Guide for Reviewing Programs in Religion and Theology

The Academic Relations Task Force has prepared a Guide for Reviewing Programs in Religion and Theology. This document provides department chairs with a set of strategic questions and suggested steps for conducting a program review and preparing for an outside evaluation. It contains an introductory statement on the study of religion; a discussion of the preliminary steps in constructing a successful review; a step-by-step description of the review process, and a " how to" on conceptualizing and writing an effective “self-study narrative” that helps to augment program resources.

Academic Relations Task Force (1999)
Warren Frisina, Chair

Modeled on guides produced for other fields, this document is intended to provide department chairs and deans with a set of strategic questions and suggested steps for conducting a review of their program. We intend this document to be helpful for chairs undertaking annual reviews and reviews for accrediting agencies. It contains an introductory statement on the study of religion; a discussion of the preliminary steps in constructing a successful review; a step-by-step description of their review process, and a description of how to conceptualized the write an effective “self-study narrative.”

This Guide for Reviewing Programs in Religion and Theology is a work in progress. We ask for your comments and suggestions, especially your assessment for its helpfulness for your own review process. In the future, we hope to work on different iterations of the Guide more closely tailored to specific institutional segments, e.g., private liberal arts college, public university, church-related college, etc.

Further, we ask that you send a copy of your self-study to the American Academy of Religion. All information will be kept strictly confidential and be used to further refine the Guide with real-life examples drawn from the field.

The Task Force wishes to thank the Modern Language Association of America and the American Studies Association for permission to use their materials in the creation of this document.

Preface. The Study of Religion Today and in the Past

The study of religion in the United States and Canada has undergone enormous changes in the last half century. Before the 1950s, the study of religion was largely the study of the Bible, Christian theology, and church history; and it was largely confined to seminaries and church-related colleges. With the explosive growth of American higher education in the post-war period and a pivotal U.S. Supreme Court decision in the early sixties, a more broadly based study of religious phenomena began to find its way into the college curriculum. 

Between 1945 and 1970, college enrollments grew by a factor of ten, the professoriate more than doubled, and federal funding for higher education increased an astonishing twenty-fivefold. Between 1960 and 1990, the number of institutions of higher learning experienced a net growth of 80% (from 2,000 to 3,595). While a large part of the growth was in the sciences, the traditional humanities disciplines experienced real growth as well. New fields and areas of study began to appear and grow in this era of plenty, and religious studies was among them. 

When the 1963 Abington Township vs. Schempp decision explicitly recognized the constitutional legitimacy of teaching about religion in public schools, religious studies programs found their way into state colleges and universities. Graduate education in religion expanded from university-related theology schools into other research universities, both public and private. Religion was virtually the only “new” field of humanistic study during the post-war period that managed to establish itself organizationally into departments. When Congress founded the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1965, religion got included in the authorizing legislation, though it was restricted to the adjectival form of “comparative religion.”  More recently, NEH changed its language to the inclusive nomenclature of “religion.”

Viewed through the prism of curricula, the field of religion has grown in size and complexity since the 1960s. For example, the study of non-Western and indigenous religious traditions, once limited to a small group of specialists trained as historians, philologists, or anthropologists, has become an essential component of the undergraduate religion program. Religionists are making much broader use of methodological tools drawn from across the humanities and social sciences. Multiplying interdisciplinary contexts, sources, and methods have made the field an important resource in an era when internationalism, multiculturalism, and diversity have become the focus of institutional concerns.

What is more, religion courses seem to be meeting a need in general education occasioned by a sea change in the more established humanities. In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, Robert Weisbuch, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, noted that literary critics and historians are “arguing more and more only with themselves” in “unedifying disputes.”  Moreover, John D’Arms, the president of the American Council of Learned Societies, has decried the “epistemological doubt and disciplinary fragmentation” that pervades the humanities in general.

Historian Thomas Bender has argued that the “core” humanities disciplines of English, philosophy, and history have redefined themselves over the past fifty years, understanding themselves less and less as the means to an end and increasingly as ends in themselves. Where literature, philosophy, and history once were about “investigating the place of human aspirations in the total scheme of things,” they have become increasingly self-referential in their attentions, embarrassed by questions of meaning and their attendant moral and affective language. They seem drawn instead to a model of scientific analysis as signaling professional maturity. A like professionalization of the humanities disciplines is lamented as well by Ernest Boyer in his influential 1990 Carnegie report on Scholarship Reconsidered. He writes, “Ironically, at the very time America’s higher education institutions were becoming more open and inclusive, the culture of the professoriate was becoming more hierarchical and restrictive.”

While religion is certainly not immune from these tendencies, it has managed to be less infected by them. With few exceptions, religion faculty are engaged rather than embarrassed by what Sharon Parks calls the problem of meaning-making in young adulthood. Defined by Parks as “the activity of seeking and composing meaning in the most comprehensive dimensions of our experience,” faith is, after all, a core object of inquiry in religion. If the social and cultural legacy of the sixties has been the loss of faith in elite institutions and the weakening of political and cultural authority, the problem of meaning-making would seem to be all the more pressing for the late twentieth century college student. Undergraduate religion departments are equipped to address this educational need by the very subject matter they study. Teaching about religion need not be—indeed, is not—uncomfortable with the notion that the study of the humanities ought to contribute to leading value-rich, meaningful lives. Religion faculty respect students’ ultimate questions, and their classrooms offer welcoming spaces for such inquiry. The field’s conversation is at home with concepts like good and evil, soul, spirit, community, and God.

However, the prospects for religion and theology in the college and university curriculum are less than propitious. While religion has arguably made a place for itself at the table of liberal learning, it suffers the fragility of being a latecomer to the way that learning is organized institutionally. It enjoys neither the “self-evidence” nor the institutional authority of the older humanities. In times of fiscal constraint, the religion department becomes vulnerable. Our best estimates are that no more than half of the 3,600 accredited colleges and universities in the United States have religion departments. Nor is the study of religion well represented in all sectors of American higher education. As a curricular component, religion is likeliest to be found in the small private college; least likely, in the public sector. While many state universities added religion programs in the late 1960s and 1970s, religion course offerings are rare in community colleges. Yet, college enrollments are markedly shifting in this direction. In 1960, public institutions enrolled about half of all college students; that percentage had increased to 80% by 1990. Community college enrollments skyrocketed, from less than half a million to 6.5 million.

If the story of higher education from 1945 to 1970 was one of growth, a stunning plot reversal occurred in the 1980s and 1990s. The chief ingredients in higher education’s twenty-year depression are well documented. They include steeply rising costs, mounting pressures to contain and reduce expenditures, the removal of the cap on mandatory retirement, the continuing oversupply of PhDs, the growth in part-time and adjunct faculty positions and the shrinking of tenure lines, the disproportionate increase in non-faculty professionals and technology costs, and the downward trend in financial support for the humanities.

It is fair to say that the recent tectonic shifts in higher education have not been kind to the humanities in general and to religion in particular. At a time when the humanities have become a less and less significant part of higher education (humanities majors have shrunk by half since 1970), religion’s comparatively junior status in the infrastructure, along with its peculiar constitutional context, has put it particularly at risk. At a time of fiscal constraint, every field must be prepared to make the case for itself. Paradoxically, religion, despite its being one of (if not the) most pervasive elements of human life and culture, does not enjoy the curricular self-evidence of English or history. In addition, as increasing numbers of students pursue their education in community colleges and other publicly funded institutions of higher learning, the study of religion is in danger of becoming less and less available.

Strengthening Your Program and the Field

Purpose of the Guide

This guide to program review is premised on the review's dual role as a tool for both searching assessment and measured advocacy. We have written it primarily for the leadership of the local program, and secondarily to scholars serving as external reviewers of the program. It does not address systematically the question: what should an excellent religious and theological studies program look like? There are numerous plausible answers to that question—answers that will depend in large part on how energetically and imaginatively a local program takes advantage of its own specific on-campus and surrounding off-campus constituents and resources. These include the strengths of its faculty, the interests of its students, the needs of the local public school system and community agencies, the political and social issues that reoccupy the local community. There are documents which are more programmatically prescriptive and which may be helpful to consult, not necessarily model. (See Appendix B, List of resources). This guide tries to stimulate local program leadership to consider whether it is taking best advantage of its local situation while keeping an eye on what is happening nationally in religious and theological studies; and to consider how it can convince administrators and faculty that its efforts are worth supporting.

