Being an external reviewer for another university or college’s religious studies program is an important yet neatly circumscribed way to contribute to the health of religious studies as an academic field. You will be providing a vital service to a sister institution and may well learn some interesting approaches and innovations that you can adapt for your own program.
External reviews usually consist of a two-person team; however, three-person teams and solo efforts are not unheard of. When there is a team, it is important to have clear communication about how the workload, especially writing and revising the final report, will be shared equitably. If you know ahead of time whom you have been paired with, and that person is someone with whom you have personality or professional conflicts that could impair your work, tell the host institution before you arrive, and/or withdraw from the review. When working as the sole reviewer, be sure that the on-campus schedule includes sufficient down time for you to reflect on what you have heard, and integrate it effectively into the conversations you will have with top administrators.
Prior to the on-campus visit, you should have access to the department’s self-study, the institution’s strategic plan, and whatever other materials the department or program feels are important to this particular review. Read everything you are sent, but also search for the program and its faculty on the web, as if you were a newcomer or student. Follow links on their pages, note currency of information, and note where information that you would have considered helpful appears missing. Share what you find with the department chair and, where appropriate, in the final written report: this is a valuable service because you are learning about the department, while simultaneously functioning as a pair of fresh eyes on the oft-neglected web presence of the program.
During your on-campus visit, bring all your professional competence as a scholar to every detail, every nuance, every subtlety of language. Keep notes on the details, while simultaneously developing themes and theories. Look for opportunities: how the program could grow and become more visible, how it could capitalize on the legacies and history of the institution, synergies with other units on campus, and ways that the program could build on the language of the institution’s strategic plan. You will have meetings scheduled with different constituencies, usually including the program coordinator or department chair, tenured faculty, tenure-track faculty, contingent faculty, graduate students, undergraduate students, and, very important, staff (they know a lot about what is happening and are excellent sources of institutional memory). If the schedule does not include a meeting with the more marginalized among these groups—contingent faculty, undergrads, and staff—request to have it. If there are departments, institutes, or service areas within the campus that are especially relevant to the religious studies program (chaplaincy at a confessional institution, or a special collection in the library on local houses of worship, etc.), try to schedule time to see those facilities. This, too, could create untapped opportunities that your fresh perspective will discern. In your meeting with the department chair or program director for religious studies, aim to be as frank and open as possible. Try to discern what the chair feels are the most crucial local idiosyncrasies you need to know and what is necessary to improve and sustain the place of religious studies on this campus.
You will also meet with higher administration, who are likely driven by institutional agendas that may be divergent from the religious studies program’s goals. Listen carefully to pick up nuances, buzzwords, and administrative concerns. Do not tip your most important strategic ideas concerning your assessment of the program you are reviewing in these earlier meetings, since you will likely meet with all the same administrators in the crucial exit interview.
The exit interview includes significant representation from higher administration and from the department/program itself, as well as the full team of external reviewers. Here is where you can assist the program you are reviewing, and contribute to the health of religious studies as a field. You should cast yourself as an honest advocate for the department and for the field, by boosting and rationalizing increased visibility for both. In doing this, you do not need to shy away from the difficulties that exist: well-known rifts, enrollment issues, lack of placement for PhD graduates, and so on. Showing that you are aware of some of the particular difficulties adds credibility to the solutions that you recommend. In the end, you are going to paint a positive picture with a definitive trajectory toward a stronger and more influential religious studies presence on that campus. Expect push-back from the administrators on any suggestions you make that involve expenditures; consider in advance how you would counter such constraints.
Once the exit interview is done, the final phase of the operation begins: producing the final report. The faster you can complete this, the better for you, the program, and the administration. Flesh out the details of the thematic outline you gave during the exit interview. If working on a team, share drafts of the document. Keep it concise but convincing. Having strong section markers is a good strategy, but conceding to a document of mere bullet points is not recommended. Your arguments should be rigorous, not streamlined. The streamlined version is what you presented at the exit interview; the report lives on as part of the historical record of the department.
The “External Review Guidelines” document produced by this committee accurately observes that “outside reviewers are often the source of diplomatic and effective solutions that will get the attention of administration.” This aspirational goal is a fine benchmark for your on-campus persona and deliverable result in the form of the final report.