A proposal to set up a special track for Western Carolina University’s crème de la crème — the honor students on campus — failed recently to win approval of a majority of the faculty’s leaders.
The thumbs down by the university’s Faculty Senate came amid concerns of elitism, questions about need, doubts the proposed program was rigorous enough, and fears of overcomplicating the system.
There were worries that, if the special liberal arts track was adopted by the Honors College, students in general might become confused about which classes exactly were needed for them to successfully graduate. Some faculty said they were afraid other colleges at the university would follow suit in setting up individual liberal studies programs, creating enormous bureaucratic difficulties for the university.
Additionally, some faculty leaders said they felt it was premature to propose a new honors path while the university is in the process of an overall review of its liberal studies curriculum.
The vote by Faculty Senate last month was two in favor, 24 against, with one abstention.
“There’s some really creative and great ideas here,” David McCord, professor and head of WCU’s department of psychology, told Honors College Dean Brian Railsback before he listed a litany of concerns. “I’d like all of our students, and not just honors students, to take benefit from this.”
McCord added, however, “the issue of multiple general education programs is deeply concerning to me,” describing the proposed changes as a possible Pandora’s box, making it “a completely impossible puzzle” for students to piece together what’s required for graduation.
“I respectfully disagree,” Railsback said. “I think it would work.”
Railsback, in material written to brief his fellow faculty on the proposal, noted that honors programs across the country vary. Among the least developed are colleges like WCU where honors students parallel the liberal studies program. Students are afforded some designated honors classes, extra interaction with professors, and even customized courses and degrees — yet are still confined by the university’s liberal arts requirements. Others fully substitute the university liberal studies program, such as the program at Portland State, Ore., for example.
Some universities create labor-intensive programs that replace the curriculum with studies customized between the student and advisor.
Railsback said that he believed WCU’s 13-year-old Honors College should move toward this “as a natural part of its evolution.”
“WCU Honors students are a distinct group of high-achievers who need a liberal studies curriculum tailored to their abilities,” Railsback said.
The genesis of the proposal dates to 2007-2008, when the Honors College Board of Directors (made up of honors students) and the Honors College Advisory Board (made up of professional outside of the university) met and agreed upon “learning outcomes” for the Honors College curriculum.
The groups were considering what exactly a WCU Honors student knows when they graduate from the Honors College, and what was needed to be competitive with graduates from elite private colleges.
The specialized track would have included required service learning; a study abroad option or required second language study; required undergraduate research; a required internship, co-op, or appropriate “capstone” experience.
Laura Wright, an associate professor in WCU’s English department and director of graduate studies, worried about the risk of removing honors students from the university’s classrooms with other students.
“I worry what happens to our non-honors students when they are not interacting with our best students,” she said.
Railsback said that he did not believe the specialized curriculum would stop honors students from continuing to be part of the general school population. He said that elitism has been an area of concern since the creation of the Honors College, and something WCU has carefully avoided.
The select few
There are between 1,300 and 1,400 honors students at Western Carolina University, or about 14 percent of the undergraduate residential population.
Those who entered the Honors College as first-term freshmen in 2008 averaged a 4.3 weighted cumulative high school GPA and scored 1803 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, compared to a 3.3 high school GPA and 1485 on the SAT for non-Honors students at WCU.
Honors students at WCU average a first to second year retention of 84 percent, compared to 71 percent for non-Honors students. Honors students average a 3.51 cum WCU GPA, compared to a fall 2008 average for all non-Honors students of 2.51.
The Honors College has its own residence hall for those choosing to live on campus and its own yearbook.
A portion of their courses are designated as Honors courses, or they can work with professors to add extra components to regular courses. They can swap out required intro-level liberal studies coursework with more advanced courses. They can even create customized degrees, are eligible for undergraduate research grants and have access to pre-professional programs.
Source: Honors College Dean Brian Railsback, WCU Website