Originally published in the inaugural edition of Carroll Capital, the print publication of the Carroll School of Management at Boston College. Read the full issue here.
When Boston College needed to revivify its outdated core curriculum, it turned to a group of design consultants better known for inventing the Reebok Pump and the Swiffer mop. How did that work out? A newly published book tells the story of what ultimately became the renewed core, instituted five years ago. What follows is an abridged version of the opening chapter of Curriculum by Design: Innovation and the Liberal Arts Core, edited by Mary Thomas Crane, David Quigley, and Andy Boynton (Fordham University Press).
In November 2012, Boston College began holding town-hall-style meetings in hopes of enlisting faculty and others in a difficult conversation about the University’s undergraduate core curriculum, which had not seen a revision since 1991. During one of those meetings, a fine arts professor alluded to the hard-held opinions and turf issues that had stymied reform and hampered conversation. “Core avoidance here is like tax avoidance,” he said. “It’s become an art form.”
Standing at the front of a large lecture hall were people with stellar campus credentials, including the dean of arts and sciences, the dean of the management school, and the director of the University’s influential Institute for the Liberal Arts. They and others, however, had little to show for their efforts to cultivate true dialogue with faculty and departments—which explained the presence of someone else at the late-afternoon gathering, a man wearing thick black eyeglasses and a gray sporty blazer with a white open-collar shirt.
That was Anthony Pannozzo, then senior vice president of Continuum, a leading design and innovation consultancy. Boston College had hired the firm to choreograph conversations about renewing the core curriculum, which students had generally come to see as something to get through, not something likely to challenge or inspire them.
At the first gathering, Mary Crane, the Thomas F. Rattigan Professor of English, who also directs the Institute for the Liberal Arts, did not wait for professors to express their wariness of bringing in design consultants to help solve the problem of uninteresting and unchallenging courses. “If I had gotten the letter that you got a couple of weeks ago, I’d have a lot of questions,” she admitted to about 75 faculty members, referring to the announcement that Boston College had retained non-academic consultants to spearhead the dialogue. “Initially, we went in with total skepticism,” she recounted (one exception being the Carroll School of Management’s Powers Family Dean Andy Boynton, who had floated the idea). “Never! Never! How can these people ever help us with our core?”
At the second town hall, the faculty interrogated Pannozzo on Continuum’s experience with universities, which was sparse. He mostly deflected the questions, before Crane interjected, “As far as we know, nobody has tried this approach to revising the curriculum. So, we’re taking a risk.” To which David Quigley, then dean of arts and sciences, now provost, pointed out that other universities aiming to reinvigorate core studies had taken risks and failed—on their own, without design consultation. There was no need to name names, including that of a preeminent institution across the Charles River: The academic graveyard is full of praiseworthy plans to revise core curricula that went nowhere.
That began the public portion of Boston College’s core renewal process. At the start of 2012–2013, a committee of University notables led by Quigley, Crane, and Boynton had begun meeting or otherwise collaborating day and night on the project, as Continuum quietly conducted “stakeholder interviews” with faculty, students, administrators, and alumni, not initially about the core but about their broader visions and hopes for Boston College. The process would at times seem foreign to faculty, or a vocal number who balked at the “vision first” approach and were well armed for debate over the minutiae of curriculum proposals. They and their departments, for one thing, were understandably attached to their favorite courses in the University’s core, making change all the more difficult.
Ultimately, there would be a proposed framework for deepening and enlivening core studies. The process that began as a risky venture would end fittingly and bracingly at the end of the academic year—with a call on each school and department to give the proposal a thumbs up or down.
Continuum is known for innovations in product design, including its spawning of the Swiffer mop and the iconic Reebok Pump, so there was natural skepticism about ushering the firm into the sanctum sanctorum of a Jesuit university—the core curriculum. A newly constituted eight-member core committee had to make it clear to faculty that while Boston College was looking to the designers to foster an environment in which conversations about the core would flourish, no one was asking them to fashion a renewed curriculum. There would be no need for them to evolve from Swiffer to Socrates; the task of developing a final product and proposals would fall notably to the clients. Skepticism lingered, but the faculty as a whole quickly came to tolerate the presence of design consultants on campus.
During stakeholder meetings, the consultants were bringing a level of empathy to those conversations that others had found hard to muster. Indeed, Pannozzo made a point that might not have passed inspection in an epistemology course but illustrated the desire to nurture dialogue. “Everything we’re hearing has to be taken as true, because it’s truth according to the individuals who said it,” he explained in an interview.“ We’re complete outsiders. When faculty talk to us, they can’t assume we know anything. They become more open and introspective, which gets us to an interesting conversation.”
Soon enough, a broadly inclusive conversation was in full sail on the Heights. Boynton joked at the time, referring to the gym staff—“I think that even people at the Rec Plex want input.”
Gravitating to the center of discussion was the idea of structuring new multidisciplinary courses for first-year students around “the Ps and Qs,” problems and questions. “It’s a nice way of signaling what BC is all about,” Quigley remarked at the time. That idea took further shape under the rubric of “Complex Problems” (team-taught courses by professors from diverging disciplines) and “Enduring Questions” (two professors teaching separate though linked classes with overlying topics to a shared group of students). The core team, however, made it clear they wouldn’t plow ahead without a faculty consensus, which led an English professor to say, “The only way to know is to ask people what they really think”—a suggestion he finetuned by using the word “vote.”
There wasn’t exactly a vote, but over several days in early May, each department and school deliberated on the proposed renewal. Each school and the vast majority of departments wound up giving their resounding approval, but that wasn’t the end. For some time afterward, the University—guided by Gregory Kalscheur, SJ, now dean of the Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences—further evaluated the renewal ideas, planting them more deeply in the ground of Boston College’s Jesuit Catholic mission. The new, rigorous and topical courses were fully launched in 2018.
By all accounts, the collaboration with Continuum still represents the lone example of a university calling on a design firm to help midwife a curricular breakthrough. In that sense, the designers are batting a thousand.