Letter to the Editor: Provost honors concerns with program

The Provost’s office read the Oct. 25 article in the News regarding honors course offerings with great interest and concern. The article is timely, given our current focus on how best to change and position the program in the upcoming implementation of the general education requirements. We want to take this opportunity to respond to some of the claims in the article and to provide you with an update on the program’s status.

At present, there are 1,445 students enrolled in the program, with approximately equal numbers of students in each program year (275 seniors, 308 juniors, 257 middlers, 314 sophomores and 291 freshmen). These data do not support the claim of one student that “most people just drop out.”

As is the norm among top national universities, most of the honors course offerings at Northeastern are focused on general education courses. Also consistent with national norms, the focus for junior/senior honors at Northeastern is an independent project. Last year, as part of our planning for further development of the honors program, we asked for the assessment of three consultants from the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC). This group found the curricular focus to be strong. The availability of courses also appears to be generally sufficient compared to national averages, with about 2,000 honors enrollments per year in about 100 classes.

The concerns about limitations in program offerings expressed by the students in the article appear relevant for a subset of honors students who enter Northeastern with more than a year of Advanced Placement credit. They are free to waive many of the limited general education requirements. Honors offerings are further limited for students in this subset who are not interested in taking courses outside their majors. These concerns should be alleviated in the future by the implementation of the more rigorous and substantive general education requirements adopted last year by the faculty senate. Implementation of those changes in all colleges will commence in fall 2007.

While we do not feel that the article accurately reflects the Honors Program in its present state, it does reflect a level of concern among some students. In response, we plan to gather comprehensive input from honors students on the program at present as we implement planned changes. We will meet with the honors student council and with the honors students for each year of graduation. We will discuss course offerings, advantages of independent honors projects, feasible customized options that could meet the unique demands of a five-year undergraduate program and ideas for creating a stronger sense of connection of students to the program throughout all years. We will also use these meetings to explore more effective means of communicating on a regular basis with students, another concern cited in the article.

Examples of recent efforts to increase connection and communication are the Honors Welcome Week for first year students. This brought all entering students to campus a week prior to the start of classes for six days of events including the Honors Program First-Year Reading Project, a visit by Pulitzer-Prize winning author Tracy Kidder and implementation of a new advising system that more closely tracks students. Other efforts include the planned participation of four honors students in a conference organized by the National Collegiate Honors Council. These students are expected to provide peer leadership in recognizing best practices in national honors programs.

We expect these immediate steps to yield a stronger honors community that meets our aspirations as well as honors students’ expectations.

– Ahmed Abdelal is Northeastern’s Provost and Susan Powers-Lee is Northeastern’s Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education

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