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Why 360-degree reviews are needed in evaluating higher education leaders at Hamline, other institutions

In its traditional application, a 360-degree review provides an opportunity to collect diverse, meaningful community feedback about the work of an institutional leader in relation to the everyday operations and strategic objectives of the university.

Old Main, Hamline University, St. Paul
Old Main, Hamline University, St. Paul

With a near unanimous decision at its fall 2022 meeting, faculty at Hamline University passed a resolution asking the university’s Board of Trustees and senior leadership to develop and implement a 360-degree review process for consistent, periodic evaluation of university administration. The resolution was intended to facilitate a more comprehensive culture of assessment on campus, to better attend to and account for the intensely interdependent work of offices and initiatives on campus — as well as the vital intersections with off-campus constituencies and communities.

We believe that the particular challenges we see in our university reflect broader challenges facing all colleges and universities, and we write to argue why and how 360-degree reviews provide an opportunity to:

    • Rethink how we assess leadership as collaboration, given the new complexities of university administration;
    • Reaffirm the value of working in higher education, by empowering all employees with active voice in evaluating the mission and direction of the university, and;
    • Reassert the value of higher education, by linking evaluation more directly to community needs and community stakeholders.

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Context and definition

In its traditional application, a 360-degree review provides an opportunity to collect diverse, meaningful community feedback about the work of an institutional leader in relation to the everyday operations and strategic objectives of the university. A designated review team would collect and synthesize information about the university administration, helping to see patterns of strength, challenge, and opportunity often less visible to direct supervisors or to the Board of Trustees, through quantitative surveys and qualitative interviews with a broader set of stakeholders.

Such reviews, long practiced in business and non-profit sectors, have increasingly been implemented in higher education, with a particular emphasis, as the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges has argued, on the benefits of presidential 360-degree reviews to support the Board of Trustees in periodic, comprehensive evaluations — particularly in challenging times. 360-degree reviews are particularly useful for defining and enhancing opportunities for growth and improvement that align the performance of administrative leadership with the strategic vision to address. Moreover, these reviews ensure honest, far-reaching, and comprehensive feedback about the impact of university leaders’ work on their unit and the broader university community and provide a more complete, substantive portrait of a university’s senior leaders’ work to their supervisors and/or to the Board of Trustees.

Extending the reach and strategic purposes of review

Our resolution proposed an extension of the 360-review process to other members of the University Administration. As noted in a recent Inside Higher Education piece, understanding who and what is “the administration” is important for various reasons, and we could use three sources of information to “determine who holds the authority and responsibility for decision making and what defines the administration at a particular institution: organizational charts, the chain of command and the spheres of decision making.” In other words, although there may be similarities, different higher education institutions are likely to have different administrative structures, determining the “university administration.” Including all members of the university administration in a periodic review, especially prior to major points of leadership transition and renewal, would enhance transparency in decision-making.

Perhaps, most importantly, transparency leads to trust, and trust fuels engagement.  360-degree reviews enable a stronger relationship between employees and the university administration, built from meaningful opportunities for communication about perceived needs, strengths and challenges. Numerous new articles suggest that at a time when “great resignation” and “quiet quitting” work in tandem and affect higher education, university leaders and university boards must understand the current climate on their campuses—through surveys, listening tours, exit interviews, focus groups, and more—to determine areas in need of development and folks in need of support, and to establish a plan of action. Belonging and shared purpose don’t come from “free T-shirts,” and a 360-degree review offers a specific platform to listen to and build community, to actively and transparently engage employees in decision-making on campus.

360-degree reviews could enhance a sense of purpose not just for the people on campus but for the work of higher education more broadly.  Universities — whether funded directly by the state or indirectly supported through their position as non-profits — have been the subject of pointed cultural debate about, and a declining sense of, their value.  A strong 360-degree process would integrate meaningful public input about our impact in the civic life of our communities, using the opportunity to create more meaningful collaborative engagement and define accountability for the mission and our benefits of higher education.

​It is no secret that ​rising costs make it hard for many students to afford college. However, higher education ​remains​ ​​a smart investment ​for our students and families. It is the responsibility of higher education institutions to ensure that faculty and university leaders perform well. A well-designed and well-implemented 360-review is an important instrument in devising policies and fostering an institutional ​culture that understands, supports, and serves students, particularly as these students and their needs are changing.

Binnur Ozkececi-Taner and Michael (Mike) Reynolds are professors of political science and English, respectively, at Hamline University. Reynolds was associate dean of Hamline’s College of Liberal Arts twice and served as associate provost. Both Ozkececi-Taner and Reynolds served as Faculty Council presidents in 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 academic years, respectively.