The approximately 1500 religious and theological studies programs in the United States and Canada take many shapes. They range from very small enterprises involving only a few faculty and students to programs with large enrollments and several dozen faculty. Most programs focus almost entirely on undergraduates, a few almost entirely on graduate students, and several dozen on a mixture. Some undergraduate programs are minors or tracks within other majors; some are full-scale majors that depend to varying degrees on their own and other departments' courses. Some programs are well established, well funded, and highly valued by their campuses. Some are considered more marginal by campus administration and eke out an unstable existence on budgetary crumbs. Most fall somewhere in between and are seen as useful to their campus but not as central as "real" disciplines such as English or History. They must regularly justify their mission to administrators and other faculty, typically a bit on the defensive when seeking additional resources (or seeking to preserve their existing resources).

Because of such considerable variety, no review guide for religious and theological studies programs can possibly speak to all local contingencies. What this guide attempts to do, therefore, is to raise questions and offer suggestions in forms that local programs can adapt to their own situations.

Administrators or a combination of administrators and campus faculty committees typically impose reviews. For this reason, among others, they can be irritating and even traumatic experiences for faculty, staff, and students involved in the program. At the same time, even traumas can yield some pleasures. Approached strategically and creatively, a program review can prove intellectually stimulating to the program's members, improve the curriculum, build morale, solve difficult problems, and help the program gain increased respect (both on and off campus) and even new resources. We hope this guide will help the program's members improve the odds that a review will generate such benefits.


Reviews are also part of the regional accreditation process. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), one of the regional accrediting agencies, describes accreditation as concerned principally with improving educational quality and ensuring the public that institutions meet established regional standards. Accreditation of an institution for example by the Commission on Colleges of SACS signifies that the institution has a purpose appropriate to higher education and has resources, programs and service sufficient to accomplish its purpose on a continuing basis. Understanding accreditation puts the review process in a larger context. SACS puts it nicely.

The task of accreditation is related to the traditional public philosophy of the United States – that a free people can and ought to govern themselves and that they best do so through a representative, flexible and responsive system.

Thus, criteria and procedures for accreditation have been developed which are used in evaluating an institution's educational effectiveness, defined in the broadest sense to include not only instruction, but also effectiveness in research and public service where these are significant components of an institution's purpose. (p. 2)

Bear in mind that as part of accreditation review, regional commissions evaluate not only compliance with specific criteria but also the effectiveness of the institution as a whole and the environment in which teaching and learning occurs. SCAS states it clearly.

Assessment of the overall effectiveness of an institution derived through the peer evaluation process, rather than simple compliance with specific criteria, shall be an overriding factor in the Commission's determination of whether to confer, or to continue, the accredited status of an institution. (p. 7)

The concept of institutional effectiveness, according to SCAS, is at the heart of the philosophy of accreditation. Institutional effectiveness means that each member institution is engaged in an ongoing quest for quality and can demonstrate how well it fulfills its stated purpose. Accreditation agencies expect institutions to focus resources and energies on education of students consistent with institutional purpose. Effectiveness in all educational programs, delivery systems, and support structures is assumed as the primary goal of every institution. It is measured by circular consistencies, pedagogical competence, student accomplishment, intellectual inquisitiveness, personal and professional development, ethical consciousness, academic freedom, faculty support, and an environment conducive to learning. SCAS, for instance, defines institutional effectiveness in a way that many religion and theology programs can celebrate. The effective institution:

… prepares its students to function in an increasingly diverse, complex and global society by imparting to them not only a mastery of a body of knowledge and technical skills but also by providing opportunities for them to develop enhanced communications skills and the ability to reason critically. (p.23)

One final word in relation to accreditation, Know your institution's mission. Know your institution's competition. You can bet the Dean does. See this advice from the SACS.

An institution must have a clearly defined purpose or mission statement appropriate to collegiate education as well as to its own specific educational role. This statement must describe the institution and its characteristics and address the components of the institution and its operations. The official posture and practice of the institution must be consistent with its purpose statement. Appropriate publications must accurately cite the current statement of purpose.

The formation of a statement of purpose represents a major education decision. It should be developed through the efforts of the institution's faculty, administration and governing board. The governing board must approve it. An institution must study periodically its statement of purpose, considering internal changes as well as the changing responsibilities of the institution to its constituencies. The statement of purpose serves as the foundation for all institutional operations, programs and activities. Consequently, the institution must demonstrate that its planning and evaluation processes, educational programs, educational support services, financial and physical resources, and administrative processes are adequate and appropriate to fulfill its stated purpose. All aspects of the educational program must be clearly related to the purpose of the institution.

What's At Stake

Even if nothing else is at stake, and even if no "outsiders" are looking in on the process, a program review offers an excellent opportunity for the program's members to assess present strengths and weaknesses and to develop concrete strategies for preserving strengths and overcoming weaknesses. Ideally, of course, a religious and theological studies program's members would be engaged in regular conversations with each other about the program's goals and the strategies it has developed to achieve those goals. They would be talking to each other about their teaching and research, and would be constantly alert to possibilities for fine-tuning. In the face of other demands on time, however, faculty often feel compelled to relegate such conversations to less frequent intervals and a more formal occasion. A formal program review provides such an occasion.

However, usually more is at stake in a formal review, and outsiders are in fact looking in. Administrators (and often campus wide faculty bodies) want to know how attractive and how good the program is so that they can decide whether to give the program more resources or take away resources. They also want to know whether to actively help the program better realize its aspirations or to tell it that such aspirations are inappropriate, whether to support continuance of the program or to reduce or—in extreme cases—eliminate it. Reviewers from outside campus may be brought into the process, and their assessments of the program may well, among other things, affect the reputation of the program nationally. The primary function of external reviewers is to advise various campus constituencies, religious and theological studies participants, administrators, and other faculty groups on matters of program status and resources. This is based on their assessment of the program's quality and of its value both to the campus and to the national or regional religious and theological studies community. Half of the work of the review takes place after the external reviewers have completed their part, as the various campus constituents settle down to negotiate about curricular changes, resource allocations, administrative structure, and the like, using the external review as a weapon (sometimes a double-edged one) in those negotiations.

This program guide will assume that the review will involve all these on- and off-campus constituents, and that resources and power are involved as well as quality and prestige. It is critical that faculty members decide, from the outset, what they believe are the most critical stakes. They also must prepare to negotiate the definition of those stakes with other players (most notably key administrators); and at all stages keep their sense of those stakes clearly in mind.

The Review Process

The steps in a typical review process are clear although their implementation is often complex. We label the steps as follows:

  1. Deciding to conduct the review
  2. Preparation for the review
  3. Conducting the self-study
  4. External review
  5. Response to external review report(s)
  6. Administration response

This guide will discuss each of these steps in turn, focusing primarily on the preparation of the self-study, the external review, and the program's response to the external review report(s).

Step 1. The Decision to Conduct the Review

Many colleges and universities now have regular calendars for the review of all degree-granting programs. If so, the local program will be able to anticipate the review, often by several years, and can begin making orderly preparations. Other campuses still proceed with reviews on an ad hoc basis. Such ad hoc reviews can be triggered by several circumstances, of which the most typical are budgetary concerns (either a desire of the administration to cut costs or shift funds or a request by the religious and theological studies program for additional funds). A petition for a change in status (e.g. moving from offering a minor to a major, to begin a graduate program, to restructure from an inter-departmental committee to a faculty-holding unit), or a belief (held by a key administrator or campus body) that the program is weak or in crisis and needs to be "straightened out" or eliminated may also trigger a review.

The campus' full array of reasons for conducting the review are generally but not always made explicit, and such lack of explicitness can add to the anxiety that a program will normally feel in any case. It is in the interest of the program for its faculty to make certain that they fully understand what is at stake for those administering the review and for those who will be making decisions based on the outcome of the review. The program faculty will want to negotiate as vigorously and creatively as possible with the review administrators. Matters to discuss include what topics the review will cover, who the external reviewers will be what materials will be provided reviewers, what the logistics of the external review process will look like (who will be interviewed and under what circumstances. Also what kinds of on-site observation will be facilitated, whether program leadership will be able to participate in an exit interview), what opportunities the program will have to respond to the external review report(s), etc.

To have any chance of conducting these negotiations successfully, the faculty must itself have reached some agreement on what results they would like from the review. Such agreement may well require a series of searching conversations. The program leadership should arrange for those conversations at the earliest possible moment. 

Step 2. Preliminary Preparation for the Review

Reviewers and campus administrators will undoubtedly prepare for the review—and particularly for the external portions of the program—in a more or less systematic manner, directing staff to gather data, identifying external reviewers from on and/or off campus, setting external review dates, etc. Meanwhile, the program leadership should not be passive. It has its own work cut out for it.

One wag has remarked: "The best way to prepare for a program review is to constantly prepare for it."  What she seems to mean is that the key to preparation for a review lies in the lived daily experience of the program's members—faculty, students, and staff—and in the on-going "culture" or "structure of feeling" of the program. This document is not the place to discuss in detail what makes for a healthy program culture. Nevertheless, two relevant elements of that culture are worth mentioning briefly.

