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Committee Unveils Proposal for Renewing Core Curriculum


By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor

Published: Apr. 25, 2013

A proposal for renewing Boston College’s undergraduate core curriculum would establish a new three-component, 42-credit structure of courses encompassing numerous disciplines, as well as an emphasis on student formation and personal discernment.

This model, the subject of a town hall-style campus meeting held yesterday afternoon, is the latest development in the nearly year-long process to revamp the University’s core curriculum being undertaken by a committee of faculty and administrators in collaboration with Continuum, an acclaimed innovative thinking and design consultancy.

The Core Renewal Committee has held extensive discussions with diverse groups of faculty, administrators, staff, students and other stakeholders in the University community in an effort to address concerns and hear views regarding the core curriculum, last revised in the 1990s.

“What’s important to know is that the footprint of the core curriculum is unchanged; the number of credits has not been reduced,” said committee co-chair Rattigan Professor of English Mary Crane, director of BC’s Institute for the Liberal Arts. “More importantly, the University remains committed to the classic liberal arts education and the Jesuit, Catholic tradition that has been central to the Boston College experience.”

Under the new proposal put forth by the committee, core classes would be organized in three parts. Communities of Inquiry are courses taken in the first year, with cohorts of approximately 225 students engaging in intensive multidisciplinary study of fundamental questions and global challenges through two six-credit sequences, Enduring Questions and Complex Problems. 

“We felt it was vital for the core to make a big impact in freshman year,” said Crane. “The committee felt this can be accomplished by creating smaller groups of about 225 students — Communities of Inquiry — where they participate in an engaging and intense intellectual experience.” 

The Exploration phase entails 10 courses across the humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences that ensure students gain a rigorous education in the liberal arts while enabling intellectual engagement and exploration. Characterized as Foundations or Immersions, these courses range in level of breadth or depth, class size, and pedagogical approach.

In the Reflection component, students are given opportunities inside and outside the classroom to help them discern the meaning, significance and value of the work taking place in their disciplinary studies and lives outside of class. This program will involve the Student Affairs and University Mission and Ministry divisions, as well as interested faculty.

Core Renewal Committee representatives reiterated that by adopting the proposal for a renewed core, the University would put in place “a framework for innovation” rather than “a detailed blueprint that will remain unchanged for 20 years.” The basic structural principles contained in the proposed model, they said, would be subject to periodic external reviews and will be reassessed at least every 10 years.

The proposal included some potential scenarios of how students might experience the new core. For example, in the Enduring Questions program, a Community of Inquiry would focus on one overarching topic, such as “Understanding the Past.” Faculty would agree on three enduring questions to cover in each class within the topic; these might include the nature of knowledge, the impact of past on future, and the influence of religious belief on society. 

These questions would be explored in pairs of linked courses taught be faculty from different disciplines. A list of possible paired courses – and the disciplines they encompass – might include Lost Civilizations (History and Classical Studies), Memory and Trauma (Literature and Psychology), and Boston’s Past (Literature and History).

“The multidisciplinary character of these sequences,” said Crane, “is a major point that emerged from discussions with both faculty and students as to what would make for an interesting and engaging experience.”

In the Complex Problems program, the cohort of students might study issues such as migration and immigration, or access to water, supplemented by independent research and lab work. 

The proposal also recommends the creation of a new Core Renewal Committee (CRC) to spearhead ongoing innovation and oversight of the renewed core. The CRC would be housed within the Institute for the Liberal Arts, and receive funding from the University to support core course development and administration. The CRC would consult twice a year with the Core Steering Committee and the Student Advisory Council. The Core Steering Committee would provide oversight, guidance and funding advocacy, and administer an external program review every eight to 10 years to assess the core and recommend improvements. 

The new CRC will work with departments to articulate discipline-specific learning outcomes for individual requirements, according to the proposal, and to ensure that departments and faculty measure and assess student work against these learning outcomes — these include understanding a discipline’s major approaches and ideas, and understanding from a scholarly perspective the relationship of faith and reason.

During the next two weeks, departments in the University’s four undergraduate schools are expected to study the proposed core renewal and report their findings to their respective deans. These will be shared with University President William P. Leahy, SJ, and Provost and Dean of Faculties Cutberto Garza, and a decision on the proposal will be made during the summer.

Implementation of the renewed core curriculum experience would begin on a small scale with the 2013-2014 academic year and continue over several years.

Along with Crane, the Core Renewal Committee is co-chaired by College of Arts and Sciences Dean David Quigley and Carroll School of Management Dean Andy Boynton. Committee members are DeLuca Professor of Biology Tom Chiles, Associate Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences Gail Kineke, Professor of Sociology Juliet Schor, Professor of Philosophy Emeritus Richard Cobb-Stevens, and A&S Associate Dean Akua Sarr, director of the University Advising Center.