Honors morale high as funding drops and program reviews

Kyle Robinson, a sophomore economics major and honors student, explains some of the advantages of being a part of the honors program at the program’s meeting last Thursday to discuss the program with reviewers. Robinson said he believes the staff layoff in the program will effect the atmosphere of the honors office.
Kirsten Sylvain
Kyle Robinson, a sophomore economics major and honors student, explains some of the advantages of being a part of the honors program at the program’s meeting last Thursday to discuss the program with reviewers. Robinson said he believes the staff layoff in the program will effect the atmosphere of the honors office.

Posted on April 21, 2014 in News
By Kirsten Sylvain

The time has come again, after more than a decade, for the USM honors program to be reviewed, and according to program director Nancy Artz, the timing is right.

“It would be fair to say that USM’s fiscal reality in recent years and future budget projections affected the timing of the review,” she said. The honors program would have been affected during the recent retrenchment, with the layoff of Professor Kaitlin Briggs. With the recent reversal of the faculty cuts, Briggs will stay on, but Administrative Specialist and Office Coordinator Nan Bragg will still be laid-off after May.

According to Artz, funding for the program has been shrinking for the past few years, even though she believes the program could successfully expand if additional funding were available because of strong student interest in the courses. Fifty-seven incoming students for the fall have signed up for priority registration in one of the program’s four entry-year experience courses, Artz said. In total, they plan to enroll 62 students in the EYE courses. “In other words, our EYE sections are more or less full before registration has even started,” she said.

“If we had more funds, we could offer more sections,” Artz said. However she, like the honors students in attendance on Thursday, were optimistic that changes in the program would not hinder its future success. “The budget is sufficient to deliver our required courses and remain a vibrant community,” Artz said.

A small group of honors students met in Hastings Hall on Thursday to discuss the program with three external reviewers who will submit a report on the program in May. The review, which started in September, is aimed at improving the program through self-analysis and ensuring accountability to stakeholders.

Artz explained that another goal of the study is to try to better understand how much money the program brings in at USM and how much it costs. As Artz explained, the honors program is uniquely structured, making it difficult to quantify its success. Reviewers will use student surveys to understand how many students cite honors as a reason to come to USM and stay at USM. They will also talk about how honors faculty are funded, as the honors faculty are all within other departments.

Program review is required periodically by USM’s accrediting body, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, and by the University of Maine System, Artz explained.

Bragg’s position was added to the program at a time when USM wanted to expand the program, but that expansion, Artz explained, never happened, so it has been relatively well-staff compared to other similar honors programs. “Nan has been wonderful at fostering a sense of community and supporting individual students in myriad ways, so the elimination of the position is clearly a loss for the program,” Artz said. “That said, comparable programs function just fine with one support staff member rather than two, so we can too.”

Assistant Director of the program Bethany Round also transferred to Student Success this semester. A search has already begun to fill the position, but with Bragg gone, the position will consolidate the two support staff positions.

“This…[position] is more important than ever now that we’ve gone from two support staff lines to one,” Artz said.

In fiscal year 2013, 106 students were enrolled in honors courses and 123 seats were filled with some students enrolling in multiple courses, though relatively few students complete an honors thesis –– four to eight students have done so over the last four years, Artz explained.

“Because we are not a degree-granting program and because we encourage students to ‘sample a course’ … the concept of ‘completing’ the program isn’t as meaningful as ‘completing’ a degree program,” Artz said.

Students at Thursday’s meeting highly praised the program as a unique and enriching experience and said that they were confident the program would succeed despite its loss this semester. “I think the biggest thing will be losing the presence in the office,” said honors student and sophomore economics major Kyle Robinson.

Freshman honors student and health science major Collin Skilling added that he was confident that despite the loss of Bragg, the program would continue to provide an active learning community for students. “It’s a strong program,” he said.

“We’ve already told students that they need to take greater responsibility for maintaining our learning community,” Artz said, and a number of the students at Thursday’s meeting seemed ready to help out. They have already started work on creating a peer mentorship program to help incoming honors students.

“In the dozen years since our last review in 2001, the honors program has changed considerably, as has the institution’s fiscal reality,” Artz said. “The time is ripe to reflect on the current state of the program and consider new models of honors education.”