Programs that know the stakes in the review will be able to write a self-study without undo effort and will present itself effectively during the external review. Such programs are those with faculty members in regular conversation with each other about the goals and strategies of the program and where they are talking regularly to each other about their research, reading, teaching, service, and other professional activities. Additionally, programs whose staff and students have opportunities to be involved in a discussion of program aspirations and problems; whose members regularly focus some systematic thought on how the curriculum and other aspects of the program can be improved. Such regular conversation is likely to be much less effective if it begins only a month before a self-study must be produced or only three months before external reviewers descend.

Second, a healthy program culture will keep its bridges in repair and will in fact be constantly looking out for opportunities to build new bridges. Constituencies for bridge building include its affiliated faculty, chairs of related departments, unaffiliated faculty whose interests overlap with those of religious and theological studies, key administrators, program alumni, community leaders, scholars on other campuses, other local religious and theological studies programs, and the national AAR and regional affiliates. During a review, a religious and theological studies program needs all the understanding and sympathy it can get, especially on its own campus. A program that is allowed to drift into isolation from—or into disdain for—key faculty, departments, interdisciplinary programs, and administrators on its campus is heading for a rocky review. Such bridge building requires constant effort, but it is well worth the trouble.

Drawing on regular conversation and linking efforts, the program faculty can move expeditiously toward preparing more concretely for the review. The chair of the program should schedule one or more meetings to discuss the review, what the program's stake in it is, what the process will be, and what the program must produce in preparation for it. Although core faculty and staff will undoubtedly take responsibility for much of that formal preparatory work, it makes excellent sense to involve affiliated faculty and students in at least some of the discussions. Faculty and chairs from other campus programs, for example, can offer observations about their own recent reviews that the religious and theological studies leadership can use to the advantage of the program.

Out of these discussions may conceivably come disagreement over present goals and strategies of the program or over desirable plans for the program's future. Allowing sufficient time, over the course of several meetings, for a frank discussion of such disagreements will increase the chances of enlarging the area of consensus. Encouraging participants to put their positions in writing, for general circulation, may stimulate productive exchanges.

Step 3. Self-Study

A program review, whether or not involving external as well as internal reviewers, will almost always include a self-study. That self-study will typically consist of two parts: 1) some descriptive and statistical oriented series of sections or appendices and 2) an evaluative and argumentatively oriented narrative. Getting these two parts "right" is one of the most critical steps in a successful review.

Writing the Evaluative Narrative

N. B., See Appendix A, Writing the Self Study Narrative, for more detail guidelines.

A thoughtful, well-written self-study narrative is critical to the success of the review. It is the primary occasion for the program's central members to show their own thorough understanding of the goals and dynamics of the program, including continuities and changes in its campus history. It is also a time to demonstrate their own capacity to plausibly evaluate its strengths and weaknesses; and to make a persuasive case for specific actions (changes in requirements and curriculum, changes in administrative structure, new activities, augmentations in resources) that will preserve and enhance the program.

Although the core faculty are likely (and appropriately so) to take chief responsibility for drafting this narrative, those faculty will find it substantively and strategically useful to circulate the narrative for comments to all faculty affiliated with the program, as well as to program staff and even students. Comments from such individuals can spot misstatements, enrich the narrative's perspectives, and help sharpen its rhetoric. Such involvement will also better prepare the affiliated faculty, staff, and students to participate constructively in meetings and interviews undertaken in conjunction with the review.

Be brief. Avoid the distraction of an elaborate discussion of minor issues and problems. Instead, make clear what is at stake in the review. It should be efficiently organized and easy to follow. In addition, it should be as short as possible, consistent with covering the major points it wants to make. External reviewers (from both inside and outside campus) can quickly tire of narratives that drone on and on and fail to distinguish major from minor issues. The drafters of the narrative should aim for a document (excluding appendices) of no more than 15-20 single-spaced pages, and exceed that only if there are the most compelling reasons for doing so.

Be judicious. The narrative should certainly highlight the program's strengths and distinctive qualities, including the nature and value of the contributions it makes both to the campus and, where relevant, to the larger religious and theological studies community. It should also highlight problems. Better to highlight those problems oneself, and in one's own terms, than to give administrators or external reviewers full control over defining those problems. Accompanying the discussion of these problems should be a discussion of steps the program is taking, or plans to take, or wants (contingent on additional resources) to take to mitigate or remedy them. This discussion also provides a good occasion for the drafters to invite the external reviewers to offer constructive recommendations for solving the problems.

The narrative should draw on and efficiently refer to the data contained in the self-study's descriptive and quantitative appendices, as supporting evidence for the narrative's arguments, but should not encumber itself with such data. Rather, the narrative should focus on the implications of that data for the review. For example, the narrative should not restate the requirements (which should be included in an appendix) for the program's undergraduate or graduate degrees. Rather, it should discuss what it has hoped to achieve by those requirements, the degree to whether they have worked as hoped, and any plans the program has to revise them. It should not simply describe the fields and extent of participation of faculty involved if that can be made apparent in an appendix. It should focus rather on whether that range of fields seems sufficient for the program's goals, whether the extent of participation is sufficient, and what steps the program plans to take to increase participation.

Ideally, the narrative will clearly show a faculty and student body united behind an explicit set of goals and strategies for the program. However, if significant disagreements remain among the participants when the narrative is being written, those disagreements should be stated explicitly in the narrative, a sense of what is at stake in such disagreements identified, and a plan outlined that will enable the program to deal constructively with those disagreements. Unresolved arguments have the potential, if approached in a cooperative and creative spirit, to yield new and useful programmatic directions and to demonstrate a diverse faculty's ability to work respectfully with each other on behalf of important goals.

List of Sections and Topics for the Narrative

The specific topics, and their specific ordering, will depend on the concerns and situation of the local program. Some campus administrators, for example, will insist that the narrative cover certain topics. However, the drafters of the narrative are likely to have considerable say as to the order and narrative context in which they address those topics.

A program under review should consider addressing the following aspects of its program, as relevant, in the narrative part of its self-study. As appropriate, it will wish to discuss the causes of or rationale for each aspect, to assess the success of that part of the program, and to note any planned or proposed changes in that part of the program. Programs may choose to cover these topics in an order different from that listed here. Use a separate section for the graduate program if applicable. 

These are treated in detail in Appendix A. Writing the Self-Study.

  • History of the program
  • Goals and defining characteristics of the program
    • Does the program mix interdisciplinary and multi-departmental aims?
    • Does the program give particular attention to any particular subject areas?
    • Is the program oriented toward any particular student or other constituencies?
    • Does the program have research or service as well as teaching agendas?
    • How do program goals and features compare to major national trends in the field?
    • Is the program a distinctive program on its own campus?
    • What does the program contribute to the life and goals of its own campus?
    • Does the program contribute to community, region, or profession?
  • Curriculum
    • Lower-division courses offered by program
    • Relevant lower-division courses offered by other programs
    • Upper-division courses offered by program
    • Relevant upper-division courses offered by other programs
    • Independent-study, fieldwork, and internship opportunities
    • "Exit" experiences: senior projects, comprehensive exams, etc.
  • Advising system
  • Resources for undergraduate program—faculty, TAs, etc.
  • Other program features 
  • Faculty
    • Number and range of expertise; degree of involvement
    • Quality of faculty
    • Equity of faculty workload 
  • Relations with other departments and programs
  • Governance structure
  • Degree to which program seeks advice and participation from other faculty
  • Quality and stability of leadership 
  • Staff
  • Funding
    • Budget, sources, trends
    • Impact of possible cuts or augmentations
    • Fund-raising efforts 
  • Other local program issues
    • Space, equipment, library resources, and other resources
  • Graduate Program
  • Overview: general quality, trends, reputation, etc.
  • Students
    • Quantitative data: number in program and stages, number served from other programs, etc.
    • Quality of students; trends
    • Interests of students; trends
    • Diversity of students; trends
    • Dropout rate, review mechanisms, etc.
  • Requirements
  • Curriculum
  • Advising system
  • Qualifying examinations
  • Master's theses and/or dissertations
  • Time to degree
  • Teaching experience and training
  • Financial support

Summary of Planned Changes in Program

Throughout, keep in mind that the self-study has multiple audiences, both on- and off-campus. Its primary audience must be those who have power over its existence and over its resources. Among that audience may well be faculty who sit on campus program review, educational policy, or budget committees. As peers, they will certainly be sensitive to such questions as curricular quality, student quality, faculty quality and the number and range of faculty involved. The impact of the program on campus life, the program's standing in the field, and whether the program is an effective investment of resources (resources that otherwise might well go to programs in which these faculty are involved). In both its appendices and narrative, the self-study must strive self-consciously to satisfy these faculty about such matters. Nevertheless, an even more important audience may well be the administrator who holds the purse strings. Many administrators are concerned with two things: making his or her dollars go as far as possible, and being able to brag that his programs are among the best of their kind. Therefore, the self-study must work self-consciously to give her something to brag about, something that will make her look good if she supports the program. In addition, the self-study must try to show him that it can make him look good without costing him an undue amount of resources. Administrative disclaimers and program wishes notwithstanding, numbers count in administrators' eyes: enrollments and numbers of majors per faculty or per dollar spent on the program, students' performances on standardized tests, numbers of BAs, MAs, or PhDs with good jobs, amount of external funding for the program, etc. A good self-study will help convince administrators that they are getting their money's worth.

