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Philosophy and Structure of the Core

boston college


Final Report

Task Force on The Core Curriculum

June 15, 1991


Task Force Members

William B. Neenan, SJ, Chairperson

Joseph A. Appleyard, SJ, Honors Program

George Aragon, Finance

J. Robert Barth, SJ, Dean, A&S

Lisa S. Cahill, Theology

Michael Driscoll, A&S '91

Rose Mary Harvey, Nursing

Katharine Hastings, Assistant to the AVP

June Gary Hopps, Dean, Social Work

John L. Mahoney, English

Hassell McClellan, Operations and Management

Ceasar McDowell, Education

Robert R. Newton, Assoc. Dean of Faculties

Rita J. Olivieri, Nursing

Edward J. Power, Education

Joseph F. Quinn, Economics

Clarence Redd, A&S '91

Frances Restuccia, English

David C. Roy, Geology

Paul G. Spagnoli, History

Robert A. Taggart, Finance

I. Introduction

In the Goals for the Nineties, Boston College stated its ambition to "become the first choice of the majority of gifted students seeking an excellent undergraduate education in a Catholic setting." The same document criticized the present Core Curriculum as lacking coherence in its rationale and in its implementation, as having an ineffective governance structure, and as being no more than a series of disconnected distribution requirements administered by departments that did not communicate with one another. The report noted that rather than being prized as a vital element of undergraduate education, The Core was viewed by many students and some faculty as primarily a freshman experience, as a series of hurdles to be jumped as quickly as possible so that attention could be turned to the student's major. Further, many Core courses, especially in freshman year, needed to be more rigorous and challenging in order to meet the expectations of an increasingly talented and better prepared student body.

In the Spring of 1989, the Academic Vice President appointed a Core Curriculum Task Force to address these issues. The Task Force was composed of 21 faculty members, administrators, and students, broadly representative of all schools of the University. In its first year, the Task Force consulted with Core departments on their current programs and met with faculty, staff, and students who had a special interest in or concern about the Core. After a year of listening, the Task Force developed preliminary statements on specific Core requirements, which became the basis for further discussion with departments in the Fall of 1990. A tentative report was issued on March 15, 1991 for review by educational policy committees, the Undergraduate Government of Boston College, departments, and the University community in general.

In its deliberations, the Task Force developed a series of working principles that guided its activities and conclusions:

  • that the Core needs an explicit principle of coherence that is embraced by faculty and is apparent and appealing to students;
  • that this coherence cannot be achieved solely through distribution requirements, but requires a pedagogical approach that encourages the students' own integration of their Core experience;
  • that Core courses, rather than focusing on narrow topics, should involve an introduction to the fundamental concepts and methods of scholarly investigation of the disciplines;
  • that the involvement of full-time faculty in the Core in many departments should be enlarged, and, in cases where others continued to teach Core courses, that the content and method of Core instruction and its evaluation should be more explicitly under the control of full-time faculty;
  • that the University-wide commitment to Core education needs to be restored and a better balance between departmental objectives and University-wide goals developed; and
  • that the revision of The Core Curriculum should recognize the increasing specialization of Boston College faculty as a strength rather than as a weakness and use this disciplinary expertise to develop innovative ways to address Core topics.

In the light of these principles, the March 15, 1991 report made three broad recommendations:

  • it stipulated that all Core courses should have common characteristics to facilitate the students' coherent experience of the Core;
  • it identified specific disciplines as the content of the Core;
  • and it described a committee to oversee the implementation of the revised Core.

While reaction to the March 15 report was generally positive, thoughtful reservations emerged about significant aspects of the report. As a result, the Task Force made substantial changes in its tentative proposals. The Task Force interpreted its role less as finalizing an ideal Core and mandating its implementation, and more as initiating a process that will effect continuous review of the Core as it pursues a common set of overall goals and ideals. The description of the oversight committee was modified to emphasize its role in developing a revised Core. Reactions to the common approach model had generated similar uneasiness-particularly about its uniform application to every Core course. The Task Force, after reviewing these comments, concluded that it was more appropriate to view the ideals of the common approach as goals for The Core Curriculum as a whole, rather than as elements to be repeated in every Core course. It recognized that these goals will be achieved over time as the University Core Development Committee (described below) works with departments and faculty to improve the Core's coherence and effectiveness.

