Assessment and Planning: Why Us, Why Now?

Assessment and Planning: Why Us, Why Now?

By James O'Toole

Anyone who has ever participated in a strategic planning effort for an institution or organization may greet the announcement of a new one with a plaintive cry of "Oh, no; not again!"

Such efforts are always labor-intensive and time-consuming processes in which more effort seemingly goes into talking than to doing. Lots of meetings are held, lots of interesting ideas get generated. The goals finally articulated can have a mom-and-apple-pie quality: No one is against them, but how do you put them into practice, how do you select among competing goods, how do you divide up the always finite resources, how do you manage saying "yes" to some and "no" (or "not now") to others?

These cautions notwithstanding, Boston College has embarked on such a process, the first since the work of the University Academic Planning Council a decade ago, and the time is ripe for such a renewed effort.

Trends in society at large and specifically in higher education, described in some detail in the current issue of the Atlantic Monthly, demonstrate that the context in which BC operates has changed substantially in the recent past and that we must take serious account of how those changes affect us.

One of these is demographic. In the early 1980s, about 3 million students graduated from high school every year. The number is now back up to that level, but in the meantime it went through a steep trough (20 percent and more). One consequence of this now is significantly increased pressure in the application process at colleges and universities. Our own applicant pool has famously jumped to a 10-to-1 ratio and, while "selectivity" has been and remains a controversial notion, it is undoubtedly helpful to ask anew what we offer to those applicants and what they want from us. Do we really want to be known for the students we turn down, rather than the students we accept? If we hope to continue to reap the benefits of selectivity - rising high school grades and SAT scores, a more engaged and well-rounded student body - we need to assess what we've done right and what we might do better.

There is also wide agreement that BC is a significantly different place from what it was at the time of the last planning effort. The evidence for this is apparent to the naked eye, in the construction of new buildings and the renovation of older ones (the delays in the McElroy project notwithstanding).

We see it in our students as well, as we have become increasingly a university with national appeal and reputation. The streetcar college is now a distant memory, a fact that was brought home to me a few years ago in a Boston history course I was teaching. I mentioned the mansion of the legendary Mayor James Michael Curley, located on the Jamaicaway, and a student raised her hand and asked, "What's the Jamaicaway?"

Enrollment figures substantiate our movement onto the national stage. Since 1990, the number of students who call Massachusetts home has declined from 3,100 to 2,400 (down roughly one-quarter) while the number of students hailing from California has increased from 185 to 400 (more than double). At the same time, the percentage of AHANA students has risen to 24 percent - not high enough, but still at a level considered unattainable not very long ago.

Amid all this, BC has maintained its traditional commitment to undergraduate education and its belief in a common body of knowledge that all students should share. This is expressed in our core curriculum, support for which among students sometimes surprises me: An undergraduate myself during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when resistance to requirements of all kinds was expected, I am struck by the number of students who welcome the chance to study fields and interests that, left to themselves, they might not explore.

No core is perfect, of course, and there is always a benefit to looking at it again and making appropriate adjustments. The expanded offerings of individual departments and the growth of interdisciplinary minors are similar signs of strength in our undergraduate program, but there too we need to take stock of where we are before considering the nearly infinite number of possibilities for the future.

While maintaining its strengths as an undergraduate college, BC has also clearly enhanced its reputation as a graduate and research university. Grant awards are one - not necessarily the best - measure of this, growing from $13 million in the early 1990s to almost $40 million today, many of them in the nearly two dozen centers and institutes on campus. Though the number of graduate students has remained more or less steady, we are able now to attract a better caliber of student, and we are able to place them in better positions on completion of their programs.

Too many universities have enhanced their research standing at the expense of undergraduate education, with undergrads left in the hands of teaching fellows and rarely exposed to the "real" faculty. This has not been and cannot be BC's way, but a realistic assessment of how we approach research and graduate education is necessary to ensure that we don't unknowingly slip away from that standard. The question is not one of "balance" between undergraduate and graduate education, but of continuing to blend them successfully.

"Deign on the passing world to turn thine eyes," Doctor Johnson wrote more than two centuries ago, "And pause a while from learning to be wise." The Assessment and Planning Initiative now underway offers us a chance to pause, in the hope that wisdom about our future as a university may emerge. As the discussions go forward this spring, with a draft statement of goals submitted to the campus at large for discussion and as a spur to their own planning efforts, all segments of our community should seize the opportunity to help define BC's future.

James O'Toole, a professor in the History Department, was appointed by University President William P. Leahy, SJ, to direct Boston College's planning and assessment initiative.

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