Appendices: Data

Some schools have greater desire and capacity than do others to generate a considerable amount of descriptive and statistical information about a program. Some schools keep rather informal or spotty records on such matters as course enrollments over time, numbers of declared majors, alumni achievements, etc. On the other hand, in some institutions—particularly ones with elaborate computer databases—such information can be generated to the point of overkill. A considerable amount of irrelevant data can bury the most important data and get in the way of an attempt to look at the major program features. At any event, such data sends many messages to reviewers.

Members of a religious and theological studies program under review ought to consider carefully the data that will be going into these appendices. They may well want to negotiate with administrators over what to include and exclude. The goal of the program members should not be to hide data that reflects weaknesses or problems in the program but to make certain that such data is presented in the context of the data that reflects the program's strengths. In order to achieve this balanced presentation, the program may want to add to the appendices certain data that the administrators or others who oversee the production of the appendix have not identified as relevant. For this end, the program itself should have been systematically collecting (over a period of years) information not likely generated by central campus agencies. For example special awards earned by its students, staff, and faculty, undergraduates' and graduate students' publications, the achievements of its alumni, the contributions of its core faculty to other sectors of campus life, written testimony about the program's impact on their lives from its alumni and present majors, etc.

  • Checklist of Documents to Include as Appendices in Self-Study
    This checklist is suggestive rather than definitive. Individual programs will want to custom-tailor the materials included in their self-study according to the program review requirements of their campus and their own specific needs. Such custom tailoring will include determining the most effective sequence for these materials.
  • Table of contents of documents included in the self-study.
  • Evaluative narrative
  • Descriptive and quantitative appendices:
    • One-page overview of campus—size, character, organization, structural location of the religious and theological studies program. This overview will help off-campus reviewers understand the institutional context of the program.
    • Copy of program's description in campus' general catalog.
    • Copy of program's Mission Statement (see Appendix B, List of Resources, for a model mission statement recommended by the Ad Hoc Committee on the "Future of the Field")
    • Copy of program's advising handbook, if one exists.
    • Copy of program's degree requirements, if not included in general catalog material or advising handbook. (Use separate appendices for undergraduate and graduate degree requirements.)
    • Detailed description of the entire program's required courses and other courses considered "core" courses. You might meet this need simply by including here the current syllabi from these courses. (Use separate appendices if appropriate for undergraduate and graduate courses.)
    • List of participating faculty, with ranks and titles, nature of affiliations
    • Vitae of faculty and, as useful, other actively participating faculty.
    • Official description of program's governance structure.
    • Data about program, perhaps over a five- or ten-year period: enrollments by level (and perhaps by specific courses, if useful); number of declared majors; number of degrees awarded; student/faculty ratio; etc. This data will likely be most useful if these statistical tables also include relevant overall campus data or data about related campus programs.
    • Program budget, by functional categories and (if relevant) sources of funding, perhaps over a five- or ten-year period.
    • Other data that will help the reviewers understand the program or that the program is drawing upon in its evaluative narrative.

Step 4. The External Review

By external, we mean both the review of the program undertaken by campus administrators and by faculty groups not affiliated with the program (e.g., by a campus review committee) and the review of the program undertaken by scholars from other institutions. Sometimes the external committee will mix on-campus and off-campus members. The external reviewers will affect the dynamics of the external review process. It is one thing to be interviewed by, say, a physicist from one's own campus who sits on the campus' review committee and quite another to be interviewed by a professor of U.S. history from another college that doesn't itself have a religious and theological studies program. Ideally, one would want to be interviewed by a professor who is an active member of a successful religious and theological studies program elsewhere. Still, certain considerations will likely apply, more or less, to any form the external review may take.

Identifying External Reviewers

Identifying appropriate external reviewers is critical to the review's value. It is unlikely that the local program will have much say over any on-campus reviewers involved. But the program typically will be (and should be) invited to suggest possible external reviewers, if any are to be used, generally in the form of a list from which program administrators will select one or more.

Undoubtedly the faculty of the program will have in mind scholars from other schools whom they believe would be effective and supportive reviewers. However, they should also contact the heads of religious and theological studies programs at comparable campuses to discover whether those programs have recently undergone a review and whether any particular external scholars in those reviews were especially helpful. Another valuable resource is the executive office of the AAR, which is working to be able to offer suggestions about experienced reviewers, based on your particular needs and settings.

We suggest these qualities in reviewers: First, the program will want faculty that the campus review agencies will respect as highly qualified—faculty, for example, who have a strong reputation as scholars. Second, the program will want faculty who have been actively involved in the field and deeply understand current intellectual trends, teaching agendas, and other issues. The program should try to discourage the administration's appointment of a scholar who may be an excellent researcher in some area of, say, history or literature but who has no demonstrable record of sympathy for interdisciplinary research and teaching in religion, theology, or biblical studies. Third, the program will want scholars who have been actively involved with a religious and theological studies or similar program on their own campus. There is nothing that makes for a sympathetic understanding of those problems like having had to wrestle with the concrete problems of such programs on a day-to-day basis. Fourth, at least one of the external reviewers should have had some significant experience as a chair or major officer of a successful religious and theological studies or similar program, particularly an officer who has a reputation for political savvy, diplomatic skill, and expertise in campus protocols and administrative processes. The review report will likely have more influence if it shows an understanding of the problems an administrator will face in trying to implement those recommendations.

Organizing Participants for External Reviewers' Interviews and Meetings

The meetings and interviews organized as part of the external review will vary significantly from campus to campus. For example, review committee members may interview core and affiliated faculty singly or in groups. Reviewers will likely want to talk to undergraduate majors, staff, and with graduate students. Many reviews arrange for separate meetings with relevant constituencies. Among the most important meetings will be those with key administrators and faculty.

The leadership of the program should brief constituencies on the review. The point should not be to co-opt participants or to prevent individuals from expressing their convictions when speaking to the external reviewers. Rather, these briefings can usefully inform those in attendance of what's at stake in the review, give them a sense of the reviewers' backgrounds and interests, suggest the kinds of questions the reviewers will be interested in pursuing, and so forth. The meetings can even serve as a rehearsal of any disagreements among participants over program goals and elements—a rehearsal that may help the program's leaders themselves in interpreting the dynamics, achievements, and problems of the program to the reviewers. At best, such briefings may serve as a kind of pre-game warm-up that sends participants into the contest with heightened morale. They may also help meetings with the reviewers from turning merely into gripe sessions.

The leaders of the program can usefully remind themselves that their students and staff are among the best ambassadors of the program. When students are happy with their education, give them an opportunity to advertise this fact fully. If they have criticisms of the program, they should be given a chance to discuss those criticisms in advance with the program's faculty (in a safe context). They should also be given a chance to think of how they express those criticisms to the external reviewers in a way that will help rather than hurt the program. The staff of a program is typically not only very able and devoted but a key element in what makes the program work well. They also often serve as a rich oral archive for the history of the program. If they can explain clearly the program's goals and strategies, they add considerably to reviewers' impression of program coherence and quality.

Interacting with the External Reviewers

With few exceptions (and, if the negotiations suggested above are pursued early and creatively enough, many of these exceptions can be avoided), external reviewers will not be out to "get" the program. Certainly, the off-campus reviewers, if experienced and active in the AAR, will generally be predisposed to focus on ways in which they can be helpful to the program. This does not at all mean that they will hide their eyes from weaknesses or from problems the program is facing. On the contrary, they will quickly spot problems and challenges. A key strategy is to be frank and forthcoming with the reviewers about the problems the program is facing. Let the reviewers know what the program is doing to try to solve the problems and invite them to suggest constructive solutions or propose several potentially viable options. The problems may be internal—conflict among several core faculty, withdrawal of affiliated faculty, dropping enrollments, students' dissatisfaction with certain courses. Alternatively, they may be external—poor relations with English or History departments the hostility of the dean to whom the program reports. In either situation, full knowledge of the problem will increase the likelihood that the external reviewers can generate some recommendations that will be both diplomatic and effective.