The Task Force continued to regard a revitalized Core as an essential element in the University's goals for the 1990s and as vital to its ambition to attract increasingly talented undergraduates to Boston College.

II. The Core in the Context of Jesuit Education

As the Task Force read the central documents that have described Boston College's mission over the past two decades, it discovered a number of principles:

  • that at the heart of liberal education are questions that have relevance in all times and places and that the search for responses to these questions can dispel ignorance and promote genuine freedom;
  • that broad understanding of the arts and sciences and insight into how the knowledge of the various disciplines can be integrated are important goals;
  • that the study of religious faith and experience and their relationship to other fields of knowledge are an integral part of liberal education in the Jesuit tradition;
  • that intellectual skills and habits are essential outcomes of liberal education and are the means by which graduates continue the search for understanding and truth; and
  • that human fulfillment is found neither solely in knowledge nor solely in action, but in the reflective interplay of what one understands and believes with how one acts, especially in the service of others.

These principles lead to conclusions about the purpose and shape of The Boston College Core Curriculum. The Core should address the questions and issues that are fundamental to human inquiry. Students ought to understand the major ideas and methods of inquiry of the disciplines that comprise their intellectual heritage and ought to begin to grasp the breadth and diversity of human knowledge. The Core needs to communicate not only how the principal disciplines organize knowledge, but also how they are related to each other and how different disciplines bring distinctive perspectives to the same issue or problem. The scholarly exploration of religious faith ought to be an important part of the Core experience. Students should develop the critical, mathematical and expressive skills that are essential tools of the educated person. Finally, the Core ought to make a difference in the lives of students, so that through their Core experience, they learn to examine their values and integrate what they learn with the principles that guide their lives.

The Task Force proposal addresses the issue of breadth in Part IV by identifying the courses required in the Core. It addresses the remaining issues by proposing goals for the Core that, in varying degrees and depending on the discipline, should permeate Core courses.

III. Goals and Characteristics of The Core Curriculum

The Task Force believes that it is primarily the students who integrate the material studied, who grasp the relationships among the disciplines, and who incorporate into their lives the lessons of the classroom. At the same time, this integration is greatly facilitated if faculty and students have a common understanding of the goals of the Core, and if faculty design and teach Core courses with explicit reference to this understanding. Therefore, the Task Force specifies below six goals that constitute a common basis for The Core Curriculum as a whole and that describe a pedagogy that should characterize The Core Curriculum as a whole. The primary task of the University Core Development Committee will be to assist departments and Core faculty in developing effective ways to achieve these goals.

1. The Core Curriculum should address perennial questions that have traditionally stood at the center of intellectual debate. These include questions about:

  • the origin and destiny of existence (e.g., naturalistic and transcendent accounts of human existence, the existence of God and whether and how we can know God);
  • nature (e.g., the constitution of the physical world, scientific explanation, the environment);
  • human nature (e.g., cognition and affectivity, freedom, morality, art);
  • society (e.g., political community, law, rights and responsibilities, economics, justice, education, language); and
  • history (e.g., our attitudes toward the past and the future).

These questions have given rise to perennial discussion because views about them are both vigorously contested and also fundamental to understanding ourselves as human beings. They have been disputed through the ages and yet remain the basis for understanding the human condition and for deciding how one's life should be lived. The fact that they are contested and yet the basis of life commitments makes them worth studying, and leads to the kind of self-transcendence, wonder, humility, and generous-mindedness that are the goals of a liberal education.

Courses in different disciplines will focus on particular questions to varying degrees. Theology and philosophy have traditionally explored the origin and destiny of existence. But art and literature also have had much to say about these issues. Contemporary expressions of the perennial issues about society are found most explicitly in the social sciences, but also in philosophy and theology. Systematic exploration of the nature of the physical world is the primary object of the sciences and mathematics. Using perennial questions as the foundation for the Core provides the context for individual courses and additional insight into the special interest and nature of a particular discipline. As students proceed through the Core, they encounter the whole range of perennial questions, with particular questions often revisited in several courses. Thus, the Core experience challenges undergraduates to formulate and reformulate their positions on these questions.

