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External review to inform programmatic decisions

The Department of Modern and Classical Languages hosted visitors from the University of Arizona, SUNY Stony Brook, and the University of Massachusetts this week, becoming the first department to undergo an external review as part of a new program assessment process involving evaluation of scholarly work, undergraduate and graduate teaching and, where appropriate, outreach.

The evaluation is expected to yield recommendations for the future direction of the department and the allocation of resources.

"We need this information to make the right decisions," says Fred Maryanski, vice chancellor for academic administration.

The review process grew out of the strategic plan and an implementation task force chaired by Peter Halvorson, professor of geography.

Many institutions already have a review process of this kind, Maryanski says, "but tying the process tightly to resource allocation - that is probably a bit different."

UConn's approach to program assessment also differs from some others in its emphasis on undergraduate education, according to Judith Meyer, interim vice provost for undergraduate education and instruction.

"Those institutions that started program review more recently have a greater emphasis on undergraduate education," she says. "That reflects a more general trend among research universities that we need to pay more attention to undergraduate education."

Meyer says a similar evaluation process for other University programs - such as residential life, grants and contracts, and others -is also under development.

Modern and classical languages is one of four departments being evaluated this semester, at the start of what will eventually become a seven-year cycle. The first round of program reviews has been compressed into four years, however.

This semester's participants are the departments of modern and classical languages, economics, chemistry, and history, all within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Beginning last spring, each of the four departments prepared a self-study document, based on discussion with faculty members. A further seven departments scheduled to undergo evaluation next semester are now preparing such documents.

"The study is a self-assessment of where we think the program is going, where it's been and what resources are needed to get it to the next level," says Ross MacKinnon, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

The stage that began this week calls for three external evaluators of national standing, including one from the northeast region, as well as an evaluator from another UConn department, to visit the department for up to two days.

"It's very good for a place to see how it looks to people from the outside," says David Benson, a professor of English, who is serving as non-departmental representative for the review of the modern and classical languages department.

David Herzberger, head of the modern and classical languages department, says "It's one thing for a department to say we need additional resources in such and such an area, but if outside experts come in and scrutinize the program and say 'Yes indeed,' it gives administrators greater security in decision-making."

The evaluators' report will be submitted to the dean and the chancellor's office in about two weeks.

"We'll look at the recommendations and see - given the fiscal situation - what parts of the recommendations can be implemented," MacKinnon says.

The evaluation could have implications for the budget cycle that begins in the spring.

MacKinnon stresses, however, that the significance of the evaluation goes beyond the immediate year's budget. "It's about a five to six-year - or longer - time horizon," he says, adding that "This is not just an exercise about adding resources. It is also about how a department uses the resources it has, and whether it could be doing things another way."

For many programs - those that do not undergo accreditation - this will be the first external evaluation, says Meyer. "This is the first opportunity we've had to look seriously, and for the faculty themselves to look seriously, at undergraduate programs," she says.

Though similar in some respects to accreditation, this review is different, MacKinnon says. Unlike accreditation of a particular degree program, the review involves looking at an entire department, he says. And it does not have the ultimate sanction of accreditation, "where an outside team can either accredit a program or not and can take away from a university the right of offering the program," he adds.

"This is more advisory than prescriptive, but I hope the group will make recommendations so that we can improve our programs," MacKinnon says.

The review will result in a written memo of understanding between the chancellor, the dean and the academic unit about program expectations and the anticipated allocation of resources.

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu