took over as chair in January.

“It’s not enough just to say that … by definition, ‘we’re good,'” he added.

Rather than allowing University administration to conduct the reviews, faculty members wanted to be in charge of reviewing their peers.

“The faculty … wanted to control the enterprise — they didn’t want it administratively controlled,” Stein said.

Of the 73 departments and programs under the FSCPR jurisdiction, 30 of the reviews have been completed, four are in the process of being completed, and 39 are planned to be completed by 2005. Some of the most recently completed reviews include the Mario Einaudi International Center, and the departments of history, sociology and history of art.

“[As scholars,] we supposedly thrive on review of our work, so the idea of a program being reviewed by peers [was natural],” said Prof. Christine Olson, nutritional science, and a member of the committee from 1996-2000.

The entire three-part review process lasts about a year. The department first conducts a self-study, answering a series of standardized questions posed by the committee.

Next is the external review. The dean of the college chooses the reviewers, both from academia and, in some cases, from the industry. The committee consents to the dean’s choices, and the provost’s office funds their travel, accommodations, and honoraria while they are in Ithaca. A single review can cost between $5,000 and $10,000.

“The process itself is one that consumes a lot of time … and a non-trivial amount of money,” said Philip Eugene Lewis, the Harold A. Tanner Dean of Arts and Sciences.

The final stage is Provost Carolyn A. (Biddy) Martin’s review of a one-page summary on each department submitted by the committee.

Under the policy of the committee, each program will be reviewed every seven to 10 years. Because each review takes such a long time, the process is a never-ending one for the committee.

This form of review has not been without its critics, who wonder how much — or how little — the review affects the future of a department.

Ultimately, it is hard to tell what will happen to the reviews after they are all completed.

Cohen said that a major worry among detractors from the review process is that the program will “just have a review, then it goes into a void.”

Members of the committee, however, believe that the reviews benefit the departments in several ways.

“Inviting outsiders to come provides another perspective,” Hamilton said.

“The way this process has contributed to Cornell has been much more at the grassroots level,” Olson said.

“[Departments] don’t wait for an edict to come down from on high,” Olson continued, but rather act based both upon their self-evaluations and upon the external review.

“There is a tremendous burden on a department to do a good review,” said John E. Hopcroft the J. Silbert dean of the College of Engineering.

Some criticized the uniformity of the reviews. The questions for the self-study portion are identical for each department, though the goals and day-to-day functions of a department may vary widely.

Members of the committee defended the standardized nature of the reviews.

“Our committee thought that … what the provost received [should] be based on the same type of criteria,” Olson said.

Lewis noted, however, “[a] minus is that it stimulates in each department … the appetite for resources … greatly increasing the pressure on colleges that are already working with insufficient budgets.”

“We probably have to go through a full seven-year cycle and see whether the ensemble of the reviews carried out yields helpful insights,” Lewis said.

Archived article by Maggie Frank