The wrong way to measure departmental performance

Best practice of the week October 16 – 20

Setting campus-wide goals is only the first step

Agreeing upon broad, institution-wide performance objectives is only the first step in encouraging improvement and alignment among academic units. These objectives are often too far removed from departments, where many critical planning and investment decisions take place. For college- and university-level performance indicators to be effective, administrators must translate them into specific operational goals at the department level.

But faculty and department leads often resist blunt performance measurement, citing both the complexity and discipline-specific nature of academic work. Any effort to standardize the evaluation criteria or operationalize goals across every academic unit is bound to suffer defeat. Ultimately this might lead to greater discord against institution-wide planning efforts, less collaboration between departments and central administration, and in the worse-case scenario, poorer institutional performance.

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No such thing as one-size-fits-all goals

The Dean of Arts and Sciences at Oklahoma State University recognized that faculty at the department level often struggle to see the connection between their work and the progress markers that university leaders track. Success in many areas needs to look different for each department—for example, the performing arts departments might include performances or master classes in a “scholarship” category, while STEM departments tend to focus on external research funding and publications in top-tier journals.

To accommodate this, the dean provided each department with nine broad, university-level strategic goals (e.g., scholarship, faculty workload, student learning) and one standard data set. He then asked each department to select key performance indicators for themselves in each category. His review of their progress and his allocation decisions would center around their progress on those measures.

The autonomy granted each department in their planning and review processes accomplished two aims: It helped faculty grow accustomed to measurement against the university’s strategic goals, and made the process of cross-departmental measurement feel more fair. In selecting metrics for themselves, faculty also became more familiar with their own data.

Acknowledging that different departments needed different performance targets demonstrated respect for the variety of roles departments can play at the institution, like providing service courses, driving external research funding, or attracting new students.

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