Fall 2011 / Spring 2012

Photo: Danielle Aquiline (MFA '06)
Photo: Danielle Aquiline (MFA '06)
"When you hear what our students say about Columbia," Mark Kelly says, "it’s not surprising that they find Columbia to be academically challenging."

A Conversation with Mark Kelly

The Vice President of Student Affairs discusses the Honors Program with the Dean of LAS.

The Spring of 2010 saw the inception of the first Honors Program through the LAS Core Curriculum at Columbia College Chicago. With the hard work of her Dean’s Office senior staff and faculty members in the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Dean Deborah H. Holdstein implemented a pilot program of five courses, which has now grown to include more than twenty courses that will be offered to students in the Fall of 2011. In September, LAS Associate Dean Dr. Neil Pagano will direct the program, taking the mantle from the inaugural director, LAS Assistant Dean Keith Cleveland, who retired on August 1, 2011.

With the Honors Program entering a new year and growing in important ways, @LAS sat down with Mark Kelly, Vice President of Student Affairs, to reflect on the program’s evolution, its contributions to the academic landscape at Columbia, and how a future partnership between LAS and his office will contribute to the Honors community.

@LAS: As an administrator with an awareness of goings-on at Columbia College Chicago, what is the general perception among students and parents about the Honors Program at Columbia?

Kelly: Students and parents just assume that such a program exists, and information about the Honors Program is always well received, as is information about the LAS Core and the place of Honors within it. There is nothing controversial about our Honors Program from the parents’ and students’ perspective. It’s assumed to be part of the academy—an avenue for students who are seeking an academic challenge beyond that of the typical college classroom.

@LAS: There have been various attempts at various times to get an Honors Program established at Columbia. In fact, Dr. Pagano worked with the LAS founding dean on an earlier iteration, called “chili pepper” courses. What has your role been over the years regarding the need for an Honors Program?

Kelly: The Honors Program has been a long time coming. I was one of the early advocates for its creation, and I remember how many years back the idea had been discussed. I chaired the first committee—probably twelve to fifteen years ago—and at that time, it was considered to be a controversial topic.

There was, I believe, some real confusion in the college that conflated a generous admissions/open admissions approach with a belief that there could never be additional challenges offered to students because it would be against our mission, our philosophy. I believe that it is the opposite—and all research has supported this: In colleges where there is a generous policy for admissions, there are honors programs because there is a wider disparity of types of students and their abilities regarding academic challenge, and that’s how colleges have navigated that terrain without challenging an important belief in access and opportunity.

I also think the Honors Program speaks to a larger issue at the college. If you go back and look at our catalogs, our academic discussions, rarely would you see a reference to our students’ intellectual life, as if to say that in their chosen disciplines that challenge wasn’t part of the mix—and that’s not true. So it’s not just about honors. It’s the expectation that students will be well educated—that they will not be successful in this world if they haven’t led an intellectual life. Majors [in the three Schools—Liberal Arts and Sciences, Media Arts, and Fine and Performing Arts] and the LAS Core are complementary parts of the whole, and the Honors Program offers that bit of additional challenge for students who are willing to go far, deep, and wide.

Years ago, there were three different honors committees. Then, why did the idea of creating Honors at the college die? Who killed it? Even naysayers on the committees became supporters. I can’t even remember why it didn’t go forward. I began to proselytize again, and pushed the formation of a second committee—which the founding Dean of LAS [Dr. Cheryl Johnson-Odim] chaired—and I was the staff member on the committee, but I was her right hand. I did a lot of the research and pulled material together. That committee put forward a proposal to the College Council, which went through Academic Affairs after a difficult discussion. The Academic Affairs Committee recommended the proposal to the full College Council with its support. The full council was ready to embrace it, but the academic leadership at that time tabled it because it was a very transitional time.

Later on, the third iteration/committee was formed with the [now former] Provost leading it. Finally, this no longer was the big controversy that it was before, and faculty members were excited. It was agreed that LAS would lead the charge, and two years later, there is nothing but good news from admissions. Students who would not have considered Columbia before now are coming. We are offering the level of academic challenge they want. I’ve heard nothing but good things from faculty, and I’ve heard nothing but good things from students who have participated. So kudos to LAS and to all who have made this an important part of the academic life of the college.

@LAS: How has the Honors Program had an impact on recruitment and retention?

Kelly: The research on honors programs is that it’s not the same thing as academic rigor, but it brings new direction and focus to the idea of academic rigor. When you hear what our students say about Columbia, it’s not surprising that they find Columbia to be academically challenging. We think the Honors Program has some relationship to that overall shift in perception, and this certainly helps with recruitment and with retaining our most traditionally prepared students.

What’s great is that we continue with our commitment to generous admissions, and at the same time attract students who could go to some of the most selective schools in the country but who come here because of our faculty, our challenging curriculum, and the additional academic challenge of the Honors Program.

@LAS: What are the benefits of a partnership between the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Student Affairs for co-curricular Honors events?

Kelly: I think going forward there are many opportunities. We have these great Honors courses, and now we will work together with LAS to create an Honors community that allows students to have a great level of intellectual discourse beyond the classroom, a project that would be a partnership of LAS and Student Affairs.

I would like to emphasize the fluidity of this. The Honors community would become a bridge back to the work of a student and his or her major and interests. The many artists and professionals who come to our campus, all of whom are people with a rich intellectual life, who at their core are not technicians alone, can interact with Honors students. Their artistry, scholarship, or creativity is driven by words, by ideas, by the world, by analytical thinking. And to bring those voices and their intellectual ferment to our students is essential.

Of course, that’s not limited to the Honors Program alone, but the intellectual ferment is enhanced by these interactions. What’s behind an artist’s work? A scholar’s thinking? What excites you? What was the big bang for you in terms of ideas? Who was the influence on a major thinker/artist? The Honors Program helps us create a fluid community that allows students to enter professional types of discourse. Further, the Honors Program students reflect what has always gone on—we value openness and intellectual inquiry, and it helps to put a new focus on these qualities. In fact, an Honors community takes intellectual exploration and further opens it to the rest of the community.

All of this, in the end, is to remind ourselves that our students will be prepared for the challenges and opportunities of life after Columbia because they not only worked hard in their majors, but they also became very well educated through the LAS Core, and, especially, through the Honors Program.