Being Clear About Priorities

Typically, external reviewers are asked to review too many things. They are overloaded with information and, in a very short space of time, must sift through it to sort out the more relevant. They are typically asked to respond to too many questions and relatively minor issues are often mixed indiscriminately with major issues. Experienced reviewers will, with some effort, be able to thread this thicket. But the program's leaders can be of considerable help to them in this effort, both by making clear in the self-study what the program itself believes to be the most critical issues and by stressing those issues again as early as possible in the leaders' interactions with the reviewers.

As part of the sorting and problem-solving process, the external reviewers need time with each other. The most productive review schedules give reviewers a chance to talk to each other about their initial impressions of the program before their meetings with administrators, faculty, and others begin. The reviewers then need several opportunities to check in regularly with each other about what they have observed and heard in their interviews and meetings. If the review schedule extends over a two-day period, give them several hours by themselves at the end of the first day. In addition, they need another block of time to themselves before any exit interviews. The leaders of the program can do the reviewers—and the program—a favor by making sure that the administrator coordinating the review schedule builds in such opportunities. The quality of the review will be all the better for it.

Following Up on the External Review

The chair will be exercising both good manners and good diplomacy by writing brief individual notes to both the on-campus and off-campus members of the review committee. Thank them for their efforts and volunteer to send them any further information that will aid them in completing their report (or, in some cases, individual reports). Such notes should not be used to reargue some point or play advocate for the program. Write an additional thank-you note to the reviewers after they submit their report to the campus---whatever its content. Acts of courtesy are their own reward. They can also have longer-term payoffs.

Step 5. Response to the External Review Report

The members of the program should begin planning to act on the external reviewers' formal report well before they see it. Shortly after the external review, the faculty (and, if the local culture makes it appropriate, staff and students) should get together to trade impressions of the review. Try to identify possible or likely recommendations that will be contained in the report, and begin to consider elements of the response to those recommendations and to other issues that have been highlighted by the review process. Seize the initiative as soon as possible for any changes that the program's members believe are desirable, or that they believe will be required as a result of the review.

When the external reviewers' report is received—typically between one and three months after the review has taken place—the program will have a chance to offer a written response to the report. Begin your response before the report is received. In this way, you will take advantage of fresh memories of the campus visit and the immediate post-visit conversations with program members.

Like the narrative portion of the self-study, the response to the external reviewers' report is an important tactical document. The program's members need to use the document to show the campus officials that they are in "control" of the situation. The response ought to indicate clearly those issues on which the members of the program agree with the report and highlight points of disagreement as well. Use the response to state what changes in the program the faculty intend to make (and not make) because of the review—changes that may differ from or be in addition to those recommended. Outline strategies and timetables for making those changes, and indicate the resource implications of those changes (e.g., the program's plans to make more efficient use of existing—or fewer—resources, the program's need for more faculty or staff or student aid or space).

A word of advice on tone: the response is likely to be most effective if it avoids an overly defensive or belligerent tone. There is little point in attacking the reviewers' motives or competence. Rather, the response should strive for an upbeat tone. It should use the response to reiterate its pride in the program's achievements, to show why the campus should share that pride, and to describe (as in its self-study) in plausible terms its vision of an even better future. The display of self-confidence, even if somewhat on the optimistic side, generally makes good sense. This is not always an easy assignment, especially if the program is objectively on the defensive because of, say, a hostile dean, faculty losses, or dropping enrollments. However, whining or truculence rarely wins battles with deans or faculty committees. Rather, the response of the program is likely to be most effective when, like the self-study, it works to persuade those in positions of campus power that they will benefit from supporting the program.

Step 6. Administration Response

Program members need not sit back passively while various campus administrators and committees are completing their discussions of all the review materials and reaching conclusions as to appropriate actions to take. A little diplomatic lobbying rarely hurts. Informally sounding out relevant administrators' preliminary responses to the review can be helpful and offer potential opportunities to affect those responses before they become set in concrete.

The campus' official "sign-off" response to the review is, even at its most favorable, never going to give the program everything it needs or wants. Even if the results yield no more than damage control, that can be counted a victory of sorts. Consider even modest gains in status or resources a cause for celebration, especially in very tight budgetary times. The program should be sure to indicate to relevant administrators and faculty its appreciation for whatever resources it does acquire as a result of the review and pledge to make good use of them.

Then comes the sobering reminder: the end of one review is the beginning of another. To repeat a point made earlier in the guide: program members should constantly be aware and have a mechanism in place to reminded them that their actions following the review will directly affect the program's ability to make the next review yield even better results for the program.

Our own concluding flourish:  be bold. Remember, every student at your institution deserves an education that includes the study of religion.

Appendix A. Writing the Self-Study Narrative

This section is likely longer than the narrative of the self-study itself will be. Its goal is to suggest a rationale for the kinds of topics that the narrative should cover and to suggest possible strategies for dealing with some of those topics. 

A few general words of advice as you write the narrative portion of a self-study of a religious and theological studies program:

  1. Keep it crisp.
  2. Keep it as upbeat as possible, while showing candor (e.g., by noting problems the program faces and what it is doing about them).
  3. Except for context and clarity, do not repeat the descriptive and statistical material in the appendices. Rather, use the narrative to interpret that material, to show why the data (enrollments, number of faculty participants, etc.) are as they are, and to offer a rationale for various features described in the appendices. Use footnotes and parenthetical annotations to refer the reader to the relevant spots in the appendices. Do not load up the narrative with so much data that the program's major stakes, problems, and achievements are obscured.
  4. Keep in mind the program's own overall goal for the review: to convince the relevant campus powers that the program is good for the campus (because of the quality of its faculty and students, its attractiveness to students, its off-campus reputation, etc.), is working to be even better, and that it deserves existing and even augmented support.

The format for a particular program's narrative will likely be a product of local circumstances, the campus' requirement that certain materials be presented and certain questions addressed, and even in what order. We offer the following sample format.

Introductory Sections of the Self-Study

History of the Program

Early in the report—near if not at the very beginning—there should be a brief summary of the history of the program, generally only a paragraph or two. When and the circumstances under which it was founded, ways in which those circumstances have changed and ways the program has evolved in response to or anticipation of those changes. The goal of this section is not at this point to give readers a detailed institutional analysis. Give them a general understanding of the campus setting and of major trends (on and off campus) that have affected the program and an overall context for understanding subsequent sections of the narrative. Focusing on "key moments in the program's history" will be a useful organizing tactic.

Program Goals and Definition

This also should be a relatively brief section. Like the history section, this too can be seen as an "overview" section. Discuss most of the specific goals in detail in other sections of the narrative, in conjunction with the specific strategies the program has adopted to achieve these goals. Start this portion of the narrative using the description of your program in the general catalog of your campus or from material in your program's advising manual.

This section will likely be the best place to give simple, quick answers to such questions as the following (answers that will be pursued in greater detail later in the narrative):

  1. What is the central focus of the program? For example, to what extent is its primary concern "multi-disciplinary" or "multi-departmental"—that is, to what extent does it focus on encouraging students to consider religion and theology from the perspective of several "disciplines" or departments? To what extent is its primary concern integrative, i.e., to bring a variety of disciplinary and trans-disciplinary approaches to bear on specific issues in the study of religion not sufficiently understandable in terms of any specific approach? To what extent does it engage in a systematic comparison of various approaches to determine the strengths and limitations of any particular approach? Terms like "disciplinary," "multidisciplinary," and "interdisciplinary" can easily be buzzwords. What the narrative will want to do is to suggest the extent to which the program has endowed them with concrete and functional meanings.
  2. Does the program pay a particularly large amount of attention to any particular subject areas? For example, does it stress the study of the region or local community in which the program is located? Place special emphasis on the experiences of women or of specific ethnic minority groups? Focus on texts or lived experience? Focus on cultural expression or institutional analysis? Stress the study of religion and theology in an international or comparative context? Give special attention to particular bodies of theory or to any particular methods of analysis? To what extent does the program want all its students (and even all its faculty) to confront a common body of data, questions, approaches, etc., and to what extent is its stress latitudinarian, encouraging its faculty and students to pursue whatever interests them individually? (In later sections, the narrative will be able to show how such emphases actually manifest themselves in the program's requirements, curriculum, and special activities.)
  3. Does the program place special emphasis on serving particular constituencies, e.g., religious students, ethnic minority students, re-entry students, part-time students, and community agencies?
  4. Does the program have a research as well as a teaching agenda?
  5. To what extent are the program's primary goals and features congruent with major national (and even international) trends in religious and theological studies, and to what extent are they unique to (or given more-than-typical attention to in) this program?
  6. To what extent is the program in its goals and features a distinctive campus program? To what extent do any of the program's goals or features overlap or duplicate goals and features of other programs on campus? What is the rationale for such overlap?
  7. What are the most important contributions the program makes to the life and goals of its own campus? For example, does it contribute to student and faculty diversity? Does it contribute to the campus' external reputation for teaching and scholarship or its general educational goals?
  8. If relevant, what are the most important contributions the program makes to its surrounding off-campus community and to the study of religion?

