This September we will celebrate 60 years of honors education at Washington State University. Our history dates back to 1960 and the vision of Professor Sidney G. Hacker of the Department of Mathematics to create an “academic program that would rank among the very best—one with a balanced curriculum, designed to promote intellectual curiosity and critical thinking long past graduation.” With the unflagging support of Vice President S. Town Stephenson and President C. Clement French an Honors Program was launched with an incoming class of 176 freshmen students. Then, as today, Honors students represented all of the degree-granting colleges and came from nearly every department. Another parallel is that teaching in the Honors curriculum continues to attract the university’s top scholars from faculty across campus.
By the end of its first decade, the Honors Program at Washington State University had grown to more than 560 students. Under the direction of the legendary Professor V.N. “Vic” Bhatia, our Honors Program flourished and gained a reputation as one of the best in the nation and a model for other U.S. colleges and universities. A description of Vic that I particularly like is that he was a “builder – not with bricks and mortar, but with vision, drive, and diplomacy.”
In 1979 The New York Times wrote, “The extent to which an honors student pursues a deeper and more far-ranging education is seen at Washington State, where … the Honors Program … is widely regarded as one of the strongest in the country.”
Under the leadership of professors Jane Lawrence and then Mary Wack, the Honors Program was elevated to the status of Honors College in 1998 and moved into its permanent home in Elmina White Honors Hall in 2000. The Home Economics building, as it was originally known, was completely remodeled to facilitate a living-learning community that contained residential space for over 100 students, classrooms, faculty offices, a library, lounges, and a computer lab.
When Mary Wack moved to the Office of the Provost in 2007, Libby Walker took over as Dean until her retirement in 2013. She led the implementation of a fully integrated honors curriculum that not only continued the emphasis on critical thinking, communication, and discussion but also includes experiential learning activities such as independent research, study abroad, global awareness, entrepreneurship, and leadership.
Excited by our curriculum and the opportunities offered by an honors education, enrollment in the Honors College continues to grow, far exceeding the predictions of its founders. In Fall 2019, we welcomed over 290 new students (7 percent of the incoming WSU class); total enrollment now exceeds 1,100 with representation from every degree-granting college.
As Dean I enjoy meeting with each of our first-year students. A question they frequently ask is, “What do you do?” There is, of course, the long answer, but my two overarching commitments are to do all I can to ensure that each student has the best possible undergraduate experience and to provide opportunities and resources so that our graduates are best prepared for the next step in their careers, enabled to make a positive impact in the world and be leaders in their respective fields.
An example of how we create innovative opportunities and programs is the recently launched certificate in Mindfulness-Based Emotional and Social Intelligence (MESI), which teaches happiness as a skill and provides students with the tools to improve their academic performance, relationships, health, and happiness. Through innovative coursework, workshops, local and global service projects, and guest speakers, the MESI certificate trains students in mindfulness, self-awareness, self-management, empathy, and compassion and prepares them for a life of personal and professional integrity and engagement.
In The Mind of a Leader, authors Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter write, “It’s no accident that organizations with more compassionate leaders have stronger connections between people, better collaboration, more trust, stronger commitment to the organization, and lower turnover. Simply put, compassion is core to effective leadership.”
The MESI certificate is just the latest example of how an Honors education at Washington State University is able to evolve to meet the needs of our students and provide them with important personal and professional skills for success now and into the future.
My sincerest wish was that we would be able to join together in person to celebrate this important milestone in the history of Honors at Washington State University. Unfortunately circumstances beyond anyone’s control have meant that we will instead celebrate virtually. I hope that you will still join us September 10 -12 to celebrate 60 years of excellence. We are putting together a wonderful series of presentations, lectures, performances, and a virtual historical walking tour of WSU. There will be lots to enjoy and hopefully we will be able to meet in person very soon.
M. Grant Norton, Dean
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