URBANA — With a new campus strategic plan fresh in hand, the University of Illinois is launching a program to review every academic department on a regular basis.
The plan is to examine all 80 academic departments on an eight-year cycle, or roughly 10 per year, said Associate Provost Barbara Wilson. The first three reviews will be done this year as part of a pilot project.
The campus used to do systematic departmental reviews but got away from that in recent years because of leadership turnover and a focus on the "Visioning Excellence" strategic planning process, said Stig Lanesskog, associate provost for strategic planning and investment. Some colleges do their own reviews, but this will be a "reinvigoration" of a robust, consistent campuswide process, he said.
"We know that to continue to be an excellent university we need to continuously evaluate ourselves at all levels of the institution," he said.
It's not meant to be punitive, said Associate Provost Barbara Wilson. The goal is to make the departments stronger academically and help them focus on their goals, she said.
Each department will be asked to do a self-study first, answering key questions about its strengths and weaknesses; its goals and how those fit into the campus strategic plan; how it's using financial resources; how it would invest new money to improve teaching, research and public service; how well the department is positioned to take advantage of emerging research areas; and how well-prepared students are upon graduation.
"Do we do good scholarship? Do we prepare our students effectively? What are our core teaching and research missions and how can we best continue to improve the department overall? That's what it's mostly about," Lanesskog said.
External reviewers — noted experts in those fields from other universities — will then visit campus and review the self-study report, talk to faculty and students, and offer their comments, Wilson said. The hope is that they will point out issues the department hasn't considered or challenge them in new ways, she said.
An academic review council with nine or 10 senior UI faculty will be appointed to "provide quality assurance" in the process, Lanesskog said.
The pilot program includes three diverse departments: sociology, mechanical engineering, and agricultural and consumer economics.
Agricultural departments have gone through similar reviews for "quite a while," coordinated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said Professor Paul Ellinger, head of the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics.
"I thought it was the right time for a department like ours," he said Thursday.
Like many other units on campus, his department sustained significant financial cuts several years ago, particularly in its Extension programs.
"Now we have an opportunity to rebuild," Ellinger said. "Having an outside eye look at that is a good thing at this stage."
The department plans two new hires in "Energy and Environment," one of six thematic areas identified for growth in "Visioning Excellence." Ellinger hopes to bring in professors who specialize in energy economics and the impact of agribusiness on the environment.
His department currently has 26 tenure-track faculty, three clinical professors and about 690 undergraduate students.
The review should help the department determine how its programs benefit students and the wider community, as it has a strong outreach component through Extension, Ellinger said.
The reviews will take about a semester. They will be linked to the colleges' annual reviews to monitor whether progress is being made on the recommendations, Lanesskog said.
He said the main cost of the review program will be travel, lodging and $1,500 stipends for the outside reviewers. Each department will have about four reviewers, who will be on campus for two days.
Lanesskog said college and department leaders have been amenable to the process.
"Is everybody amenable? Probably not," he said, but there hasn't been any real resistance to the idea. "Most people know this is a healthy exercise to go through from time to time."
The campus will provide data to the external reviewers to prepare for their campus visit, including metrics on faculty productivity, students and department operations. Reviewers will not be asked to make budget recommendations but they will be asked what areas would be the highest priority for new investments in faculty or research, Lanesskog said.
"We're going to need to make the most of the current resources that we have," he said, noting that's one of the campus strategic plan's goals.
"Ultimately what we want out of this is a set of core recommendations about how the department can best move forward to be successful over the next 10 or so years."