These issues need not, of course, be touched upon in the above order. Like a good newspaper article, this section should touch first on those aspects of the program's aspirations and self-definition that are most important for evaluators of the program to understand, and then let other aspects of the program flow from there.

Program Structure

Very early in the narrative, there should be a brief statement (no more than one paragraph—even one or two sentences will do) about the governance structure of the program—conceivably blended into the "Program Goals and Self-Definition" section, the "Program History" section, or a brief section of its own.

This section is not the place to go into the implications of the structural arrangement of the program. However, it will provide a useful context for helping the narrative's readers understand what follows, since program structure typically affects the health of the program and options in profound ways.

Strategic Sections of the Self-Study

Many of the remaining sections of the narrative can be considered as focusing on various specific strategies (curricular, structural, deployment of resources, etc.) that the program has adopted to achieve its goals, highlighting their role as strategies—that is, explaining why they have been adopted, evaluating the extent to which they have worked well, and outlining plans (and rationale) for changing any of the strategies.

Religious and theological studies programs that have both undergraduate and graduate components will likely wish to discuss each of these components separately. This guide will therefore follow a similar format.

The Undergraduate Program


This is probably the best spot for briefly interpreting some of the key quantitative data about the undergraduate program (contained in the appendices) and saying something about its overall quality and value.

Since its founding in 1975, nearly 300 students have received BAs from our program. With only two minor downward blips, the annual graduation rate has steadily increased to the present __ graduates a year. A growth undoubtedly in part the product of the major increasing reputation on campus as a demanding, high-quality program and in part the product of the increasing number of courses in Eastern religions [or whatever] that the program has been able to offer.


The number of students majoring in religious and theological studies has declined rather sharply in the past eight years, from a high of __ in 1988 to a low of __ in 1996 (see Appendix N). We attribute much of this decline to the growth of several related majors, including Women's Studies, Asian Studies, and new course offerings in sociology and philosophy, and to the retirement without replacement of two of our key faculty. Nevertheless, the quality of our major remains high, as reflected in our seniors' placement rate into major graduate and law schools (see Appendix N) and in the recent receipt by two of our core faculty of campus Teaching Excellence awards. Student satisfaction with the major remains high (see the results of the student survey in Appendix N), and our introductory general education courses continue to attract strong enrollments.


Some drafters may prefer to place this section later in the discussion of the undergraduate program. There is, nonetheless, something to be said for placing it close to the front, especially if student enrollments and numbers of majors are healthy, student quality is good, and student satisfaction with the program is high.

In this section, the program can interpret the quantitative data about lower-division and upper-division enrollments, numbers of majors and numbers of BAs, particularly in comparison to other programs on campus (and perhaps in comparison to programs at other campuses of similar size and kind). It can discuss whatever evidence exists about the quality of its majors (grade point averages, scores on standardized tests, prizes won, acceptance to good graduate and professional programs, etc.), and evaluate whatever evidence exists about degree of students' satisfaction with the program. In terms of this last issue, it is probably a good idea, as a part of the preparation for the external review, for it to send a questionnaire to its majors. Exit interviews with graduating seniors are also useful, as are students' end-of-term evaluations of specific courses. Another important—and sometimes neglected—source of information about student satisfaction can be a pre-review meeting with majors in which they are invited to talk about their experiences in the major.


The narrative is not the place to describe in much detail the degree requirements of the program. That more detailed description should be included in one of the appendices—perhaps most efficiently by simply appending the relevant section of the campus catalog or program's advising brochure. At most, what will be needed here is a brief overview of those requirements:

A BA in religious and theological studies requires all students to complete a one-semester introductory course offered by the program, two one-semester advanced methods course offered by the program, a semester-long program-sponsored senior seminar whose topics vary from year to year, and two other introductory and four advanced courses from the departments of __. Students must also write a brief senior thesis/pass a written comprehensive exam/pass an oral examination.

(Where relevant, a list of titles of senior theses, a sample comprehensive exam, or a list of typical questions or topics on an oral exam can be included in the appendices.)

What this section in the narrative should primarily do is:

  1. Highlight the rationale for these requirements, showing how they reinforce the goals and self-definition of the program. (e.g., "We believe that religious and theological studies majors need extensive grounding in the subject matter and methods of at least one traditional discipline." "We believe that no student can understand human life – personal and social – ­without close attention to the dynamics of religious belief, practice, texts and institutions.") Some of this rationale may well have been covered in the previous section on program goals and self-definition and need not be repeated here. On the other hand, this section may be the place to make explicit the way in which those goals translate into concrete requirements.
  2. Evaluate the effectiveness of these requirements, and point to evidence supporting this evaluation. "We believe our students graduate from this program with an unusually rich understanding of religious ritual and institutions." "We have come to believe that the program's breadth requirements may scatter a student's attention unduly and that a more integrative approach may be in order." "Our requirements may not allow a student to explore a particular topic in sufficient depth." "Requiring students to take Course X before they take Course Y seems to have been effective in systematically building their skills in Z." "In their exit interviews, our recent BA students told us they valued the chance to write a senior thesis." Additional comments on the effectiveness of specific courses can come in the next section of the narrative at the appropriate points.
  3. Point to any changes planned in the degree requirements and to explain the rationale for those changes.

This section will be in effect an extension of the requirements section. Some narratives will in fact want to make them a part of a single section. There is no magic way of organizing this section; you may divide into a series of sub-sections. That will depend on such factors as the range and complexity of the program's degree requirements, the number and variety of the courses offered by the program itself, the number and range of other departments' courses on which it depends, and the constituents it is trying to serve. The narrative should stop at various points to evaluate the quality and effectiveness of specific courses, course sequences, course clusters, etc. and, as appropriate, to suggest any plans afoot to revise any aspects of the curriculum.

Be aware that readers will be interested in the following questions: Why has the program chosen to devote its resources to these particular courses rather than to other courses? Does it have a strategy for "subsidizing" its small courses with larger courses? What does it do to insure that its large courses are of high quality? How has it determined the appropriate proportion of its resources that are to go to lower-division, upper-division, and graduate courses? What has determined the proportion of its attention devoted to serving its own majors and the proportion devoted to other students? By what processes (and by what criteria) does it evaluate the quality and effectiveness of its courses?

This section should show readers the rationale that lies behind the choices (if they are indeed that) that have resulted in this particular curriculum. In this regard, this section may also be the place to discuss the extent to which the curriculum is the product of the participating faculty member's individual interests and the extent to which the faculty have "disciplined" and integrated their own interests on behalf of a coherent curriculum.

Typically, the section will deal (as briefly as necessary) with the following kinds of courses.

  1. Lower-division courses offered by the program. Do any meet campus general-education requirements? Serve many students other than majors? Effectively prepare majors for advanced work? Serve as a training ground or employment opportunity for graduate students? What is the rationale for their size? Do they overlap with or duplicate the offerings of any other programs? If so, what is the rationale for such duplication? Are the courses popular? Are they of high quality? Are they sufficiently stable? Do they justify the resources put in them? Is there sufficient ladder faculty participation in them? Are there any concrete plans to improve them? Are there any gaps in these course offerings that the program would like to fill? If so, how does it plan to do so? (e.g., what does it plan to give up to do so, or can it fill such a gap only if it receives new resources?)
  2. Lower-divisions offered by other programs. Do they effectively serve the interests of religious and theological studies majors? From the perspective of religious and theological studies, are there any significant gaps in the offerings of these other programs? Does the program wish to recommend ways in which such gaps can be filled?
  3. Upper-division courses offered by the program. In addition to addressing many of the issues raised in 1 above, the narrative here may want to give particular attention to the extent to which the program has sequenced its courses (and the extent to which sequencing has worked). The amount of systematic attention to certain perspectives, themes, theories, methods, and materials may also be introduced here.
  4. Upper-division courses offered by other programs. See two above.
  5. Independent-study courses, fieldwork and internship opportunities, etc.
  6. "Exit" experiences: senior projects, comprehensive exams, etc.
Other Aspects of the Undergraduate Program

The narrative should make certain that it highlights any other aspects of the undergraduate program that make it good or that, if implemented or improved, would make it better. Does the program sponsor a regular colloquium series for its majors or for undergraduates in general? (If so, what kinds of topics have been covered?) Does it have a student association? (And, if so, what does it do?) Does the program facilitate social events for its majors? Do undergraduates sit on the governing body of the program? Advise the program in any specific ways? What have these activities "cost" the program (in terms of faculty and staff time, funds, etc.), and was the cost worth it?


