Preparing for 'Critical Decisions'

Preparing for 'Critical Decisions'

Planning effort leader O'Toole discusses the upcoming assessment

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

Perhaps, says Prof. James O'Toole (History), being an historian gives one a particular appreciation for milestones.

Given that Boston College will celebrate its 150th anniversary in 10 years, he says, it seems reasonable to ask, "What kind of university will this be by then? What will it be known for? Who will be studying here? Who will be teaching here?"

Prof. James O'Toole (History)
Those questions form the context for a university-wide major assessment and planning initiative to be launched this fall, a project University President William P. Leahy, SJ, has appointed O'Toole to direct.

As announced by Fr. Leahy at Convocation earlier this month, the initiative is intended to "examine all aspects of Boston College," with particular attention to teaching and research, the University's Jesuit and Catholic mission, and academic and financial challenges and opportunities. The goals and priorities that emerge from this process, said Fr. Leahy, will set the stage for the University's next major capital campaign.

Leading the planning process will be O'Toole, a 1972 BC alumnus and a widely respected authority on American Catholicism who authored the critically acclaimed 2002 book Passing for White: Race, Religion, and the Healy Family, 1820-1920 as well as a 1992 biography of Cardinal William Henry O'Connell.

"We wanted a faculty member, preferably someone fairly senior, who had a good understanding of Boston College, was well known to her or his colleagues, and who could appreciate how Boston College had changed," said Academic Vice President and Dean of Faculties John Neuhauser of O'Toole's appointment.

"Jim was all those things, and showed a great willingness to take on the assignment. We are very glad to have him head up this very important process."

O'Toole also will serve as part of a steering committee overseeing the planning effort, whose members include Fr. Leahy, co-chairmen Neuhauser and Executive Vice President Patrick Keating; Vice President for University Mission and Ministry Rev. Joseph Appleyard, SJ; Senior Vice President for University Relations Mary Lou DeLong; Financial Vice President Peter McKenzie; Student Affairs Vice President Cheryl Presley; Vice President for Human Resources Leo Sullivan; College of Arts and Sciences Dean Joseph Quinn; Graduate School of Social Work Dean Alberto Godenzi; and Office of Marketing Communications Executive Director and Special Assistant to the President Ben Birnbaum.

Interviewed recently, O'Toole discussed the forthcoming assessment effort and its impact on the Boston College community.

Explaining his involvement, O'Toole said he was "tremendously flattered" to have been asked by Fr. Leahy and Neuhauser to serve as director. In subsequent conversations, O'Toole said he decided the role would be a challenging yet appropriate one for him to take on.

"[Fr. Leahy and Neuhauser] wanted a faculty member for the job, because it is going to be the academic side of BC that drives this process," he said. "When we spoke, they articulated what a lot of us feel, that this is a very important time for BC. We are in the midst of an extraordinarily good run, but there are some critical decisions to make about where we go from here."

One of the major issues the assessment and planning project must address, he said, is "how does BC define itself in relation to the larger community? Fifty years ago, that larger community was the Greater Boston area, but today, clearly, we are far more of a national university.

"So, how do we continue to develop as a national university without severing our ties to the area with which we have strong past ties?"

Closely related to that discussion, O'Toole said, will be the one concerning BC's expression of its Catholic and Jesuit tradition. The topic would be a challenging one under most any circumstances, he said, but is even more compelling in the wake of the American Catholic community's struggle to confront issues such as the clergy sexual abuse scandal.

Boston College's "Church in the 21st Century" initiative, which aims to assist the Catholic community in its efforts to seek renewal, underlines the timeliness of the planning effort, O'Toole said.

"The tricky part is, people often have much clearer ideas about what the Catholic tradition doesn't mean than what it does," he said. "There is some concern that the goals of promoting the Jesuit and Catholic character of BC and promoting an inclusive community are incompatible. I don't happen to think that's true at all, and there is ample evidence that BC doesn't, either."

Striking the right balance between research, graduate studies and the University's primary commitment to undergraduate education is another area of exploration in the planning initiative, O'Toole said.

"BC has accomplished a lot in research and graduate education, and in a relatively short time," he said. "How do we continue that progress without neglecting our traditional strength, undergraduate education? In some universities, that decision has been reached with the point of view that 'We do well enough for undergraduates.' That is not a philosophy BC wants to follow."

Outlining the initiative, O'Toole said the first year would include interviews and discussions on these and other major issues throughout the University, involving administrators, faculty, staff of varying degrees of seniority, as well as graduate students and undergraduates.

During the spring semester, O'Toole said, the steering committee will draft a document identifying priorities and goals. The draft will be shared with the University community, which will be given opportunities for comment during the initiative's second year.

Finally, O'Toole said, the steering committee will review the comments and put together a blueprint of specific objectives and strategies to achieve them.

"This will not be a closed-door process by any means," said O'Toole. "Having looked through the University Archives - as a good historian should do - I have been impressed by the breadth of discussion in the BC community that has characterized other past planning efforts.

"That is a hallmark of BC, and one we do not want to change."

Two consultants will assist BC in the assessment and planning initiative. William Massy, professor emeritus of education and business administration at Stanford University and president of The Jackson Hole Higher Education Group Inc., is known for his groundbreaking use of financial management and planning tools during the 1970s and 1980s that became standards in higher education.

Joining Massy will be Robert Zemsky, CEO of The Learning Alliance and the founding director of The Higher Education Research Institute at the University of Pennsylvania. Zemsky - who will present a public lecture at BC this fall [see related story] - was at the forefront in the use of market analyses for higher education, and is undertaking a major study of the market for e-learning.

"To have two high-profile, prominent consultants working with us is a boon for Boston College," said O'Toole. "Both have been affiliated with institutions we have come to regard as our peers in a number of aspects, and so they understand very well the challenges we face."


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