Former students, faculty disagree on changes to UND honors program
GRAND FORKS—Changes to the University of North Dakota's honors program have left some former students and faculty upset, while the university says the changes were made to benefit students as higher education continues to evolve.
Former honors student Martin Rottler, who now works as the industry relations coordinator for Ohio State University's Center for Aviation Studies in Columbus, penned a letter to the editor earlier this month in response to the changes with the program. The letter included the signatures of more than 50 other former UND honors program students.
"After all, the major cutbacks to core programs make it clear that UND is not committed to supporting the core tenets of arts, humanities, and global learning that make a university," Rottler wrote. "Rather, leadership is working hard to turn UND into a school interested only in oil, big data, and drones."
Some changes to the program include updates to the senior thesis, a change in faculty and a move to the bottom floor of Columbia Hall. The honors program was previously housed in Robertson-Sayre Hall, but the building was torn down earlier this year.
In the letter, Rottler writes that the group understands the "ongoing budget crunch, and that the cuts noted above have come at the hands of several administrations and state leaders over years."
"We cringe at the thought that the UND we knew and loved, that helped make us who we are, is becoming, like Robertson-Sayre Hall, a pile of rubble," the letter ended.
"In talking with former staff members, students, current students and faculty members, this is a fundamental change for the negative," Rottler said in an interview.
Changes being made
Rebecca Rozelle-Stone, interim director of the honors program for the past two months, later wrote a letter in response to Rottler's that broke down some of the changes planned for the program.
"Contrary to the letter's assertion that UND's Honors Program is undergoing a 'demolition' analogous to that of the Robertson-Sayre building that housed the program for some years (although it was not Honors' original home), the Honors Program is actually poised for both expansion and heightened standards," Rozelle-Stone wrote.
Rozelle-Stone said the changes were discussed and feedback was received and considered from various groups. These include an honors working group of interested faculty over the summer of 2017, the Essential Studies Committee, and the Senate Honors Committee, which includes student representatives.
The program is expected to have one of the largest classes ever this fall, with around 160 incoming students expected, a 23 percent rise from last year.
"I think we're trying to expand the possibilities, enhance the freedom of our students, also of our faculty," Rozelle-Stone said in an interview.
This fall there will be 18 different faculty members with varied backgrounds teaching courses for the honors program, Rozelle-Stone said.
"We're really excited about that," she said. "They're passionate about working with honors students, they've already been working with them to some extent but now they get to be more fully involved by teaching honors courses."
Rozelle-Stone said one of the "most exciting changes" the program has recently implemented is a dual-track honors curriculum that allows students to be an "honors research scholar" or an "honors leader in action."
"These are maybe new tracks, but they don't get away from the backbone of a liberal arts curriculum, that critical thinking that's so essential, or interdisciplinary approaches to problems," Rozelle-Stone said.
Senior honors thesis
Robin David was involved in the program for 17 years, including the last 16 as its assistant director. David said she has "serious concerns" about the changes to the program.
"I was very excited for the possibility of having some changes and innovations over the years," she said. "This past year, however, significant changes were made that I don't feel had the best interests of the students. I think some of the key elements of the program, including student support, were cut."
Programs can be set up in new and different ways, David said, but added that she has "trouble seeing how we can serve the students well under the new model that was being set up this year."
The program is also not cutting a senior honors thesis requirement, Rozelle-Stone said. The requirement has been redesigned from a nine-credit, multi-semester expectation to a flexible three-credit, one-semester capstone project that may or may not involve a thesis, depending on the discipline.
"We want to support (students) but we also want to give them and their faculty advisers more autonomy and more ownership over the work that they're doing because we know that they're capable of outstanding work," she said.
In her letter, Rozelle-Stone cited a 2014 UND "Honors Attrition Report," which she said showed that only 16 percent of students entering the honors program stayed with the program until graduation.
"Clearly, change has been needed to attract and retain students in honors," she wrote.
David says the honors program was not structured with the primary goal of retaining students, noting that if you are very selective about who is admitted to the program then you are more likely to have a higher retention rate versus allowing more students to experience the program. Over the years, those goals have shifted from administration to administration.
There were "numerous" changes that David said concerned her, including the trimming of advisement for students, the movement of faculty into an "open-air" environment and the reduction of "honors-specific" classes. She also expressed concern about the change to the senior honors thesis.
Peter Johnson, a former honors student and spokesman for the university, noted that education has changed a lot throughout the years, and so the way students are measured has also changed.
"I do think it's kind of a natural evolution to explore," he said, noting that students in college now have already been learning in different ways than before so it's important for universities to adapt as well.
While the entire university has had to deal with budget cuts over the past year, David said a "bulk" of the changes, specifically dealing with staffing, were made after the cuts had already taken place. Ultimately, David decided to leave the program earlier this year, in part due to the ongoing changes with the program.
"This was a very challenging year for faculty and students alike," she said.