Fall 2010 / Spring 2011

Photo: Alexa Rubinstein ('09)
Photo: Alexa Rubinstein ('09)

A New Standard of Excellence

The Honors Program, housed in the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences, is the first in the college’s 120-year history, offering Columbia’s undergraduate students the opportunity to think, study, and create at the highest academic levels.


When Keith Cleveland began working for Columbia College Chicago in 1979, much about the institution, academically and otherwise, was decidedly different. Columbia owned just one building, enrolled roughly 2,900 students, and offered academic programs that had no course requirements or prerequisites. With the exception of two required writing courses, all classes were electives.

Times have changed. Cleveland, who is the Assistant Dean of Faculty Advising and LAS Initiatives, has seen the college grow to occupy twenty-two buildings throughout Chicago’s South Loop, offer more than 120 academic programs across three different Schools, enroll about 12,000 students each academic year, and institute the foundation of the college’s undergraduate curriculum: the Liberal Arts and Sciences (LAS) Core Curriculum.

Now with Cleveland’s support, and under the direction of LAS Dean Deborah H. Holdstein, Provost and Senior Vice President Steve Kapelke, and others, the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences has taken undergraduate academics at Columbia to the next level, launching the college’s first Honors Program in its 120-year history. Students qualifying for the program will achieve Honors through the LAS Core Curriculum, which is taken by every undergraduate student at the college. Instituted this past Spring semester, the Honors Program represents a major step forward for academics at the college.

Combining interdisciplinary instruction with advanced, challenging, and self-directed learning methods, the program offers undergraduate students the opportunity to think, study, and create at the highest academic levels within their LAS Core courses. “The pedagogy of the Honors Program is engagement,” says Cleveland, whose title also includes Director of the Honors Program. “The appearance of Honors courses in the LAS Core Curriculum strengthens the Core education requirements faced by all undergraduate students at the college. In addition to that, the manifest ambition, desire for challenge, and determination to reach a standard of excellence helps establish an even better educational tone at Columbia.”

While the Honors Program is partially designed to meet the needs of students who enroll at the college with more advanced preparation, “we are very much still a college of opportunity,” Dean Holdstein says, “and that’s something that is very important to most of us here at Columbia College Chicago. Students have several pathways to Honors, and if there are one or two spots open in an Honors course that aren’t taken by a declared Honors student, any student at the college can try to get one of those spots.”

The standards for admittance into the Honors Program are different for new and current students. Incoming freshmen are invited to enroll based upon a review of the application and other academic characteristics, including high school GPA, high school class rank, test scores, and AP credits. Current students, meanwhile, can enroll if they possess a cumulative GPA of 3.50 or higher. Completing the program, which requires students to learn fifteen credits in Honors courses and maintain a GPA of 3.50 or higher, means students receive a special Honors designation on their transcripts.

“Students who graduate from Columbia with Honors will demonstrate to future employers and graduate programs a level of achievement, motivation, and ambition that can be viewed as one predictor of future success,” says Dr. Louise Love, Vice President for Academic Affairs. “Columbia has long worked toward an Honors Program for students who seek additional academic challenge, and it has taken many discussions over time to arrive at a model that is consistent with Columbia’s mission and values.”

The idea for an Honors Program at Columbia dates back roughly twenty-five years, when a handful of college administrators, including Dr. Philip Klukoff, a former Chair of the Department of English, began to brainstorm the idea. But the initiative lost steam, as many considered it to be at odds with the institution’s approach toward inclusiveness.

The idea resurfaced fifteen years later when, in the spring of 2001, a proposal to create a college-wide Honors Program emerged. Although establishing an Honors Program received broad institutional support, the college was in the midst of preparing to reorganize its academic departments and programs into a four-School structure. “It was a great idea, but it was untimely,” recalls Cleveland. “It simply got pushed to the background.”

But the desire and need to create an Honors Program remained. In 2003, Cheryl Johnson-Odim, the founding Dean of the School of LAS, created a taskforce that examined possible models for advanced undergraduate learning at the college. What emerged two years later was a program that “walked like an Honors Program, quacked like an Honors Program, and swam like an Honors Program,” says Dr. Neil Pagano, Associate Dean of the School of LAS, who helped bring Honors at Columbia to fruition. “Given the changing demographic of our students, in terms of ACT scores and the rise of student preparedness, the administration at the college began to see the need for an Honors Program.”

