Honors program gains new direction

Apr. 11, 2012
Esther Carey

This school year brought the largest class of incoming freshman in the history of John Brown University. Such growth brings about other changes, such as an increase in the number of students eligible for the University’s Honors Scholars Program. As a result, the focus of the program will be shifting somewhat for next school year.

Since 2005, the number of incoming honors freshman has grown from 60 to 110 this year. The increasing size has necessitated a change in how the program is run. Director Brad Gambill said he felt his gifts and skill set, especially his preferred focus of one-on-one relationships, no longer fit the needs of the program or the vision the University’s administration had for it.

Last month, he announced to students in the program that he would be stepping down as the director at the end of the school year. He will return to primarily teaching in the English department. Current associate director Trisha Posey will take his place.

Gambill said he hoped his most important legacy to the program would be the fact that he was a director who poured into students.

“I sought to develop them holistically, rather than only seeing their GPAs or test scores,” he added. As part of this vision, Gambill has emphasized creating a culture for the honors program.

One step in that process has been an Honors Orientation class, required for all entering freshman. For the past two years, one component of the class has been older honors students mentoring small groups of freshman.

After looking at various factors, the University’s administration has decided to end the class. Ed Ericson, vice president of academic affairs, explained that the growing program was causing “enrollment pressures” with Honors Orientation that were not a factor in other Honors classes. In addition, the class was receiving the lowest evaluations in comparison to other courses.

Gambill proposed changing the admissions standards—specifically raising the required ACT score—for Honors, Ericson said, but that would have separated it from its traditional connection with the scholarship award standards. It was concluded by various levels of officials that such a change “was not in the best interests of the institution as a whole.”

Ericson summarized that the options facing the administration were to either “change our long-standing admissions standards” in order to continue the “somewhat experimental and not very highly rated” class or to “discontinue the existing, overwhelmed Honors Orientation process.” The consensus was to do the latter.

He emphasized that the University administration is not explicitly making plans to either increase or restrict the size of the Honors program. Rather, they are simply seeking to maintain the traditional requirements.

Sophomore Tim Edgren, a mentor in Honors Orientation during last fall semester, said he did not agree with the administration’s decision. He continued that the Honors program would “cease to be beneficial or unique” if the level of enrollment continued to increase. He added that he saw the mentor program as the most constructive part of Honors.

“Honors only works because it is a small but gifted community,” Edgren said. “The decision to further expand an already overweight Honors program is ill-judged, especially without a corresponding increase in Honors staff, opportunities, or benefits.”

Gambill and Posey both recognize that maintaining the community that has been established will be a challenge with a growing program. Posey said she plans to get input from current students before advancing any particular plans. She is considering offering peer mentoring on a voluntary basis, which may incorporate some of the ideas from Honors Orientation.

“I want to emphasize building on [Gambill’s] work,” Posey said. “We want to take what he has done well and apply it to a new context.” She added that the only change she currently sees in the course offerings is the removal of Honors Orientation.

Posey intends to talk with the various University divisions about how the program can help them. She also plans to continue working with the Honors executive council, a group of honors students who help lead the program.

The council’s secretary, junior Victoria Bennett, said she was sorry to see Gambill leave his position but that she had confidence that Posey would do a good job.

Bennett worried, however, that the changes would decrease the interaction of students within the program.

“Not having the intentionality of Honors Orientation from the start of a student’s honors experience is going to hurt the community,” she said.

Bennett added that she was a student who did not enjoy Honors Orientation, but that she had since learned to value it. “[Gambill] challenged and pushed me—especially through Honors Orientation—to love God with my mind,” she concluded.

Posey and Gambill will be available on April 19 at 4 p.m., in the Honors Center for students to voice thoughts and concerns or ask questions about this transition.

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