Growing Pains or Growing Gains: Expanding Honors Program seeks space, new designation

Ann Bertagnolli recalls sitting around a long table in Quad D, 15 years ago, with other instructors of Texts & Critics, the MSU Honors Program’s freshman seminar.

“We all had room,” said Bertagnolli, INBRE Program Coordinator and Texts & Critics instructor. “But starting four or five years ago, we couldn’t do that anymore because there were too many sections.”

The current Texts & Critics instructors — with a student and faculty member facilitating each of the 22 sections — now pack the basement of Quad F every Monday afternoon.

In Fall 2001, 22 Texts & Critics sections would have been unimaginable, as there were only 104 honors freshmen. But that number has more than tripled to 317 freshmen in Fall 2012, with most of this growth happening in the last five years. Over the same period, the total MSU undergraduate population increased by 25 percent to 14,660.

Honors Program Director Dr. Ilse-Mari Lee believes the program’s rapid growth is a result of changes in the way the university markets itself, as the Honors Program has become a selling point for bringing in out-of-state students. She cited the fact that 49 percent of honors students are out-of-state, and university-wide, 60 percent of out-of-state students are part of the Honors Program.

Now, with the Honors Program’s expanding numbers, plans are in development to turn the program into an official Honors College. “With our curriculum, with our numbers, with the way we function and our academic resources,” Lee said, the program is already equivalent to an Honors College.

Lee said the Honors College proposal is currently on her desk. She would like to submit it to the Provost’s office before the end of the term so it can possibly reach the Board of Regents by June.

Swinford said the association with an Honors College as opposed to an Honors Program would also help students when applying for major scholarships or graduate schools.

“It’s a competition,” he said, “and we need to accurately reflect the experience [students have].”

Lee also dreams of a “common honors space,” specifically “a very attractive place where ideas can be born.” The Honors Program does not currently have a space where students “can just hang out,” she said.

Swinford remembers that during his time as an undergraduate student at a small, liberal arts college, the library lobby or the student union was that space. However, MSU does not have a “physical space where that intellectual community can reside,” he explained, though if such a space were created both he and Lee will not limit it to honors students.

“I wouldn’t know where it would be,” Swinford said. “It’s in that fantasy, ‘wouldn’t it be nice’ stage.”

Though Bertagnolli supports a common honors space, she said honors students do not want to be “segregated from the rest of university.” The space could be a place where ideas are created and groups begin, she said, which would then be brought to the greater student body. She cited the Student Community Outreach Project (SCOPE) — a new group that connects undergraduates to community-based research projects in Montana — as an example of what could come of such a collaboration.

The Honors Program also hopes to increase the number of beds designated for honors students. Currently, there are only 120 beds available for over 1,100 honors students, in the Quads and the 10th floor of South Hedges. While 20 beds will be added by next fall in the upper floors of Quad F, Lee would like to see at least 200 beds reserved for incoming freshmen in the future.

However, Swinford said the only current option is for more existing space to be used as honors housing. “We don’t have the control or the power to create new space.” he said, and the construction of a new honors dorm is not possible at this point.

He emphasized the role of students in advocating for the honors living experience. While he could not say whether the necessary student support exists — the program has never polled students on their experience in honors housing — he never hears students complain about being isolated from the rest of the university.

He added that many students like the “Quad situation and the community that develops within the Quads.”


Editor’s note: for editorial clarification regarding this report, see Editor’s column here.