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It’s only an honor when you have to earn it


We want to thank Sara Richardson for her article in The Minaret last week. As the Directors of the Honors Program, we love to see our students think critically and engage in public discussions and debates. Sara’s article does just that by raising a number of concerns in a public forum. Additionally, Sara’s article has helped us realize not only that the changes we are making to the Honors Program are being felt by the students but that we can also do a better job explaining our rationale for the changes we are making. In short, we welcome Sara’s invitation to talk about the direction we are taking the Honors Program at UT.

To provide a little background, Dr. Cragun became the Director of the Honors Program in June 2016. Dr. Tillman became the Associate Director in September of 2016. Together, we have been running the Honors Program for just under two years. During that time, there have been some changes, and we have many more changes planned. The change that seems to be of greatest concern in Sara’s article is the requirement that Honors Program students must now attend Honors Symposia. We will discuss this change at length below. So students are aware, there are more changes coming. We are in the process of bringing the UT Honors Program in line with best practices for Honors Programs by requiring an Honors Thesis and by developing a curriculum that is exclusive to the Honors Program. Those changes will be rolled out over the next two to five years.

We require students to attend symposia, as many Honors Programs do, in order to show them scholars and innovators in various fields of study. We hope that these speakers will either model best research practices for them or will allow them to spend time with some of the greatest minds both at UT and beyond. To encourage students to learn about subjects and scholarships beyond their own fields of study, we require participation at 4 out of about 24 opportunities per calendar year. This change brought UT’s Honors Program in line with best practices for Honors Programs.

While we’re happy that Sara raised her concerns publicly, we think it is important that we set the record straight as there were a number of factually incorrect statements and claims in her article.

Sara wrote, “From the start of the 2016 school year, to be considered an honors student, each student has to attend four symposia a semester.” This statement is incorrect in two ways. The symposium attendance requirement was added in fall of 2016 but it only applies to Honors students who entered the Honors Program in fall 2016 and after. Students who entered the Honors Program prior to fall 2016 have not been required to attend symposia. This is the same approach used with catalog changes at UT; if there are changes to a major, students who enrolled at UT before the changes were implemented are allowed to continue earning their degree based on the previous requirements. More importantly, the symposium attendance requirement is four per academic year – fall and spring – not per semester.

Recognizing that it is four symposia per academic year and not per semester, changes the basis for the next claim in Sara’s article that the Symposia are heavily concentrated in one time window, making it difficult for students to attend them. We mapped all of the Symposia and Coffee Conversations (not “Coffee Connections”) from the 2017-2018 academic year to provide a better sense of how many opportunities there are and when these opportunities are available. Here is the result:

Screen Shot 2018-02-20 at 9.58.10 PM

It is true that there have been or will be more Symposia or Coffee Conversations at 4:00 pm than during any other single hour, but 4:00 pm events make up just 32% of the 25 Symposia or Coffee Conversations offered this year. The opportunities are spread across the week, start as early as 9:00 am and as late as 7:00 pm. In scheduling these events, we have made a very intentional effort to spread them out precisely to address the concern that events may conflict with classes.

This leads to the next concern in Sara’s article, that we are inconsiderate of other events and activities in Honors student’s lives. With 25 events available at various times spread across the week throughout the academic year, we are skeptical that students cannot find the four hours necessary to meet this requirement. In a typical semester – usually toward the end of the semester – we have ten to twenty students contact us claiming that they have been unable to attend any of the events we have planned that semester and that the remaining one or two conflict with their class schedule. When we check their class schedules, to which we do have access, and then point out all of the events they could have attended that semester, the students usually admit that they put off attending Honors events until the end of the semester and could have attended earlier events.

In the rare instances where there are legitimate conflicts with student schedules, work, or other extracurricular activities, we have worked out alternative arrangements and are always happy to do so. We would suggest to students, however, that their case for accommodations will be far more convincing if they approach us at the beginning of a semester than at the end, when all of the events have already taken place.

There are two additional concerns with the Honors Program in Sara’s article that warrant addressing. Sara notes that she is in an Honors course this semester with 35 students in it. That is true. That is also extremely unusual. There are 22 Honors courses being offered this semester. The average number of students across those courses is 13.45, which is below the cap of 17 for Honors courses. Only two of those courses have more than 17 students; one has 18 and Sara’s course, Honors Financial Management, has 35. I spoke with the chair of the Finance Department, Dr. Lonnie Bryant, about this situation. He explained that the Finance Department is severely understaffed this semester (they are hiring a new faculty member this semester, which should alleviate this problem). As a result, they had to overfill all of their courses. The last course they over-enrolled to accommodate students’ ability to timely complete their majors was Sara’s course. This is a legitimate concern. At present, there are some staffing issues at UT due to increased student enrollment. The staffing issue unfortunately affected an Honors course this semester. We hope the staffing issue will be resolved and that this will not occur again.

The final concern Sara raises is that it is difficult to complete the requirement of five Honors courses, especially for students in the (presumably “natural” as opposed to the “social”) sciences. There are two problems with this argument. First, Honors Tutorials exist precisely to address this concern. With Honors Tutorials, students can convert any 3+ credit hour course into an Honors course that will fulfill the five course requirement. Perhaps Sara was unaware of this option, but many students are not. We approved 83 Honors Tutorials for just the spring 2018 semester. Of those 83 Tutorials, 22 of them or 26.5% are being undertaken by students in the natural sciences. Close to that percentage – about 1 in 4 – of the students who graduate with Honors Program Distinction are in the natural sciences. In fact, all three of the Honors students studying at Oxford this semester are natural science majors – Biochemistry, Biology, and Marine Science. In short, completing the five courses required to graduate with Honors Program Distinction is not more difficult in the natural sciences than it is in any other major.

We will end this response to Sara’s article with an observation. From our perspective, the general sentiment of Sara’s article seems to be that recent changes to the Honors Program are making graduating with Honors Program Distinction more challenging. That is absolutely true. That is also the purpose of an Honors Program – to challenge the best and brightest students at a university by providing them an enhanced education with additional resources, innovative courses, and extra opportunities to learn and grow. It is rarely the case in life that things worth having are easy to obtain. If graduating with Honors Program Distinction was easy and required no commitment on the part of students, what would graduating with Honors Program Distinction be worth?

Ryan T. Cragun and Kacy Tillman can be reached at ryantcragun@gmail.com and ktillman@ut.edu

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