2. The Core Curriculum should address issues of Cultural Diversity and consider topics that have not customarily been incorporated into the traditional debate about the perennial issues, topics that gain in importance when the Western tradition is viewed from the perspectives of non-European people and of minorities within European and American societies. Such topics could include non-Western influences in the Western tradition, alternative ways in which non-Western cultures have addressed perennial questions, the perspective of women, the historical experience of oppressed groups within European and American society, colonialism, slavery, and racial, religious and sexual prejudice. These topics can supplement and expand the traditional debate about the perennial questions, and can respond to the urgency that many students and faculty feel about the centrality of these issues in contemporary society.

As addressing a particular perennial question may occur more naturally in one discipline rather than another, so the introduction of nontraditional perspectives will occur more appropriately in some disciplines than in others. For example, the inclusion of nontraditional authors or works seems easier in literature, sociology or the arts than in the sciences or mathematics.

3. The Core Curriculum should develop a historical view of knowledge. Many students have little sense of the past and its relationship to the present. If various courses in the Core made a historical perspective on the discipline an explicit focus, students would gradually piece together a coherent historical framework for their thinking as they traversed The Core Curriculum. Courses might develop a historical perspective in a variety of ways: by indicating how the course material relates to the general chronology of European, American and world culture; by presenting the course chronologically; by sketching the history of the discipline and the place of the course material in this history; or by emphasizing the differences which historical changes have brought in the key concepts or problems of the course.

4. The Core Curriculum should develop an understanding of the method-ologies of the Core disciplines appropriate to the level at which the disciplines are being studied. Students should become aware of how the subject matter of a discipline differs from other related disciplines and of the strengths and weaknesses of the discipline's definition and methodology for solving problems. The course should reveal the history of the discipline and its relationship to cognate disciplines, and, where pertinent, introduce the current controversies in the discipline and their implications. Where appropriate, faculty should explore at greater length some issues that profit from an explicit interdisciplinary approach. The goal is to lead students to become enthusiastic apprentices in the Core disciplines, so that they grasp the inner relationships in the material that define and animate these disciplines and can continue learning about these fields as intelligent generalists. This broad introduction to content and methodology of the various disciplines also provides the basis on which students can make an informed choice of a major.

5. The Core Curriculum should include courses that contain a strong writing component. Writing is by nature an active effort to organize and express ideas; it requires students to make connections, to focus issues and to take stands. Courses will inevitably differ in the ways they use students' writing to promote learning; there are many possibilities: written exams, term papers and shorter papers (especially if students are expected to revise them), journals, overnight position papers based on class discussion or reading assignments, in-class reflections designed to feed into discussion, free-writing exercises in class, even question-box submissions.

6. Finally, classroom learning should include reflection on the values and commitments that give spiritual significance and practical direction to a student's life. An outcome of the Core should be an integration of what the students have learned with how they act. College students are growing effectively and socially as well as intellectually. Therefore, Core courses should challenge students to become aware of their own values and to use the material of the course to develop a reflective view of life.

Core courses can promote this reflection in a variety of ways. For example, class discussion might pursue the course's implications for significant personal issues that students confront: sexuality, religious belief, interpersonal relationships, tolerance; or might explore issues that society faces: race, gender roles, the environment, the economy, warfare. Where appropriate, students might write term papers or shorter papers connecting the course material with these topics. Students might be urged to keep journals in which they explore connections between their experience and the course or other courses, or might be assigned a final paper in which they discuss the significance of the course to their lives. Faculty, of course, will choose the approaches that are consistent with their pedagogical styles, with course content, and with class sizes.

These cumulative goals for the Core embody and announce to students a point of view toward education that can become the foundation for further study: that education deals with the issues that have been of central concern to men and women for centuries; that the disciplines treat these issues from different perspectives and that the student should understand the differences; that discovering reliable and useful knowledge about these issues is complex, requiring approaches from several different viewpoints and maturing with time; and that what students learn should influence how they live.

Many Core courses reinforce the learning that occurs in other Core courses. Students over four years gradually fill in a picture of the intellectual history of their cultural heritage, of the relationships among the disciplines, and of the ways in which attitudes toward one question affect attitudes toward others.

This approach actively encourages students' personal development. The cumulative effect of studying issues from different points of view confers a growing sense of mastering complex material and different approaches to understanding it. The repeated opportunity to relate course material to their own lives and to reflect on these relationships in their writing intensifies a growing sense of self-awareness as students move through their undergraduate years.

