Thursday, April 02, 2009

Texas Astronomy Under Review

This week, we astronomers at the University of Texas have found ourselves in an unusual position. Whereas we are used to sitting at the base of a telescope, taking magnified pictures of the heavens, this week we were under a microscope, being examined by others. No, we weren't the center of an outbreak of some alien disease. We were being reviewed.

Every ten or fifteen years or so, we (and most other astronomy departments, at staggered times) bring in a panel of astronomers to examine every aspect of our department and observatory. Our turn was this week, as four astronomers from across the country flew into Austin.

Our review began months ago. At the start of the academic year in September, the department put together an internal report. All of us submitted our resumes, various committees reported on the teaching programs, research programs, outreach programs, our goals for the future, our opinions of the strengths and weaknesses of the department, and so on. The department leadership nominated the members of the committee, and their visit to our department was all planned.

This week, the committee arrived on campus. They spoke with the different research groups, academic groups, department staff, and even the dean of the college. Two of the committee flew out to McDonald Observatory for a quick overnight visit, where they toured the telescopes and had numerous talks with the staff and engineers.

This morning, the committee met with the department for the last time, and they gave us their opinion of where the department stands. And we fared pretty well. We've got a lot of things going for us, and a lot of things to work on. (And no, I'm not going to go into those today. Maybe some other day, once reports are finalized and filed and read and considered. Or maybe not.) But we are all grateful for the large amount of time and energy the external committee gave for this process, and we are all happy that the process is just about over.

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