The Cal Poly Honors Program has been the center of controversy recently because of Provost Kathleen Enz Finken’s announcement that she intends to create a restructured and more sustainable program, even if that means first closing the current program.
“We have opportunities to create a program that would be more substantial and more easily sustainable,” Enz Finken said.
Faculty and students involved with the honors program have shown a great deal of opposition to this idea, arguing that even if changes are to be made, it is not necessary to close the program and start from scratch.
“Why phase it out and start a new one?” Honors Program Director Sema Alptekin said. “It took us so many years to build it to this capacity, and we are under-budgeted and still performing well.”
Students and faculty in the honors program attended Wednesday’s Academic Senate meeting in order to protest the action. Enz Finken, however, took the meeting as an opportunity to clarify that she is not suggesting the complete absence of any similar program.
“When they showed up at the senate meeting, I think students wanted it to be a tough conversation, but I’m not fighting this,” Enz Finken said on Wednesday. “I’m in favor of an honors program.”
Enz Finken said her first idea was to phase out the program during the next three years in order to ensure that no student currently in the program would be left hanging.
“Initially when I started the conversation, the expectation was that we would close the program over time,” Finken said. “Every student in it would be able to finish it.”
One of the points Enz Finken stressed was of creating a program that would be “sustainable” in the long run.
“Some individuals have noted that the program has been around for 14 years, and so it’s demonstrated that it’s ‘sustainable,’” Enz Finken said.
But though the program has existed at Cal Poly for some time, it has merely survived rather than excelled, she said.
“I guess there’s different levels of sustainability,” Enz Finken said. “It has been around for 14 years, but it’s sort of limped along and there hasn’t been much structure for the program.”
Those involved with the honors program, however, disagreed with this sentiment.
“They can look at our program and criticize it, but our program really is a very good one for Cal Poly for the budget that we have,” Alptekin said. “We are not against making improvements, but we need support from administrators to make changes to the program.”
Students currently in the program say they are open to improvement, but are happy with the current program. Nutrition freshman Jaime Savitz said she did not think that such a drastic move should be taken.
“As far as changing it goes, why can’t we just change it over the next three years?” Savitz said. “We already have a foundation of students and faculty members. It just seems like it would be a lot less work and make a lot more sense to work with what we already have and reinvigorate it.”
Enz Finken, however, said she felt that closing the current program and starting anew is what would be best for the university.
“It’s not well integrated into the institution,” Enz Finken said. “When I talk about sustainability, I’d like to see a program that’s fully integrated into the university curriculum structure.”
Though no action is currently underway, Enz Finken said now is the right time to begin talking about changes in the Honors Program because of upcoming changes in the university curriculum.
“We can start the conversation now,” Enz Finken said. “One of the things I talked about with the students is that the general education program is going to go through a formal review process next year, and that provides a great opportunity to think about how we might create an honors program that fits within the general education program.”
Alptekin said one of her main concerns is transparency for the administration throughout the decision process.
“We would like to see transparency in the process that we take before we make decisions,” Alptekin said. “Before you make any decisions as an administrator, you consult with faculty and students.”
Finken said she does plan to consult with various stakeholders before making the decision.
“Ultimately, anybody can provide input,” Enz Finken said. “I have a couple of meetings with student groups in the next month, and I know at least one of those groups has some ideas that they want to bring up.”
The final decision, according to Enz Finken, is ultimately up to herself and Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong.
According to Alptekin, efforts to improve the program began in Fall 2011 with the creation of a task force to review the honors program and then provide suggestions for its improvement.
“We spent a whole year last year meeting weekly or bi-weekly to evaluate the honors program,” Alptekin said.
The recommendations provided by the task force last year included establishing a research program and senior showcase as well as funding student scholarships. Alpekin said Enz Finken did not immediately respond to the task force’s review and did not address the issue of the future of the Honors Program until her recent announcement of her plans.
Alptekin did say the program has room for growth, specifically mentioning the budget as one of the program’s weaknesses.
“I need the students and faculty members help to revamp the program, but we also need funding to do the things that would take the honors program to the next level,” Alptekin said.
The honors program currently supports its 370 students on a budget of less than $100,000 annually, according to Alptekin.
Even those students who will not be around to see the future of the program are involved in the debate. Business administration senior Sam Cates said even though he is graduating in June, he still cares.
“It’s the legacy,” Cates said. “It’ll provide credibility for when I put it on my résumé, and it’s important that students who are younger than myself get the same opportunities that I did at Cal Poly.”
Ultimately, the consensus is that Cal Poly’s Honors Program can be improved — the controversy just centers around how to do so.
“If we can create a really strong, solid honors program that has good support and good learning outcomes, then that’s great,” Enz Finken said.