Going to be travelling quite a bit in the next few months, so “trip report” seems like a good way to bring back the blog.

I was in Victoria to chair a committee reviewing the UVic Physics and Astronomy department. In Canada, universities and their academic programs are not usually accredited by external agencies, except for professional programs like library and information sciences or engineering. So the purpose of this kind of external review is for some outsiders to come in and look at what a department or faculty does, including how it relates to the rest of the university, highlight strengths, and make suggestions for improvement. Since many members of a university department can be there a long time, it is easy to slip into doing things a particular way “because it’s always been that way.” An outsider’s perspective can be very helpful in providing impetus for a department or program to re-examine how and why it does things and whether that needs to change. I’ve most commonly seen the situation where the review committee is two people in the same academic area from other universities and one person from within the university but a different area.

At Western, we review undergraduate and graduate programs every 8 years. Sometimes these are coordinated so that a department will have reviews of all its programs at once, sometimes not. We also review departments and faculties as part of the process of appointing or re-appointing department chairs and deans. This can end up being a lot of reviews. I’m told that UVic does not do the appointment-related type of review.

The first step in a review like this is often a “self-study” in which the program being reviewed assembles information about itself. This can include a listing of courses and students taught, faculty and staff and their roles, and sometimes performance indicators such as rankings or student surveys. The next step is a site visit in which the reviewers visit the department, speak with members of different groups (students, staff, faculty, university administration), tour relevant facilities, and discuss initial impressions. Then they distill all of this information into a report, which is supposed to inform both the department members and university administration. These reports may be made available to all members of the department. Since they are supposed to be frank and therefore may contain constructive criticism, they are not usually completely public (although UVic makes summaries available).

The Victoria trip at the end of November was for the site visit. Before visiting, I had read the self-study document, and I had some initial questions for department members, and I briefly discussed them with the other committee members. While in Victoria we had two solid days of meetings with all of the groups; the department did a great job of organizing meetings and travel, feeding us cookies and coffee, etc. But there is no way that this isn’t going to be exhausting - as a reviewer you are trying to listen very carefully both to what people say and what they don’t say, assimilating huge amounts of information (I took 20 pages of notes!), and getting just enough time to reflect on what you hear. We had an exit meeting with some of the administrators so that we could give them a preliminary version of our conclusions and ask any last-minute questions.

It was really interesting to see how a Physics & Astronomy department of about the same size to my own operates. There are some differences because of how universities in different provinces work and because their research areas are not the same as ours, but lots of similarities as well. Both departments do the bulk of their teaching in service courses (e.g., physics for engineers, astronomy for non-scientists), with small-ish upper-year undergraduate and graduate courses. Finding enough faculty to teach all the desired courses, enough staff to support teaching and research, and enough money for research and graduate funding, seem to be fairly universal challenges in lots of academic departments.

After the formal meetings were done, the committee figure out who was going to write what pieces of our final report. It’s important to do this relatively soon, before memory fades: 6 weeks is a typical timeline. I introduced one of my colleagues to Google Docs for collaborative writing! Now we just have to get it done: I wrote some of my sections on the plane on the way home, but some iteration with the rest of the committee will be needed. Hopefully we’ll have a solid draft before the winter break and finish it off in January, and give the university and department some helpful advice.