Date of this Version
Published in Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council Vol. 12, No.2 (Fall/Winter 2011). ISSN 1559-0151.
President Gary A. Ransdell has a vision; he wants WKU to be “A Leading American University with International Reach.” Hired back to his alma mater in 1997, the Board of Regents tasked him to undertake a fundamental transformation of the campus. Changing the culture of an academic institution can be compared to moving mountains, but he undertook the challenge. He invested the first years of his presidency on infrastructure, bricks and mortar, curb appeal, student population, and improving the overall financial health of the institution. In 2005, satisfied that the institution was on a solid financial footing and moving in the right direction, he turned his energy to dramatically changing the academic reputation of the institution. The (then) honors program was selected as the vehicle to enact this change, so honors became a top university priority. The president’s strategy was and still is to use investments in honors as institutional leverage as part of the overall transformation of WKU into a leading American university with international reach.
WKU is not the first, or the only, institution to invest in honors education in order to effect institutional change. This strategy goes back to Frank Aydelotte and the creation of the country’s first honors program at Swarthmore in 1922 (Rinn 70) and is seen in the growth of honors education at all levels of higher education. Ransdell’s experience in alumni relations and development at two institutions with robust honors colleges and programs allowed him to see first-hand the role honors can play on a university campus. He understood that a well-designed honors experience can be an institutional transformative investment, not simply a marquee program for the recruitment and care of small number of academically gifted and high achieving students.
Building a robust honors college or program is not an inexpensive proposition. The per-student cost of an honors scholar in an appropriately funded honors college can rival the cost per student of varsity athletes. Leaders of every academic unit will argue that the funding provided to honors is best invested in their unit. If an institution chooses to invest $1,000,000 of reoccurring funds in a single academic discipline, that unit will undoubtedly improve dramatically, but the investment might do little if anything to improve the academic reputation of other departments on campus or the educational experience of students in other units. Less self-interested faculty might argue that the university’s finite resources should be invested across a range of academic units, not concentrated in honors. This “let’s give everyone something” mentality is undoubtedly equitable, but equally distributed investments are typically so small as to result in no noticeable improvement to any units or the institution as a whole. Ironically, an investment in a university- wide honors structure can have the effect of helping multiple units. Put another way, the concentration of resources in a university honors college can have the effect of diffusing the benefits to more academic units. The key point is that strategically investing resources in a properly constructed honors experience produces opportunities for students and faculty across the university, creating the possibility of enhancing the reputation of the entire university, not just a select department or two.