St. Mary's seeks meaning of 'honors' campus status

October 13, 1994|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,Sun Staff Writer

ST. MARY'S CITY -- Thirty months ago, the state named St. Mary's College a "public honors college."

Yesterday, college officials canceled classes to figure out what that means. The experts at hand: the school's 1,500 students.

"It's only fitting, as students, that we are given this opportunity, as the changes that will take place will affect us most," senior Alex Kovalski, a student who helped to arrange the event, told several hundred students, professors and administrators who assembled yesterday morning on a residential quadrangle on campus.

"This is the first time that we've really talked about it," Ho Nguyen, head of the division of history and social sciences, told a session on admissions policies. "I know many students, and especially faculty and staff, are cynical" about the honors designation.

Administrators, students and faculty members split into 11 groups to discuss proposals that could dramatically affect life on campus.

Policies on admissions, curriculum, majors, advising, scheduling and technology all boiled down to this: What does it mean to be an honors college?

Some suggested that it implies an honors code; others, more student independence in creating a course of study. Still others championed tougher requirements and more interaction between students and faculty members.

Also discussed was how an honors ethos affects the use of new technologies on campus: Could students take unproctored exams on computers in their dorm rooms? If students are graded on a joint project, would an honor code explicitly bar slacking by any member of a group?

Students took the lead in some of the discussions yesterday. Several undergraduates challenged the existence of a program for top students at the college that requires them to construct a two-semester independent project instead of an assigned senior paper for a class.

"I don't see how we can be labeled an honors college and have an honors program within that," Katie Beck, a junior from Bowie majoring in history, said during a session looking at the image the school projects to prospective students.

Dr. Nguyen replied, "It was originally designed to keep our brightest students in Maryland, because we don't want the brightest to go off to New England."

Asked by another professor whether a mandatory, self-driven project would be too daunting for students, Angela Graham, a freshman from Baltimore, responded, "I can't see it as intimidating if it were presented as an opportunity to pursue a yearlong project."

Those principles affect policies. For example, the requirement for a senior project would demand more one-on-one instruction from faculty members, many of whom already feel overburdened with research, teaching and community service.

In the past two years, St. Mary's has staked out a course independent of the state's public university system, raising its standards for new hires and new students. The legendary party atmosphere has been toned down at the isolated, riverside campus in Southern Maryland, about 70 miles south of Annapolis.

President Edward T. Lewis sees in yesterday's sessions the opportunity to use the school's honors designation to involve the students in campus life. Many faculty members and some students serve on four task forces looking at St. Mary's to prepare reports for an accrediting agency, but students often feel too removed from decisions affecting the school, he said.

One-quarter to one-third of all students took part in the discussions yesterday.

"It tends to be a somewhat passive student body," Dr. Lewis said yesterday. "They're very good test-takers. But we want the conversation outside class to be more serious, more intellectual.

"I don't know if we'll have an [honors] code. It has to be student-generated. Again, it changes a culture of the institution."

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