Honors dean fosters new student, faculty relations

Joe Fleming

In the waning weeks of his first semester as director of the honors department, Thomas Smith is looking forward to implementing new changes into the program.

Smith replaced Edwin Goff as honors director this past June and has since been looking at future modifications for the program. His most recent major proposal concerns a faculty developmental fund which would address what he calls urgent resource issues. 

Smith has already pitched the idea to the administration, however it has yet to render a verdict.

The fund would compensate faculty for greater involvement in the honors program, from overseeing student research projects to advising senior theses. Faculty would also receive a stipend for generating new Honors courses and refining older ones during the summer recess. Smith’s fund proposal would be a step toward his goal of getting both faculty and students more invested in the Honors program. By giving instructors opportunities to learn from one another as well as from experts outside of the University, he hopes to encourage the faculty to remain “sharp and engaged.”

He would also like to help instructors become more intellectually versatile by instituting a rotating Honors faculty, one that would encourage professors to expand their intellectual horizons.

The preliminary idea is that small groups of instructors from different University colleges will receive three-year temporary appointments to the honors program, after which they will return to their respective departments. 

He hopes that this will allow the professors to return to their respective fields of study with a “new intellectual outlook.” 

He stressed that there are no teachers who are strictly honors instructors and stated that it was “imperative” to introduce new instructors constantly to the program.Rotating honors instructors is one of the several changes that Smith hopes will help keep the program fresh and the students committed and interested. 

There is some concern over the students distancing themselves from the honors program after the sophomore year, when students must have their majors declared.

He believes such issues can be averted by creating a greater sense of unity among Honors students.

“We want kids to form friendships around ideas,” Smith said. “We want to encourage them to talk about Kant and Hegel not only inside class, but outside of class as well.”

One way Smith plans to encourage bonds among students is through global cohort programs. He described it as “a community of students going through Honors in a certain way.” It would entail admitting groups of honors students into learning communities that span several years. The students’ study abroad experience would be designed to fit with past academic experiences.

Both the global cohort system and the rotating honors faculty, Smith believes, will help maintain the honors program’s “distinctiveness.” 

More directly, he stressed the importance of internal distinctiveness, which he defined as the differentiation between the University’s honors and non-honors courses. In order to accentuate internal distinctiveness, he said the program needs to focus on new study abroad opportunities, cohort experiences, giving guides for current and prospective students on how to navigate the honors program and resources for faculty to become more involved.

He plans on working to balance “internal distinctiveness” with opportunities for honors and non-honors students to learn together. 

He hopes that such ideas will involve the schools of business, nursing and engineering more heavily in the honors program. 

However, he wants to maintain what he sees as the traditional characteristics of the honors program — small, engaging classes with the best instructors.

Smith sees the upcoming changes as “supporting a program founded on excellence while revitalizing it.”

“I’m excited for the changes from the program,” Smith said. “And the initial feedback from the students and faculty is that they’re excited as well.”