A top priority of mine as University president is to expand our current honors program into a full-fledged Honors College.
In September, I named Dr. Abu Kabir Mostofa Sarwar, a professor of earth and environmental science at UNO, director of the University’s honors program. We have set a new direction and are extremely excited.
Dr. Sarwar has been charged with raising funds to endow a certain percentage of the Homer L. Hitt Presidential Scholarships and is going to expand the honors program over time to make it an Honors College. We are still considering the model. I’ll tell you about two types of programs that I have seen work effectively.
I started the honors program at the University of Texas at Tyler, where I served for three years as provost and executive vice president. We collapsed some of the University’s general education core requirements into four-hour courses taught by two faculty members. For example, honors students at UT – Tyler might pursue a four-hour course in English Composition and Political Science. All of their composition writing would be on political issues.
Freshmen and sophomores took one four-hour block taught this way and pursued regular courses for the rest of their studies. Junior year, the honors students selected faculty members in their disciplines to serve as their academic advisers. They studied basic engineering, English and music and worked with select faculty to choose specialized courses in their disciplines. Senior year, the honors students each wrote a thesis under the direction of their faculty advisers. We took 30 students per year into the program and they received full rides at the University.
The Honors College at the University of Southern Mississippi, where I served as dean of the College of Health for four years, is one of the oldest honors colleges in the nation. At Southern Miss, the Honors College is so established that honors college faculty work in almost every department. Students are very close with the faculty members who serve as their advisers. The USM Honors College is almost like a mini-graduate school. The experience is based on Socrates’ theory of one-on-one learning and dialectic method, where inquiry and debate are encouraged.
Honors Colleges have all sorts of positive effects. The idea behind them is that students who perform well are invited to join the University’s Honors College, which gives the Honors College a certain status. The Honors College can also provide motivation to students already enrolled at the University who are doing well. If you’re midway through college and achieving high grades, an invitation to join the Honors College is welcome recognition.
My aim is to create a rigorous, strenuous program at UNO that will require all participating students to complete a thesis. The national Council on Undergraduate Research has explored the success of students who complete theses as undergraduates and found that those students are much better students in graduate school. These students have already developed many of the skills and the confidence they need to excel.
At the University of Texas at Tyler, Honors College students must pursue a research methods course, a high-level research course designed to help them learn how to examine literature and discover new knowledge. At USM, Honors College faculty publish their sessions so that other students can see what they’re doing.
At Tyler, we also had a speaker series designed especially for honors students. One speaker, for example, was Steve Lopez, who wrote The Soloist. He had dinner with the honors students and they talked about journalism, how he looked for evidence for his stories, how he developed a relationship with the violinist he wrote about and other interesting details. Meeting people who have achieved great success in their fields is part of the students’ education and helps them form aspirations.
Our plans here are still in early development but we hope to get the University of New Orleans Honors College up and running within the next five years. In Dr. Sarwar, we have a faculty member who really, really wants to do the job. He has already attained $20,000 in scholarship funding to get the program started.
For us to get the Honors College going, we will need about 35 students per year really working hard and building it up. We are looking forward to welcoming current and future Privateers.