Westminster's nationally-ranked Honors program transitions to Honors College

Westminster College’s Honors program will transition to an Honors college beginning Fall 2017. Most of the changes will be administrative allowing the program to maintain the elements that make Honors unique but allowing more room for growth. Photo by Jake Smith.

Westminster College’s Honors program will transition to an Honors college beginning Fall 2017. Most of the changes will be administrative allowing the program to maintain the elements that make Honors unique but allowing more room for growth. Photo by Jake Smith.

Westminster College's nationally-recognized Honors program will transition to an Honors College in the Fall 2017 semester—a change designed to attract prospective students who strive for academic challenges.

"The goal is ultimately to give students more opportunity, which is really the Westminster way," said Richard Badenhausen, current director of the Honors program.

Those involved in the transition say most of the changes will be administrative, allowing the program to grow while maintaining the elements that give it a unique learning environment, such as a focus on interdisciplinary team teaching.

Badenhausen is the vice president of the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC) and travels nationwide to collaborate with other Honors programs and colleges, where he critiques their programs and gathers ideas on how to improve Westminster's.

Badenhausen said a program review with Dr. John Zubizaretta, an external evaluator and former NCHC president, sparked changes to Westminster's Honors program. Zubizaretta started his written report by naming Westminster's Honors program "one of the best honors programs in the country."

"We thought—well, jeez— we're more fully developed than many Honors colleges," Badenhausen said. "Why not get the cache that comes with the Honors College name?"

The Honors program has been making steady changes over the past few years, adding more seminar options for students and providing students with more flexibility about which classes to choose.

The Honors program also created a lateral entry program in fall 2015, which allows transfer students to enter the program from other colleges and Westminster students to enroll internally in the program after their first semester. The transition from a program to a college will help Honors further grow its lateral-entry program, Badenhausen said. The transition from an Honors program to a college will also allow for growth in the number of students who are admitted.

"Last year we had 116 applications and 40 spots in the entering class," Badenhausen said. "That was the most applications in the history of the program. So we have all this demand but limited capacity."

Badenhausen said changing to an Honors College will also help the college as a whole grow as the new opportunity attracts donor interest.

"There's a robust fundraising opportunity when you start an Honors College to attract donor interest," Badenhausen said. "Donors that might want to support the college in a big way."

Badenhausen said part of the donor opportunity includes scholarships for students. He said half the money that will be raised is already devoted to supporting students from underrepresented groups.

Another benefit of the transition coming Fall 2017 will be the creation of a new fellowship advising office that will be available as a resource for all students on campus. Fellowships are opportunities, like paid research, that students can apply for after graduation.

"We have such talented students across campus that we almost owe it to the students to have an office that helps position them to take advantage of these opportunities," said Badenhausen, who will become the founding dean of the Honors College after the transition.

Christine Seifert, an associate professor of communication and professor in the Honors program, said the Honors program has always functioned as a separate entity but will now officially function as one.

"I think that it makes sense that the Honors College would have its own space because I do think Honors is doing something different than WCore and what's happening in the other schools,” she said. "It will have its own structure, its own administration—it will just make more sense because it is a different thing that does something different. It'll have its own little space rather than being embedded under arts and sciences."

Seifert said one of the main ways the Honors program differs from the traditional student regimen is that all the classes are taught by two professors. Honors students also have their own set of required courses.

"Honors classes are always team taught and they are usually staffed by faculty from very different backgrounds," Seifert said. "So you always have two people coming together who are coming at things from very different perspectives."

Warren Cook, a senior Honors student and history major, said the team-teaching element is his favorite part of the program and provides him with a unique educational experience he said he wouldn't receive outside the program.

"I really appreciate a community of interdisciplinary thinkers—that goes for the students as well as the professors," Cook said. "I think co-teaching contributes to the idea of a student-centered classroom where students and professors are learning at the same time."

Cook said he thinks one of the ways Westminster's Honors program is distinct from other colleges is that it is highly student centered.

"We really value students and professors as collaborative learners," Cook said. "The Honors program doesn’t operate on this system of professors as all-knowing vassals of knowledge just filling up students with what they know."

Claire Prasad, a junior biology major, said she’s looking forward to the transition.

"It will affect me in that I can take different seminars," Prasad said. "Before there were certain seminars you had to take, and now I can have more freedom with scheduling the ones that I want to take."

Prasad said she does not have any concerns about the Honors program changing to an Honors College and said the administration is helping create a smooth transition.

"I think [the administration is] handling it very well and being very transparent about it, which I really appreciate," Prasad said. "I think that the professors are definitely willing to help out and adjust during the growing process, so I think it will turn out well."

Prasad said she enjoys the intimacy within the program.

"My favorite part is the community of people," Prasad said. "It's really nice to have all these people from all different majors come together and to be able to interact with them."

Cook, a senior Honors student, said he also enjoys the close community of students within the program and hopes it stays intact for future Honors students.

"I think that the Honors College and Honors Council have taken that into consideration because I know we won’t be increasing the class size for a couple years," Cook said. "And even when we do, I know that we will take steps to just make sure we have these community programs—like the Honorable Mention Newsletter, like Tuesday Conversations—that give students a chance to have those really close-knit relationships with each other and their professors."

Badenhausen, director of the Honors program and future dean of the Honors College, said he and his associates are very aware of the program’s community atmosphere and will strive to maintain the tight-knit community even as growth and change occur.

Note: The Forum’s editor-in-chief is a member of Westminster’s Honors program.