Finally, this common approach is an appropriate and feasible way for Boston College to promote coherence in The Core Curriculum. It recognizes the increasing specialization of Boston College faculty as a strength rather than as an obstacle and uses this specialization to improve the Core. While encouraging and promoting the six characteristics described above, it leaves the decision about Core content to the departments involved. Organizing and presenting each course remains the faculty member's responsibility.

This approach can be implemented gradually. The University Core Development Committee will be expected to provide the assistance and resources to enable faculty members over time to incorporate the components of this model in their Core courses.

IV. Content of the Core

General Statement

The Core Curriculum should include the following elements:

  • The Arts: one course
  • History: two courses
  • Literature: one course
  • Writing: one course
  • Mathematics: one course
  • Philosophy: two courses
  • Natural Science: two courses
  • Social Science: two courses
  • Theology: two courses
  • Cultural Diversity: one course

In proposing these 15 courses as The University-wide Core Curriculum, the Task Force recognizes the logistical complications posed by a 15-course Core for some professional schools. A resolution of these complications will require further discussion between the University Core Development Committee and individual professional school educational policy committees.

Specific Requirements

The Arts

The arts should be included in The Core Curriculum because the need to make, experience, and comprehend art has been one of the essential defining human activities since the record of human history began. Few students, however, come to college equipped with an understanding of and an appreciation for art either as activity or as product. The Core requirement, therefore, aims at enlarging students' systematic knowledge of the arts and at encouraging them to experience art as makers, performers, and audiences both within and outside the University.

One three-credit course in art, music, or theater should be required. Core courses in the arts should give students insight into both the discipline and craft by which artists achieve their characteristic effects and also the satisfactions inherent in the process of artistic creation. Courses in the arts ought to illustrate the role of art in the formation and expression of a culture and should encourage respect for the art of different cultures. Finally, these courses should incorporate a historical perspective, so that they reveal both the discontinuities of historical change in the art of particular periods, as well as the deeper continuities in social and spiritual values embodied in the impulse to make art. Courses whose aim is the development of artistic skills are not included unless they also incorporate the elements noted above.

History

History should be included in the Core to serve three general purposes: developing an understanding of the historical roots of contemporary societies, recognizing the influence of Europe on their emergence; establishing a framework in which students can organize ideas and locate and understand their own culture and era; and encouraging the sense of tolerance that results from an understanding and awareness of the histories of different cultures and parts of the world.

Two three-credit history courses should be required. The content of these courses ought to focus on a manageable portion of human history, and, in particular, on the events, movements and personalities considered important to understanding European history and the impact of European institutions on the modern world. The courses should also promote an awareness of historical developments in other parts of the world. Methodological objectives include increased familiarity with the process of historical change, an understanding of the historical method of inquiry, and the habit of critical assessment of the values, ideas and practices of a historical era.

Literature

Literature should be included in The Core Curriculum for the following reasons: to develop students' ability to read critically and write clearly; to appreciate the working of the human imagination; to discover and assess the shape and values of the student's own culture and explore alternative ways of looking at the world; to gain insight into issues of permanent human importance, as well as issues of contemporary urgency; and to enjoy literary art.

Literature courses also ought to introduce the differences among literary genres and expose students to major canonical works as well as, where appropriate, some non-canonical works.

One three-credit course in literature should be required. Foreign literature departments may propose Core courses, taught either in the foreign language or in English.

Writing

Writing should be an important component of The Core Curriculum, both as a mode of learning, as well as of expression. Good writing results from an active effort to organize ideas and express them precisely. In addition, it can help students define issues, take stands, and expose their ideas to critical evaluation. In professional as well as personal life, writing is an important step in translating ideas into action.

Students should be exposed to the practice of writing in two ways. First, freshmen should be required to take a new course entitled "Writing as Critical Practice" (unless exempted through advanced placement examinations). This course ought to develop the student's ability to think critically and write effectively through frequent writing assignments and individual student-teacher conferences. The course will be best taught in small sections, and will be taken, if possible, in the first semester of freshman year. Second, as an overall goal of the Core program, a strong writing component, designed to engage students actively with the material they study, ought to be included in as many Core courses as possible.