Evaluative comments on the undergraduate program's advising structure may well fit as appropriate into the "Other Aspects" section as into a separate section. Nevertheless, wherever located, discuss advising explicitly. The narrative should offer a rationale for its particular advising structure, point to whatever evidence it has that the structure is working or not working well (e.g., the student survey discussed above), and mention any steps being taken to improve the structure. In addition to discussion program-focused advising (curricular planning, thesis planning help, etc.), this section can usefully discuss the program's and campus' efforts at career advising.


This section will be most useful if the religious and theological studies program has both undergraduate and graduate components. Otherwise, it may be a better strategy to place the discussion of resources later in the narrative.

If you discuss any aspects of resources here, focus on the total amount of resources devoted to the undergraduate program. How many ladder faculty teach annually in the undergraduate program? (That might be worth expressing both in terms of the number of individual faculty and in terms of FTEs.)  Do they represent a sufficient range of expertise, given the goals of the program? How stable and predictable are their contributions? How much of the teaching of the undergraduate curriculum is in the hands of temporary faculty or graduate students? How stable and satisfactory are those arrangements? Is the total amount of faculty teaching adequate to the needs of the undergraduate program? Is faculty advising adequate for the program? Other resources (staff, speakers' funds, etc.) devoted to the program? What is the proportion of resources devoted to the undergraduate program in comparison to the graduate program (and the rationale for that proportion)? Also discussible: if a small amount of additional resources were to be made available to the undergraduate program, what would the program do with those resources, and why? (This section may also be required to address a similar, darker question—one that campus administrators generally ask: what would the program give up and why if required to operate with fewer resources.)

The Graduate Program

Whether the program offers an MA and/or a PhD in addition to or instead of a BA, many of the questions it will need to address are similar to those applicable to an undergraduate program. In developing a narrative evaluating their graduate program, therefore, the faculty will want to draw upon relevant questions discussed above.

At the same time, the stakes are typically higher for programs offering graduate degrees—probably in the eyes of the faculty themselves, and almost certainly in the eyes of campus administrators and faculty outside the program. Graduate programs are typically more expensive than undergraduate programs. They compete with other graduate programs for scarce resources such as teaching assistantships and fellowship aid. The number of students per se in the graduate program is therefore likely to be of less concern to campus officials than the quality and off-campus reputation of the program, and its relative cost to the campus. Relatively unselective programs, for example, can be a minus unless a large proportion of the students enrolled "pay their own way.”  A very small and highly selective program whose students bring external fellowships with them, get terrific jobs after graduation, and go on to write well-received books may be an administrator's idea of heaven. The graduate program narrative should keep these stakes constantly in mind.


This is the place for the program to make a general assertion about the relative overall quality, reputation, and ranking of its program in comparison to similar programs in the region or nation. Some tactfulness is required here (an external reviewer may well be from one of the programs that the local program ranks itself as superior to). However, the program needs to show that it knows what regional or national ballpark it is playing in, or wants to play in, and that it is playing well.


Evaluating (and, to the extent that one can honestly do so, bragging about) the quality of one's graduate students is critical, as is care in providing evidence to support this assessment. What are the application-to-admissions and application-to-acceptance rates, and how do they compare to the rates of other campus programs and to the rates of similar religious and theological studies programs elsewhere? How do entering students' Graduate Record Examination scores compare to those in other campus programs and similar religious and theological studies programs? Do any students bring prestigious fellowships with them or compete successfully for campus-wide fellowships? Even more important, how well do students do after graduating from the program? Where have alumni gotten jobs? Have they achieved distinguished publication records or other forms of visibility? All religious and theological studies graduate programs should work systematically to keep in touch with their graduate alumni, via regular newsletters and questionnaires—and should not wait until three months before the external review to do so. Alumni views and achievements can exercise a powerful influence over external reviewers' perception of the program.

As with the undergraduate program section, the graduate program section should highlight the extent of the program's commitment to attracting and retaining ethnic minority students and other specific constituents. Its strategies for doing so (perhaps it may wish to include a separate section on "Outreach and Retention Strategies"), its degree of success, and its plans for improvement should also be discussed.

The narrative should also evaluate the overall dropout rate in the program and discuss whether that rate reflects well on the program (e.g., whether it successfully identifies at an early stage students who shouldn't continue in the program, or whether it loses students it would like to keep). This may also be the point (although it could also fit into other sections) to discuss and evaluate any processes and criteria that the program uses to determine whether a student is to continue in the program—an end-of-the-first year examination, faculty review of the student's record, etc.


Spell out the requirements of the program in an appendix. Here, the program should explain its rationale, giving particular attention to such topics as required core courses, language proficiency requirements, required proficiency in any bodies of theory, methods, or subject fields, and special fieldwork or internship requirements. Among the questions of interest to the reviewers, will be the extent to which the program requires courses from other departments or program's offerings, and why. Most graduate programs will regularly fiddle with its requirements and curriculum, under the pressure of both student and faculty dissatisfaction. External reviewers will therefore expect to see signs of such fiddling (since they have been doing the same thing on their own campuses). A program that can show its continuing efforts to "get it right" is likely to receive higher marks than a program that has been content to stand pat.

One thing this section can usefully do is to compare the program's requirements to those at similar programs. It is particularly important for the program to demonstrate that its requirements and curriculum are keeping up with national trends in the field.


The narrative's drafters will want to show the extent to which the curriculum is thoughtful—one designed, to prepare the student for a productive career and succeeding in that task. Specific courses will come and go, and the titles and content of courses will change, but the desired overall direction and impact of those courses should be articulated in the narrative. The section will want to note significant gaps in the curriculum controlled by the program as well as in the course offerings of other campus programs and to discuss any steps you plan to take to fill those gaps. To what extent are faculty allowed (or even encouraged) to teach courses on topics of their own choice, regardless of the impact of those choices on the "coherence" of the curriculum, and to what extent do they discipline their offerings to serve some overall curricular scheme or program goals? Is that disciplining or self-disciplining process a result of individual faculty negotiations with the program head or a result of collective discussions among all (or most) of the faculty who teach in the program? Does the program make any effort to influence the offerings of other campus programs? Does it encourage use of its courses by students in other graduate programs? How successful are these efforts?


Many graduate program advising structures involve using some combination of an overall adviser (e.g., the director of the graduate program), a staff adviser (often operating in an informal capacity), and individual faculty advisers. Students will often move from adviser to adviser as their interests evolve and, particularly, as they move into dissertation research. Many programs give students considerable latitude to choose their own advisers—and sometimes give students relatively little help in making such choices. Many programs rely on advisers, particularly at the dissertation-supervision level, who are only peripherally affiliated with the program. Many programs leave it up to the individual advisers to offer appropriate and useful advice; some bring the advisers together periodically in an attempt to achieve some consistency in and improve the quality of the advising. Some programs handle career planning and job seeking advising self-consciously and energetically, while other do it only casually. Drafting this section may usefully led to considering ways in which the program might make its advising structure more coherent and effective.

Qualifying Examination

Graduate programs constantly wrestle with the degree to which their qualifying examinations are intended to prompt a student to summarize and integrate her/his graduate work, demonstrate her/his grasp of certain bodies of knowledge, or demonstrate her/his potential to write a successful dissertation. This is the case whether the examinations are written, oral or both. They must regularly consider the extent to which the exam is a gate-keeping operation, designed to prevent unqualified students from moving on to dissertation research. The extent to which it is designed to give the student a boost in defining and pursuing that research—acting, so to speak, as a supportive editorial board. Qualifying examinations are a topic where graduate programs can profit considerably from sharing experiences. Using the self-study narrative to articulate clearly the goals of the exam policies of the local program and procedures will likely yield useful advice from external reviewers. However, the faculty of the program will be well advised to use national AAR meetings and other occasions to pick the brains of colleagues elsewhere about these exams. Like the program's requirements and curriculum, qualifying examinations seem—appropriately—in a perpetual state of evolution.

Master's Theses; Dissertations

Students' work on MA theses and PhD dissertations have a number of important things in common. First, they often take longer to complete than the students expect (or hope) they will. Second, they are often more isolated and lonely efforts than is desirable. Third, the program's faculty may not think enough about these products, in terms of what they can tell about the quality and direction of the program itself and about what they might imply for improving the program.

The three are not unrelated. For example, if many students in the program take an overly long time to complete their dissertations, that may reflect their insufficient preparation in research methods. Learning to define workable topics, organizing a work schedule, etc.; and the curriculum and advising structure may need to be revised to provide such preparation. Too many uncompleted—or weak—theses or dissertations may reflect an inadequate support structure—lack of financial support, lack of thesis workshops, etc.

Whatever else this section does, it should try to characterize the kinds of thesis or dissertation topics, discuss the extent to which these topics grow out of the emphases, requirements, and curriculum of the program, and discuss the (range of) quality of these productions. In addition to listing the titles of completed theses and dissertations for the past five or ten years in an appendix, the program might wish to compile a small pamphlet of abstracts of these works for inspection by the external reviewers.

