While recently listening to episode 16 of the Student Affairs Spectacular podcast on assessment in student programming, I was inspired to share an assessment practice from my current institution.
The Functional Area Review (FAR) is an assessment practice unique to Jamestown Community College, but it shouldn’t be. Its purpose, simply put, is to improve the quality of services, programming and internal processes at our institution, and it’s value is truly exceptional. “A truly exceptional college recognizes that every part of the organization contributes a key component to student success,” says SUNY JCC’s Vice President for Academic Affairs, Dr. Marilyn Zagora. “Thus, organizational excellence depends upon a commitment to quality and continuous improvement made and refreshed regularly by each unit.”
Our FAR process was actually modeled after our academic program review process, which has been around for decades. Our guidelines state, the “functional area review is a process of evaluating to what extent a service or program has been successful in achieving its intended goals, through systematic collection and analysis of information relevant to those goals.” This practice is admittedly still in its infancy, as we are just concluding our third cohort of participants. I was among the first cohort in 2011-12, and while I was not new to the student affairs field, it was an intimidating undertaking at first. But, it ended up being an unprecedented opportunity for me to begin my tenure as director of campus life with a comprehensive audit of my department’s history, functions, and strategic directions.
“The FAR process, while rigorous and sometimes challenging, is really designed to allow each unit time to reflect, refocus, and position itself to achieve at even higher levels of accomplishment,” says Zagora. “In spotlighting each unit through a FAR, we give that group the chance to focus organizational attention to their needs, and, more important, to allow the college to see more clearly the assets of that area and the opportunities that area can offer to the college to further support student learning and success.”
The functional area review process should produce (as appropriate):
- objective data on which to base programmatic or area decisions.
- formal recommendations for the functional area which are reached by the joint participation and input from faculty, staff, administration, and external review teams.
- action plans for accomplishing the above recommendations.
- directions for renewal and development.
- priorities for resource use.
- a programmatic self-study.
- a review of processes and procedures.
- input into subplans.
- an on-going process that uses data for continuous improvement.
Functional areas that complete the process in the time allotted (one year) are eligible for up to $1200 to support a recommendation identified through the FAR process. When I went through the FAR process, one of our recommendations necessitated we collect better data on who attends our events so we could in turn better assess the intended outcomes of our programs. We purchased handheld ID scanners with our funds that now enable us to swipe student ID cards and thereby track if our attendees are freshmen or sophomores, who lives on or off campus, how old they are, what their major is, and how many credits they’ve completed. We then assess this data for patterns to confirm and improve our quality of programming.
But let me back up. WHY does SUNY JCC even have the Functional Area Review process?
In 2008, Jamestown Community College formed an Institutional Effectiveness Committee in preparation for its Middle States re-accreditation visit expected spring 2011. Each of the 14 Middle States standards for accreditation were assigned to a sub-committee for internal review. In recent years, lots of institutions of higher education have received poor marks on Standard 2: Planning, Resource Allocation, and Institutional Renewal; Standard 7: Institutional Assessment; and Standard 14: Assessment of Student Learning. In anticipation of these areas receiving close examination, the Institutional Effectiveness Committee observed that our college was “missing a mechanism to systematically organize goals,” says Barbara Russell, Dean of Institutional Research at SUNY JCC. Thus, to meet Standard 7 head on, JCC’s Functional Area Review process was piloted.
The Functional Area Review at SUNY JCC has three major phases and each functional area is scheduled to undergo a FAR every five years:
- Internal Review Team
- External Review Team
- Closing the Loop
During the Internal Review phase, the department undergoing review assembles a core group of individuals from within the department and at least one colleague from outside the department at the institution. The internal team conducts self-assessments of its programs, services, and processes and determines self-directed priorities for for the next five years. The internal team also produces a preliminary report which is archived at the institution and shared with the external review team to help them prepare for their visit.
The External Review Team visits are by far the most energetic part of the process say both Zagora and Russell. The internal team selects three or four external reviewers from comparable institutions and invites these individuals to come to our institution to conduct focus groups and interviews that ultimately provide the internal team with recommendations. Fantastic conversations stem from these visits that bring energy and excitement to the overall assessment process, and the momentum of the FAR process is in fact sustained by the human interaction and educated dialogues sparked by these fresh set of eyes says Zagora. External review team members usually visit for one or two days and receive mileage, meals, and accommodations – an indication of true investment by the institution to this process.
The third and last phase, Closing the Loop, involves the FAR leader (usually the department director) compiling all the recommendations from both the internal and external teams and reviewing these with their supervisor for feasibility, viability, and appropriateness. The recommendations that are pursued are slotted for completion over the next five years. These recommendations are certainly not the only goals pursued for the foreseeable future, but they chart an initial course.
As with every young initiative, we’ve learned some lessons along the way. Here are a few reflections from our vice president of academic affairs. First, Zagora says, there needs to be time and space to support the FAR team leaders individually and as a cohort. From the start, our dean of institutional research gathered each unit’s FAR leader in a meeting about once a month to discuss progress and answer questions that were arising during the year-long process. This practice has since been copied by the academic program review side. Second, Zagora believes better public celebration of the work accomplished by the units who’ve complete the process is needed so everyone at the institution on both sides of the house are more aware of the outcomes. Third, Zagora says it’s not enough to simply set goals as a functional area; there needs to be a standard across all units for regular and systematic assessment. For us, this is the Functional Area Review.
My experience with this process was positive and valuable. Since conducting my own FAR, I’ve been asked to serve on the internal review team for other departments every year. I believe this process has the potential to be a best practice in higher education assessment, and I hope readers use this outline to spark conversations about accountability to the planning process at your home institutions. Additionally, our Vice President of Academic Affairs, Dr. Marilyn Zagora and our Dean of Institutional Research, Barbara Russell, will be presenting the SUNY JCC Functional Area Review process at the 2014 Middle States Annual Conference in Washington D.C. in December.