Institutional Review: A Key to Winning the Race

Track stars tell us that they run an important race in their minds long before the actual competition. Likewise, strong beginnings begin with sound planning at the outset, and there is no better tool than an institutional review. We strongly urge new presidents to begin this process sooner, rather than later, in their presidencies. With the possible exception of building a strong cabinet, no other first steps will serve a new CEO so well throughout his or her tenure.

In addition to pointing out areas of need, a good review will also highlight institutional strengths, providing a solid platform upon which to build. In fact, one of us has been cited in two recent higher education best sellers for using the review as a blueprint for transforming an entire institution. Its unbiased findings can also help a new CEO to open conversations about potentially sensitive issues on campus.

“Increasingly, governing boards choose to commission institutional reviews as a first step toward establishing or re-establishing more legitimate premises for the president. Boards and search committees often find these reviews indispensable during presidential searches,” says Dr. James L. Fisher, author of a book (2004), The Entrepreneurial College President, published by the American Council on Education (ACE) in Washington, D.C. President-emeritus of Towson University and the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), Dr. Fisher manages a consulting firm in Vero Beach, Fla., specializing in institutional reviews. The firm uses current and former college and university presidents to explore all areas of operations.

The Value of a Review

Evaluating every dimension of the institution, a good review is conducted by a team of outside, recognized authorities who, during a two- to four-month period, assess the condition of an institution through interviews and other data, with a special emphasis on strategic positioning. A final report should include an institutional profile with analysis, observations and recommendations for academic programs, faculty, students, administration, budget and finances, and governance.

Additionally, a review prepared in anticipation of a search process often results in changes in governance policies and practices that will make a presidency more attractive to first-rank candidates. For a newly appointed president, the review also can:

• ensure a better-informed and more enlightened board;
• establish a tentative agenda for the institution;
• provide a more objective foundation for strategic and long-range planning;
• objectively evaluate the organization and administration, quality of academic programs, faculty and student body;
• advise on attitudes of all key constituencies; and
• help determine the potential for increased private support.

The Review Process

While a review is especially useful as a blueprint for a new president, a sitting CEO may also find it helpful in preparing for accreditation and as a precursor to a presidential evaluation by the board.“A good review is usually far more valuable than even the most thoughtful self-assessment,” Dr. Fisher says. A complete review can range from $40,000 and up, depending on the amount of time, number of persons interviewed and the individual or firm conducting the interviews.

Preparing for a Review

In addition to standard materials, the chair of the review team should ask key institutional officers to prepare confidential papers on the status of the institution. Visiting team members should receive all materials at least two weeks in advance of the campus review.

During the review team’s visit, the two- to three-day process will include confidential interviews, both individual and group, using a standardized format. Interviews are typically 50 minutes in length and should allow time for additional comments by the subjects. Interviewees should be selected both by position and at random. The team should select faculty by stratified random sample, as well as at random. Some free time should be allocated for spontaneous interviews of people selected completely at random.

In our experience, given a team of high-quality and experienced reviewers, the results of a review are well worth their cost. The program will convince even initially skeptical constituents of their worth once the campus community has had time to digest the findings. It is important to note that reviews are not just for troubled campuses, but can be effectively used by all presidents to set a transformational course for the future. Winning races are built on sound strategies.

Dr. Scott D. Miller is president of Wesley College in Dover, Del. Dr. Thomas R. Kepple, Jr. is president of Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa.

About the Authors

Dr. Scott D. Miller is president of Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk/Virginia Beach, Virginia. He was previously president of Bethany College, Wesley College, and Lincoln Memorial University. He is chair of the Board of Directors of Academic Search, Inc. and serves as a consultant to college presidents and boards.