Time to Degree

If not covered in another section, the narrative should explain and evaluate its students' average time to degree and perhaps the range of times.


Reviewers will be interested in the quality of the faculty on campus, whatever their departmental affiliation, with whom religious and theological studies graduate students typically work or with whom they might potentially be working. They will of course be specifically interested in the quality of the "core" faculty, using various measures of quality (research, teaching, involvement in the larger profession, campus leadership, etc.). They will be interested in whether a sufficient number and range of campus faculty are involved in and available to the program. In addition, they will be interested in whether the program is working systematically to keep good working relations with faculty from other departments who are actively affiliated with the program, and whether the program is working systematically to involve relevant uninvolved or only marginally involved faculty in the program. The narrative should address all these issues. A program engaged in a constant "retention and outreach" effort among the faculty is likely to be a healthy program.

This section might also usefully address such issues as equity of faculty workload (both compared to the workload of other programs and in terms of distribution of workload among the faculty in the program) and faculty morale. What has the program done and what does it plan to do to make certain that faculty morale remains high or improves?

Participating faculty's vitae are generally included in an appendix, certainly those of the most active participants in the program are. It would be useful also to include a master list of these faculty, with areas of interest and expertise and perhaps by degree of affiliation ("core" faculty, "associated faculty," "more distant friends of the program," etc.).

Relations with Other Departments and Programs

Even if they control a considerable degree of institutional independence, the vast majority of religious and theological studies programs depend on other campus departments and programs for courses, individual faculty contributions, teaching assistant opportunities, and general goodwill. Those contributions are often reciprocal, as religious and theological studies faculty teach courses for and in other ways serve these other departments. A religious and theological studies program that has become too isolated from both traditional departments such as English, Philosophy, and History, and from newer interdisciplinary enterprises such as Women's Studies, Ethnic Studies, and Area Studies is likely to be heading for trouble—or be there already.

If the narrative has not done so elsewhere, it should describe here the extent, nature, and quality of these relations and note what the program has done and plans to do to preserve and strengthen these relations. If it has not yet done so, the program may wish to establish formal protocols with these other units rather than simply leave the ties to informal channels. If the program is experiencing difficulties with some key department or departments on which it depends or with which it would like to establish ties, it should specify the causes of the difficulties, either in the narrative or (if the issues are sensitive ones) in interviews with the reviewers. Reviewers are often able to give constructive advice about ways in which to deal effectively with such problems.

Governance Structure

The narrative and perhaps an appendix will already have described briefly the governance structure of the program. The present section, however, will be able to take advantage of prior discussions of curriculum, faculty, relations with other units, and the like to spell out more fully the rationale for this governance structure and evaluate its effectiveness. How did it come about? How has it evolved over the years, and why? How might it be strengthened? Typically, the formal governance structure of a religious, theological studies program, and the actual daily operating structure of the program are not entirely congruent.

Ideally, a governance structure of a religious and theological studies program will sensitively balance two needs. On the one hand, it is important that the core faculty, however defined, be given primary authority for setting program policy, planning curriculum, managing personnel cases, and carrying out the normal work of the program. After all, they must bear the major consequences of the program's successes and failures. That core group should be large enough (and "large enough" will be a function in part of the size and complexity of the program) to insure the program's administrative stability, including stability of its leadership. If the program does not now have such a structure, it should use the narrative to argue for its creation.

On the other hand, it is important that the program offer the larger adjunct faculty appropriate recognition for their valuable contributions to the program and provide them appropriate opportunities to express their views as to the program's intellectual direction and overall policies. The building and maintenance of intellectual bridges, as the chair of any program knows, requires constant and creative attention. The governance structure is an important element of that maintenance strategy, but should not be a substitute for other, often more informal, efforts at linkage—efforts for which the core faculty themselves should take primary responsibility.

This section, if it can do so tactfully, may also wish to address questions related to the quality and stability of the leadership of the program—particularly questions of stability. Is there presently a leadership vacuum in the program, or does the upcoming retirement of the long-time director of the program signal a potential vacuum? Is able faculty reluctant to assume the position of head of the program? If this is so why and what might be done to improve the situation? Of course, if the leadership is stable, strong, and effective, that is worth bragging about a bit.


An able and dedicated staff is one of the major keys to the success of a program. Typically paid less than they deserve, the staff hold students' (and often faculty) hands, provide program continuity and institutional memory, and foster program morale. Their contacts with staff in other programs and central campus units can also be a valuable source of information. Leadership that finds regular ways of showing its appreciation of its staff's efforts is doing the program a good turn. Staff can be particularly valuable if they not only understand the mechanics of the program—its requirements, courses, faculty leave plans, budget, etc.—but the rationale for each of these aspects, so the program's leadership needs to make sure they are informed about these issues. The leadership should also actively support staff members' professional growth in computer skills (e.g., working with spreadsheets, desktop publishing, use of the internet), budgetary analysis and planning, etc. Moreover, it should work to help the staff better understand the workings of the campus as a whole and the relationship of the program to the field as a whole. This part of the self-study should not only be a place to evaluate the adequacy of staff assistance—the message, typically, will be "great staff, but overworked"—but a place to discuss opportunities that have been or will be made available for their professional growth.


Append the program budget. What this section of the narrative should do is explain the implications of that budget, the rationale for the program's decisions as to its use of funds, and the effectiveness of its budgetary strategies.

Funds are, of course, never enough. The key questions the program should answer in this section are: Given the funding limitations, is the program making the most efficient and effective use of those funds on behalf of the program's goals? Has it clearly sorted out its funding priorities? What hard choices has it made, and why does it believe it has made the right choices in the use of funds? If the program has received funding augmentations in the recent past, what use has it made of those funding augmentations, and why? What would be the concrete impact on the program if its funding were cut by, say, ten percent? If funding were augmented by, say, ten percent, what would the program do with the funds, and why? (Additions to the ladder or temporary faculty, graduate support augmentations, additional staff funds, additional funds for visiting speakers or research seminars, etc., are all potentially relevant here.) If current levels of funding were to continue, would the program alter in any respect the use of those funds, and why?

Increasingly administrators expect campus programs to undertake fundraising efforts from external sources. To the extent relevant, the narrative should discuss in this section any fundraising efforts it has made or that it is planning and evaluate the success of those efforts.

An obvious footnote: administrators (for the most part) hate to give away money unless there is a very big and clearly demonstrable payoff for them. The task of the narrative is to highlight that payoff. Arguments about the high quality of the program are not enough (virtually every other program on campus will be making the same argument). Be shrewd about bringing quantitative evidence to bear on your case for more resources. One of the best sources of quantitative evidence is data showing that the program compares favorably to other campus programs in the humanities and social sciences. For example total program enrollments (or number of majors, or number of BAs) per faculty FTE or per total program budget; external fellowships per graduate student; the graduate application/acceptance ratio. If key figures are not in the program's favor, the program will need to peddle as hard as it can in its narrative on its quality and value to the campus while at the same time taking steps (e.g., through curricular revision) that will generate more favorable data.

Space, Equipment, Library Resources, and Other Resources

In addition to quantitative issues (amount of space, size of equipment and computing budgets, etc.), a few more qualitatively oriented questions may be worth highlighting. For example, the space of the program configured so that the core faculty has easy access to each other? Is the program located where the faculty and staff have convenient access to faculty and staff in related programs? Are the faculty tied together by a computer network? Do they all (and their students) have ready access to the internet?

To the extent that the program draws extensively on off-campus resources—libraries, museums, archives, community agencies, fieldwork sites, etc.—this might be a good spot to discuss these resources, although they conceivably could be equally or more effectively dealt with in discussions of program requirements or curriculum.

Other Local Issues

If relevant, there needs to be a section in the narrative that highlights other issues of interest to the program that cannot conveniently be fitted into one of the narrative's other sections.

Concluding Sections of the Self-Study

Summary of Planned Changes in the Program

This section will parallel in format a section that typically can be found in an external review report. It will draw together in a single conveniently readable spot a list of the specific planned changes that have been discussed at various points in the narrative. It will also leave the readers of the narrative with the impression of a program capable of controlling its own destiny.

Concluding Flourish

This section may not be necessary to all narratives. If included, it must be brief. A memorable, upbeat rhetorical flourish at the end cannot—usually—hurt. ("Building on our terrific achievements, we march confidently into the next decade." "Our program is at a point of crisis. We see that crisis as an excellent opportunity for our program and the campus. With the active help of the campus administration, we on the core faculty are committed to renewing the program in a way of which the campus can be justly proud.")

Our own concluding flourish:  Be bold as well as prepared. Remember, every student at your institution deserves an education that includes the study of religion.