New title, same excellence: MSU’s Honors College fledged

On Sept. 18, the Montana University System’s Board of Regents unanimously approved the formation of an Honors College at MSU, marking the success of the 32-year-old Honors Program.

MSU’s first honors program was founded in 1964, but did not last and ended in 1972. The previous Honors Program, now the Honors College, was started in 1981 after a nine-year hiatus. The program saw steady growth resulting in today’s record student enrollment of 1112.

In many ways, the transition of the program into an actual college is just nominal. “It’s a name change,” said Ilse-Mari Lee, now dean of the honors college. “At least for three to four years we have functioned as a college.”

The College is already characterized by large student enrollment, specialized course offerings and scholarship funding. Lee believes the benefit of the name change will be enjoyed by students who graduate from the Honors College as they apply for jobs or graduate school. “It is a much more accurate representation of the rigor of what [they] are embarking on,” she explained.

While funding isn’t expected to change significantly, Lee is interested in offering more scholarships through the college. She expressed her desire for every student to have the “opportunity to be a part of student organizations [and research].” Lee clarified that this is not always feasible when students have to work a minimum wage job to put themselves through school. She would rather see students working in a library, lab or another thought-provoking setting. ‘Increased funding for scholarships … is really my top priority.”

According to Lee, MSU has been supportive of the Honors Program and she looks forward to continuing support of the Honors College. “It’s not as though suddenly I expect to be showered with resources, because they’ve already been there,” she said. Highlighting the strong financial backing of the university is the recent $1.2 million renovation of the quads to house more honors students as well as convert decrepit classrooms into modern and functional learning environments. “Everything we’ve asked for, we have received so far,” Lee said.

A hallmark of the Honors Program has always been intimate class settings. The remarkably small student-to-teacher ratio has long been an attractive quality to prospective students. All freshmen in the Honors College are required to take Texts and Critics, a two-semester seminar course that encourages critical thinking. The classes are capped at 15 students to create a suitable environment for discussion for engaged learning. Lee says she has never been asked to increase the number of students in the class.

The Honors College closely cooperates with the other departments on campus. Many honors courses are taught by faculty members of other departments. Collaboration with other departments has allowed for increased honors course offerings. Four years ago, four honors seminars were available. This year, fifteen seminars are being offered, and two to three classes are added each year. Lee anticipates that this growth will continue, as there is “phenomenal student demand for honors courses.”

The number of students in the Honors College has increased in concurrence with the growth of the university. Honors students make up 7.5 percent of the MSU student population. Admission to the Honors College will remain unchanged — based on a holistic approach that focuses on academic excellence and leadership as well as aptitude, level of motivation and appetite for learning. Three years ago, a system was established allowing students to join the Honors College later in their college careers and to still graduate with an honors degree. “It’s all about access,” Lee said.

Administratively, the Honors College will not see much of a change and will continue to function largely under the same organization the Honors Program had previously. However, the Honors College will gain a development director, connecting the College with honors alumni and potential donors interested in contributing to student success. Lee stressed all of the changes that have been made in the past and which will be made in in future are built around what is best for the students. She believes that the impact of the transition from the Honors Program to the Honors College will be nothing but positive.

With the College now established, Lee has moved to thinking about what’s next. “I have some ideas,” she said, “We’re just doing a little dance here. It’s really fun to think of the possibilities