April 15, 2004 • Volume 12 Number 15

Academic Vice President and Dean of Faculties John Neuhauser (left), co-chair of the Assessment and Planning Initiative steering committee, speaks at the March 30 open forum as Prof. James O'Toole (History), the initiative's director, looks on.

Planning Initiative Leaders Looking for 'Good Ideas'

Forums, study groups are keys in outreach to University community

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

Should Boston College open its own medical school, or a school for public service? Create a separate faculty for teaching core curriculum classes? Reorganize its academic departments?

There is no plan for any of these possibilities, nor will any of them necessarily even make it to the proposal stage.

But such questions are being raised through the University's Assessment and Planning Initiative, a broad-based effort to set an institutional direction for Boston College in anticipation of its 150th anniversary in 2013.

The past month has seen the planning project enter a new phase, as groups of administrators, faculty, staff and students began to study specific academic, philosophical, operational and other aspects of BC. In addition, on March 30 the initiative's leadership held the first in a series of open forums to invite questions and comment from the University community.

This period of discussion comes after a year of preparation and talks involving various University representatives and a pair of consultants, culminating in a report that serves as a point of reference for the planning process.

With such an assortment of avenues for conversation, the planning initiative leadership hopes the result will be an influx of ideas for what kind of institution BC might be by the time it celebrates its 150th year (and its 100th at Chestnut Hill).

"At one time or another, most everyone connected with the University has had a brainstorm about BC, and that's what we want to hear," said Prof. James O'Toole (History), director of the Assessment and Planning Initiative.

"We're less interested in smaller-scale ideas that have to do with, say, adding one more faculty member to teach a certain subject. Instead, let's take a bigger look at BC: Are there new things we should try, academically or otherwise, and what are the advantages and disadvantages? If the University's infrastructure were to be expanded, what kinds of opportunities would that create? Would changing the budgeting system better serve our future needs?

"Some ideas, obviously, are more workable or feasible than others. But the point is, we want to find out what those ideas are, to get them in front of us and see which ones will help Boston College realize its potential as a Jesuit, Catholic university of excellence."

Academic Vice President and Dean of Faculties John Neuhauser, who along with Executive Vice President Patrick Keating co-chairs the initiative's steering committee, said, "While we're looking for 'big ideas,' it's important to note that good ideas can come in many sizes, and do not necessarily involve a lot of time, effort or money to undertake. Sometimes, it may simply involve reorganization, or finding other, more efficient ways to pursue an objective.

"In any case, what we want to do at this stage is encourage people in the BC community to dream."

Helping to encourage and nurture suggestions will be a major task for the recently appointed task forces and planning committees [see sidebar]. The task forces will explore characteristics and themes of the University as a whole, such as Jesuit and Catholic dimensions and undergraduate education, while the planning committees address these aspects within specific schools, disciplines and administrative areas.

"Communication is going to be very important in this phase," said O'Toole. "We want to be sure there are means for the various groups to keep in touch with one another, because although they may have different charges, they will undoubtedly delve into some common issues."

The March 30 forum, held in the Conte Forum Shea Room and attended by approximately 100 members of the BC community, provided a sampling of the topics. O'Toole and Neuhauser, who led the discussion, spoke about changing the undergraduate core curriculum, which was last revised in 1991.

"It's been a while - about three decades - since the core underwent a major restructuring, so it is fair to ask if BC should do so again," said O'Toole, summarizing the discussion in an interview last week. "When our two consultants talked with the BC community, they found that people believe the core is a great idea but that it's time to revisit the contents."

Another idea floated during the forum would involve designating a group of faculty - essentially creating a separate undergraduate school, O'Toole said - to teach core courses.

"One can certainly argue in favor of, or against, going this route," said O'Toole. "But this is the kind of big question we need to ask ourselves as a university."

O'Toole and Neuhauser also touched on the increasing trend toward outcomes measurement in education, a subject in which consultant William Massy has great expertise, O'Toole noted.

"'Measuring outcomes' is usually taken to mean evaluating how well our students do, but it's applicable in other areas, too," said O'Toole. "For example, how many research dollars are we obtaining in a field or discipline, and from what source? To what extent is our Jesuit and Catholic identity reflected in the curriculum?

"The idea here is to build outcomes measurement into more of what we do across the university, and to develop a means of 'measuring' the initiatives we undertake instead of simply assuming that they're working as planned."

Another open forum is planned for Wednesday, May 5, at which University President William P. Leahy, SJ, and Keating will join Neuhauser and O'Toole. The event will take place from 4:30-6 p.m. in McGuinn 121.

Updates and information on the Assessment and Planning Initiative are available on-line.

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