A Director of Writing, holding a regular faculty appointment in the English Department, should be appointed to supervise writing programs. The Director will be responsible for screening and supervising teachers of writing, for establishing a graduate course on the teaching of writing to be required of teaching fellows prior to teaching writing, and for developing and facilitating writing initiatives across the University.

Mathematics

A mathematics Core requirement should serve two purposes. First, students should begin to understand the practical applications of mathematics and the important role that mathematics plays in life. While mathematics has been a significant component of human knowledge throughout history, its reach has now expanded beyond natural science and technology to encompass the social sciences, business, law, health care, and the analysis of public policy issues. Mathematical literacy and proficiency are vital if graduates are to perform effectively in their work and function as informed citizens. Second, students ought to understand the power of mathematical reasoning to reach conclusions with assurance; as such, mathematical reasoning is an important step in the emergence of independent and logical thinking.

All students should take mathematics as part of their Core experience. Many students will complete The Core requirement while satisfying a mathematics requirement connected with their major. Other students should complete at least one three-credit mathematics course as part of their Core experience.

Philosophy

Philosophy has had a permanent place in Jesuit higher education and should be an important part of the Boston College Core. By introducing students to the great philosophical questions, philosophy supplies an integrated vision of physical, human and spiritual reality; it weighs propositions fundamental to personal dignity and social responsibility; and it examines moral issues that affect personal and social decency.

The Core requirement in philosophy should be two three-credit courses, satisfied by the Philosophy of the Person course or the Perspectives, PULSE and Western Cultural Tradition programs. The Philosophy of the Person courses and the Perspectives and Western Cultural Tradition programs present the seminal thought of the philosophical tradition. In the PULSE program, students are also encouraged to make academic inquiry interact with social reality. All Core offerings in philosophy should prompt students to develop an intellectual and moral framework for considering questions of ultimate value and significance, and should challenge them to translate philosophical principles into guides for life.

Natural Science

Natural science should be included in the Core to enable students:

  • to understand the principles, the body of knowledge, and the investigative strategies that comprise science and its technological applications;
  • to recognize the power of science to investigate and understand the natural world;
  • to develop an awareness of the limitation of scientific conclusions;
  • to see the critical role science and technology play in contemporary society;
  • and to appreciate why scientists find science intellectually satisfying.

Two three-credit or four-credit courses in natural science should be required. Courses will focus on topics in a particular science or on topics which cross discipline. Each Core course should illustrate the following basic principles of science: the interdisciplinary nature of answers to scientific questions; the importance of establishing rigorous cause and effect relationships; the inevitability of change in nature and the processes that cause change; the use of carefully designed observations and experiments to probe nature; and application of mathematical descriptions and analyses whenever appropriate. The University Core Development Committee will work with science departments to encourage inclusion of actual or simulated laboratory and/or field experience in natural science Core courses.

Social Science

The social sciences should be included in The Core Curriculum to help students understand the causes of human behavior, and to expose students to the dynamics and dimensions of social interaction. The majority of problems facing society today, from domestic poverty to international conflict, from crime to environmental pollution, from racial strife to health care, have economic, political, psychological and sociological dimensions. Although social science disciplines have different approaches to social issues, the social sciences share a common methodology-the application of theory to real world data-and overlap considerably in the topics studied.

The Core requirement should consist of two three-credit courses chosen from one or more of the disciplines of economics, political science, sociology and psychology. Each Core course in the social sciences should develop an appreciation of the processes of social interaction and emphasize the analytic frameworks and techniques social scientists use to explain the causes and patterns of individual and institutional behavior.

Theology

As the disciplined reflection on the mystery of God in the world and on the traditions of belief and worship that shape the community of faith, theology explicitly reinforces the tradition of Jesuit humanism that prizes the scholarly investigation of religious faith and faith's relevance to civilization. The study of theology is an essential feature of The Core Curriculum in a Jesuit and Roman Catholic university. This implies an institutional commitment to the Roman Catholic tradition, but also encourages the study and understanding of other theological traditions.

Two three-credit courses should be required for students not enrolled in the PULSE, Perspectives, or Western Cultural Tradition programs.

