“My primary goal is to serve the students in the program and get as much value of the program as they can,” newly-appointed Interim Director Gregg Fiegel said.
Cal Poly’s honors advisory board — composed of honors students, faculty, staff and administration, has been meeting every Friday this quarter to discuss the future of the program, which the provost decided will be drastically changed in the next two years.
In early April, Cal Poly Provost Kathleen Enz-Finken announced the honors program was not strong enough to continue existing under the same structure, and the program needed to dissolve so a new one could be formed.
This announcement sparked an outcry of protest from students, faculty and administrators who believed a program designed for a higher-caliber learning was important for Cal Poly.
In response, the Academic Senate approved advisory resolutions, which recommended Cal Poly continue admitting students into the program while it undergoes a two-year transition period.
With the passing of the resolutions, and a series of meetings with deans, faculty and students, the provost decided to enter a two-year transition period instead of dissolving the program — allowing the honors program to continue to enroll students, which students and faculty wanted most.
“I believed that the program, as it existed, was not a strong program to serve Cal Poly,” Enz Finken said. “My main concern was I didn’t want to offer a program that wasn’t a strong and viable program.”
In the meantime, Cal Poly has made some changes and the current program is better than what it was, she said.
A two-year transition
The resolutions the Academic Senate proposed are to maintain continuity in the existing honors program and have a seamless transition into a new one, philosophy professor Ken Brown said. The most important focus is making sure the students do not suffer from this transition.
Cal Poly invited approximately 300 students to apply to the honors program this year and of those, approximately half applied. Of those who applied, Cal Poly accepted 65 students — a 20 percent decrease from last year’s 83 students.
Brown, who was involved in the selection process, said he was disappointed in the smaller-than-normal honors class size.
“I think that’s a mistake,” Brown said. “It’s very difficult to maintain the number of courses necessary for the honors program to thrive if you constrict the number of students admitted into it.”
Associate Vice Provost Mary Pedersen, however, said the reduction was in response to the number of students who have dropped the program in the past.
Last year the 83 students created a three-cohort class size — meaning the class could be divided into three sections of a minimum of 24 students. A large number of students dropped out of the program, however, and they reduced the class to two sections instead of three.
“In the past, a large number of students dropped out and there wasn’t a big effort to see why they dropped out,” Pedersen said. “We want to make a real effort to work with the students in the program to try to keep them in the program and retain them.”
Students may still be disqualified due to their GPA, but the goal is to keep them in the program, she said. There is a strong possibility the honors program may admit enrolled students into the program, but the decision has not yet been finalized.
One of the problems in the past is maintaining a sense of community among honors students, Pedersen said. The honors program does not want to require students to fulfill extra units, and have offered only general education courses in the past, which are difficult to offer as students progress into their degree.
When students enter their junior and senior years, they tend to focus on their majors and take individual courses such as internships, research projects and study abroad programs. This shift stems from the difficulty in providing classes with material broad enough for all majors as they enter upper-division courses.
“One of our challenges is we want to create a program that is very attractive to each of the different majors, but we don’t want to create a lot of extra course requirements,” Pedersen said.
In the past, Cal Poly students have worked on inter-disciplinary projects where the group develops a collective vision and creates a model — a process Pedersen hopes to emphasize, she said.
A changing program
Upon Enz-Finken’s original announcement, former director of the honors program Sema Altpikin announced her resignation, a standard process during a dramatic transition, Brown said.
At the end of August, Pedersen appointed engineering professor Gregg Fiegel to interim director.
“Dr. Fiegel has a lot of leadership experience, served as a chair and has received a lot of awards for mentoring students,” Pedersen said.
He has also taught honors courses and advised student research projects.
Fiegel is not working on any major changes during the transition period, but some of his goals are to improve the website, provide more guidance and track the students’ progress and analyze the data collected to improve any weak areas.
“My primary goal is to serve the students in the program and get as much value of the program as they can,” Fiegel said.
Pedersen, Fiegel and the honors task force are collaborating to research different types of honors programs and develop a program strong enough to meet the goals and needs of the stakeholders — the students, faculty, alumni and prospective honors students.
The honors program at University of California, Davis has a two-year honors program for GE courses and then the honors program is specific to their major, a program appealing to Pedersen, she said.
University of California, Los Angeles has a program offered to every first-year student, and about one third of the class partakes in it. The students take three GE courses, one each quarter, which are thematically linked. The third class is a high-impact, project-based course where students learn to collaborate and build a community.
The emphasis on community, Pedersen said, is essential to a successful honors program and is her main focus in creating a new one.