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On PAR: Reflections on the Pilot Year

The Department of English and Philosophy and the Business and Engineering program were two of the units that participated in the 2012-2013 pilot of Program Alignment and Review (PAR).  Abioseh Porter, PhD, from English and Philosophy, and Paul Jensen, PhD, from Business and Engineering, offer some of their thoughts about PAR.

Porter is a professor of English and the department head of English and Philosophy.  He initially viewed PAR with skepticism. “Liberal arts disciplines such as English and Philosophy should have a natural skeptical view of the administration.  Skepticism is a healthy thing,” he explains. “When the administration came up with PAR, there were all kinds of things going on in the department: What are they going to be doing to our department?  What do they want to align us with and with whom?  As time went on, those issues were clarified, at least to the extent that bureaucrats can clarify them.” 

While seeing the outcomes of PAR for his department as generally positive, Porter also describes his experience as something of a cautionary tale for others who will be undertaking a PAR self-study in their departments or programs.  The University’s PAR handbook suggests, “The self-study committee typically will be chaired by the Program Director or Department Head for the program/department under study;” however, Porter thinks the language should be stronger.  He did not chair his department’s committee because he saw it as a conflict of interest.  He believed the self-study committee would not be able to give an unbiased opinion of the department if he were chair.  In hindsight, he now acknowledges that to have been a mistake on his part.

After having gone through the self-study and having spoken almost daily with the chair of his department’s committee, Porter realizes English and Philosophy would have had a more thorough self-study if he had led the process.  A large part of the PAR self-study is determining how to allocate resources, whether money, faculty time, space or other resources.  In most departments or programs, only the department head or program director is in a position to oversee that debate and, ultimately, the recommendations on how best to use those resources in the future.  Additionally, the department head or program director is instrumental in articulating the vision for the unit.  While an examination of the history and current state of a program/department is essential to a thorough self-study, that examination of the past and present are meant to support and serve the vision for the future of the unit, which is the focus of the self-study.

Paul Jensen, PhD, Associate Dean for Graduate and Undergraduate Programs and Associate Professor of Economics, led the PAR self-study committee for the Business and Engineering Program in the LeBow College of Business.  Like Porter, Jensen had some initial reservations about PAR.  He wondered if PAR would be a good use of time, considering that the Business and Engineering program is already accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB).  He thought, essentially, that Business and Engineering would be repeating work that had already been done for its accreditor.  He found that PAR had a different focus than AACSB.  While the accreditor looks at the financial feasibility of an entire college, they do not take a deep dive into the finances of specific programs within that college.  PAR does take that closer look. 

After having completed the self-study and external review and having created an action plan for Business and Engineering, Jensen feels he was correct that PAR would require a substantial time commitment; however, he feels that at least for this first PAR cycle, the benefits of the information gained outweighed the cost of time required to generate that information.  Jensen is not sure the value will outweigh the cost when Business and Engineering undergoes PAR seven years from now, since the amount of new information is likely to be less, while the time required to generate that information may not be.

While information is one of the benefits of PAR, Jensen said there was an unexpected benefit that he values highly: communication across colleges.   Jensen served on Westphal’s Design and Merchandising Program’s self-study committee.  In the process, he learned about overlaps between Design and Merchandising and the College of Business that could lead to fruitful partnerships, but he also reports that he appreciated simply learning about the programs in Westphal, about which he knew little.  As a member of the self-study committee, Jensen said, he developed relationships with faculty that may prove invaluable, relationships that would have been unlikely were it not for his participation in PAR.  Jensen strongly recommends having someone from outside one’s college included in each self-study team, not only to develop relationships, but to offer an outside, more objective perspective. 

If your program or department has not yet taken part in PAR and you have some misgivings about it, you are not alone; however, as Jensen and Porter attest, at least in this first cycle of PAR, the benefits to their program/department have outweighed the costs.  While a good self-study is time-consuming, Jensen offers the consolation that “You will learn something valuable.”