In 2006, Dr. Pagano and a group of faculty, staff, and students attended the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ (AAC&U) Greater Expectations Institute. When they returned, the School of LAS began offering courses “that embraced what we learned at AAC&U,” Dr. Pagano says, noting that one of the courses was Early Childhood Education’s “Teaching Artist in the Schools.” “These courses had learning outcomes and experiences for students that were broad, interdisciplinary, and that emphasized applied and active learning—the kinds of learning that have emerged in the Honors courses that we’re offering now.”

With the framework of the Honors Program created, and the School of LAS offering courses designed to embrace the college’s interdisciplinary approach toward learning, all that was left was determining who would institute and oversee the program.

“I recommended that we launch the Honors Program in LAS because I was confident that we could get it off the ground effectively and well,” Dean Holdstein says. “In addition to our working through syllabi carefully with selected members of the faculty, I knew that we would also work collaboratively with many people throughout the college to troubleshoot and work through more technical issues—admissions, registrar, advising, and other key and related factors. Courses in LAS also naturally lend themselves to Honorstypes of courses, and I wanted to analyze the difference between a class that was a regular, albeit challenging, class, and the same course title that would be offered as an Honors section.”

When the Honors Program began in the Spring 2010 semester, students had five Honors courses from which to choose. Among those offered were “The History of the 1960s,” “Victorian Illustrated Poetry,” and “Vertebrate Paleontology,” the latter of which was taught by Dr. Robin Whatley, an assistant professor in the Department of Science and Mathematics. The Honors course examined the last 500 million years of fossil data for the development and diversification of vertebrates, such as dinosaurs, birds, and mammals. For their final projects, students teamed up to research and create exhibits that aimed to creatively explain the evolutionary history of Carnivora, a group of vertebrates that includes cats and dogs. The students presented their exhibits—including a video game about genetics, a documentary on domestication, and illustrated reconstructions and models of dogs’ and cats’ evolutionary ancestors—to passersby in the lobby of the Hokin Gallery (now the Quincy Wong Center for Artistic Expression), 623 S. Wabash Ave. “The main thing was that the professor pushed us to be thinking at a high level,” says John Stavola, a freshman in the Department of Journalism who took Dr. Whatley’s Honors class. “There was a mutual respect [between the professor and me] in this class. Cody Spellman, a freshman studying theatre, agrees. “This was one of classes you had to give everything to. The professor expected us to be on her level.”

While Honors-level courses and the Honors Program are housed in the School of LAS, Cleveland expects the program to expand into the majors in all three Schools by 2013, with an Honors pathway through the LAS Core Curriculum remaining an option for every undergraduate at the college. Until then, his primary focus is to build the program as it exists now—and it is already growing. This Fall semester, the School of LAS is offering twenty-three sections of fifteen different Honors courses in the Core Curriculum, triple what was available in the Spring. Among those offered are “Latin American Women in the Arts,” “Taste and Consumption in French History,” and “Evolution of Sex.”

Still, despite the program’s growth, Cleveland believes one vital piece is missing. “The simple fact is that the Honors Program needs its own scholarships,” Cleveland says. “In a way, what would be best would be a scholarship sufficient to support a student through fifteen hours of Honors courses—five three-hour classes. That way, once a student is admitted to the program, he or she would be supported through the program from start to finish.”

Dr. Pagano agrees. “Because of the entrepreneurial nature of the institution and the dynamic pedagogical approach our faculty take in their teaching, our Honors courses typically create very, very innovative learning environments for high achieving students,” he says. “If we were to receive a large endowment for our Honors Program, it would assist us in taking someone like Keith Cleveland and making his job solely to create more opportunities for us to further challenge our students academically and shape them into the thinkers and professionals they wish to become.”

Interested in contributing to students’ education? Contact Nancy Rampson, Director of Development, at nrampson@colum.edu or 312.369.8506.