Cultural Diversity

A critical component of a liberal education is the capacity to see human experience from the point of view of others who encounter and interpret the world in significantly different ways. Courses in Cultural Diversity, by introducing students to different cultures and examining the concepts of cultural identity and cultural differences, are aimed at developing students' appreciation of other ways of life and providing a new understanding of their own cultures. More specifically, the Task Force envisions a one-course Cultural Diversity requirement being fulfilled by:

  • courses on Asian, African, Middle Eastern and Latin American cultures,
  • courses on minority cultures of the United States derived from these cultures,
  • courses on Native American cultures, or
  • courses that address the concept of culture from a theoretical and comparative perspective either separately or in the context of the courses listed in a, b, and c.

Cultural Diversity courses could be designed as departmental offerings or as interdisciplinary courses and could approach the culture in various ways:

  • through its religious or ethical values;
  • from an understanding of its historical development;
  • from the perspective of its social, economic and political systems;
  • or from an appreciation of its literary, artistic or other cultural achievements.

The Cultural Diversity requirement functions as a graduation requirement, and, unlike other Core requirements, may be fulfilled by a course above the Core level. It may simultaneously fulfill another requirement of the Core or the major.

The University Core Development Committee will initially define the significant components of a Cultural Diversity course and then identify existing courses that incorporate these elements. Since Cultural Diversity is an addition to the Core and since it is not formally associated with a particular department, the Committee will need to exercise special initiative in encouraging the development of courses in this area. The Task Force regards this proposal for a Cultural Diversity requirement as an immediate positive step that responds to an important need within the context of the resources currently available to meet this need.

V. Development of The Core Curriculum

A University Core Development Committee (UCDC) should be established by the Academic Vice President to stimulate and support ongoing development of the Boston College Core Curriculum.

The UCDC will promote a renewed University-wide commitment to a Core program as a vital part of a Boston College undergraduate education. Its fundamental charge will be to develop the Core program approved by the Academic Vice President. In pursuit of this charge, the Committee:

  • strengthens the University-wide commitment to The Core Curriculum by providing the vehicle for interdepartmental discussion and development of the Core and by promoting greater unity and coherence in the Core program;
  • assists departments and faculty in the design and implementation of Core courses by offering advice, development opportunities, and resources;
  • supports faculty involvement in Core teaching by encouraging development of rigorous and challenging Core courses and regular discussion of effective and innovative Core teaching methods among faculty;
  • recommends to the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences courses to be included in The Core Curriculum;
  • offers recommendations to the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences on the resources needed to implement the Core in general and in particular departments;
  • seeks outside funding for ongoing development of the Core;
  • meets annually with the chairpersons of departments offering Core courses and with deans of the undergraduate professional schools;
  • evaluates periodically the effectiveness of the Core in achieving its objectives, and
  • provides an annual report on the 'state of the Core' to the Academic Vice President, including recommended changes in The Core Curriculum based on the Committee's evaluations as well as on societal and educational developments that influence the Core.

A Director of the University Core Curriculum should be appointed to administer The Core Curriculum. The Director will be an Arts and Sciences faculty member appointed by and reporting to the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences in a relationship similar to that of the Director of the Arts and Sciences' Honors Program. The Director will also teach in the Core.

The Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences will annually submit to the University Registrar the list of courses to be included in the section of the Undergraduate Bulletin that presents the Core program.

The University Core Development Committee will include nine faculty members and the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences:

  • five elected Arts and Sciences faculty-one from each Arts and Sciences division and two at-large (with no more than one faculty member from any department),
  • three elected faculty members, one each from Education, Management and Nursing, and
  • the Director of the University Core Curriculum (from Arts and Sciences).

The Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences will chair the UCDC. The voting members of the Committee will be the nine faculty members. Terms for elected members will be three years with provision for staggered terms when the Committee is initiated. In its discussion of particular disciplines, the UCDC will draw on the expertise of specialists in the particular area.

VI. Implementation Timetable

The development of the revised Core is viewed as a continuous process. The specific requirements of the revised Core will become effective in September 1993 for undergraduates of the Class of 1997.

The University Core Development Committee should be elected in the Fall of 1991 and begin work immediately on the development of the revised Core, including formal discussions with Core departments and faculty on the design and implementation of their Core programs. During this period, the UCDC will begin to develop an analysis of the resource implications of the revised Core, as well as initiate pursuit of outside funding for faculty and curriculum development activities important to successful implementation.