In an event room in the Inn at Swarthmore, a group of students representing various communities of the college met with external reviewers as part of the Dean’s office external review that President Valerie Smith requested. The reviewers came in with experience from working with other college and universities to talk with members of the community about what Swarthmore is doing well and issues the college should address, such as the high turnover of deans.
Similar to the external review of academic departments, the review of the Dean of Students Division happens every eight to 12 years. President Valerie Smith requested that the current cycle’s review occur this year.
“In recent years, administrative departments have adopted this practice of conducting external reviews,” Liz Braun, dean of students, wrote in an e-mail to the Phoenix. “While the details vary from department to department, the standard format includes inviting a team of reviewers who have expertise in the work of that particular department.”
President Smith also played a role in both selecting and setting a charge for the review team. The review team consisted of three chief student affairs officers who all had experience working with student affairs in a college and university setting. The review team was given documentation regarding the work of the Dean’s office before arriving on campus to continue the evaluation. The external review team then came on campus for two days to meet with the staff of the Dean of Students Division, faculty, students, and staff from departments that work closely with the Dean’s office.
Lily Fornof ’20, a Women’s Resource Center associate, participated in a student dinner that allowed the review team to meet with students and hear their voices.
“I sat with an external reviewer from Brown and he told us a bit about the work that he does and then asked us questions about Swarthmore,” she said. “It was a very relaxed conversation about what we think needs to be addressed or done differently in addition to what’s good about Swat.”
According to Fornof, the discussions took place in smaller groups, and there was more back-and-forth conversation than she was expecting.
“Our reviewer was well-informed and listened to everything we had to say,” she said. “We would talk about our things, and he would also share his experiences from Brown and other small schools he worked with.”
The student dinner provided an opportunity for students to bring up issues important to them and the groups on campus they were representing. Fornof attended the student dinner with the perspective as both a WRC associate and as a student and wanted to bring up some issues relevant to her experiences as a WRC associate.
“I wanted to make sure that I was an advocate for the WRC’s mission,” she said. “I was also trying to use my experience at Swarthmore to make sure that what I find important, like the student-administration relationship within the college’s structure, doesn’t fall through the cracks.”
According to Fornof, despite the diversity of people the reviewers heard from, many students raised the same issues to the reviewers. Her reviewer heard common concerns among students both from the student dinner and from other group meetings the review team had.
“My reviewer said that there were [issues] everyone was talking about,” she said. “Things like the turnover of deans, how student discontent is addressed, and how Swarthmore does with dealing with student needs or where it lacks.”
According to Fornof, other students along with herself were able to weigh in on larger, campus-wide issues like the turnover of Deans.
“One thing that we did say is that it’s not that the deans aren’t great people. Swat is bringing in great people, it’s just that they leave,” Fornof said. “Sometimes dean turnovers aren’t explained and it makes it difficult when students rely on those deans and have those relationships.”
While the results from the review won’t be reported to President Smith until later this spring, conversations like the one Fornof had with a reviewer exemplify the point of an external review as expressed by Dean Braun.
“The goal of an external review is to evaluate strengths and opportunities for growth and improvement within a department,” Dean Braun wrote. “The review focused on examining how our overall structure and services are meeting the needs of students and how well we are coordinating and collaborating within and among the departments in the divisions and with other departments across the college.”
According to Dean Braun, the review team will present a report to the president later this spring that will detail existing strengths and include recommendations for how the college can improve.
“I look forward to receiving the feedback from the review team and using their recommendations to continue to improve the ways we serve students and support the mission of the college,” Dean Braun wrote.
According to Fornof, having the external review team come to learn about student experiences is not only helpful for pinpointing what the college is doing well, but also raises the concerns expressed by students to the reviewers to bring those concerns to the people in positions to make changes.
“I think to have some actionable, seemingly unbiased viewpoint of what can be done from people who come from different institutions allows the reviewers to recommend different ways to address things and improve the student experience,” she said.
The external review observed the systems that run the Dean’s office while also getting the input of students, who highlighted to the reviewers what improvements they would like to stress. The results and recommendations of the external reviewers won’t be reported until later this spring, but from what was repeatedly underscored to the reviewers the turnover of deans along with other areas of improvement concerning student life will be brought to the college for the Dean’s office to further examine.