Honors program revamping

By Morgan Fink

DeKALB | After more than a semester of meetings and discussions, a team of officials are in the final phases of planning a revamp of the University Honors Program.

The program offers qualified students benefits such as courses taught by top faculty, priority registration for courses, honors-only scholarships, opportunities for research with faculty, study abroad chances and the McKearn Fellows program.

Todd Gilson, University Honors Program director, established a strategic planning team in fall of 2016 that consisted of members of honors office staff, faculty, administrators from different colleges and students. The team then dedicated two days to planning a revamp for the program during which they examined programs at other institutions, using some of the ideas as inspiration.

The changes being made in the program involve broadening and deepening students’ co-curricular experiences, Gilson said.

“I want to be able to go out and promote this program based on the fact that it is unlike any university in the state of Illinois,” Gilson said.

Program officials want to begin implementing more “honors-engaged events” in which speakers come to discuss a variety of topics. Students then would have the opportunity to engage with the speakers. For example, during a Wednesday event, students spoke to state Rep. Bob Pritchard asking questions regarding anything from the state budget to medical marijuana.

“Instead of going and listening to a speaker for an hour and a half, which can be beneficial, we want to then take that to the next level,” Gilson said.

Funding for this and other changes is anticipated by the department, Gilson said. He submitted a strategic report to President Doug Baker in February which outlines budget requests for social programming, which allows students to be rewarded for going to conferences and provides them with the opportunity to do things like study abroad.

Gilson and his planning group also asked for more support for honors classes so students could take a greater array of courses.

“Both of those requests were received very positively by the president,” Gilson said. “He encouraged us to continue to work these ideas and bring them to fruition.”

Gilson said that he is unaware of the amount of total funding received for the program because of the lack of a state budget this academic year. The program’s funding depends on appropriations provided by the state and the amount of money NIU officials plan to provide for the program based on Program Prioritization decisions.

Other goals for the updated program include enrolling more students. For every student in the program, there are two more students who qualify and choose not to enroll, Gilson said.

“If there are students out there, we want to be the Field of Dreams model where we want to build something that students want to come to rather than us constantly reminding students to apply for honors,” Gilson said.

Gilson said the planning group is in the “nuts and bolts” phase of the program update. The group is figuring out the fine details regarding how the program will operate so it can be presented to shared governance groups in Fall of 2018.

Other universities in the state have programs similar to NIU’s. At Southern Illinois University, officials believe that their students are more than just their GPA, said Lori Merrill-Fink, SIU University Honors Program director.

“We work to round out the students’ exposure skills so that they’re more than just a standardized test score,” Merrill-Fink said.

There are 950 students enrolled in SIU’s program out of 17,292 students overall and 1,008 at NIU out of 17,497 overall, said Merrill-Fink and Gilson, respectively. SIU’s honor students are required to complete 18 hours of honors-approved coursework, which can include honors seminars, similar to NIU.

“We are committed to lifelong learning, so we hope that this is the beginning of learning and being educated human beings even after college,” Merrill-Fink said.

University Honors Program officials at NIU are planning on proposing the updated program to the Baccalaureate Council in the fall of 2017, which will determine if this is a viable program that has the support of the faculty. If it is considered a viable program, it will go up to Faculty Senate and other committees to get approval to be in the catalog for fall 2018.

Gilson said the program has the support of Baker and the Student Association and conceptual support from the Baccalaureate Council and faculty.

“I like the staff, students and faculty that I work with, and I really want to implement this and be here to see the fruits of the labor,” Gilson said.

Morgan Fink is a staff writer. She can be reached at editor@northernstar.info.