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Archive for Saturday, August 16, 2003

Interim director emphasizes quality

August 16, 2003

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Value of the honors program at Kansas University needn't be measured exclusively by the annual accounting of Rhodes, Marshall, Goldwater and Truman scholarships that students earn.

"You can't make the argument that as long as you're winning scholarships, you're fine. Those have to be icing on the cake," said John Gronbeck-Tedesco, interim director of the program serving 1,500 of Kansas University's brightest students.

He said a better measure was the quality of educational experience available to students in dozens of honors courses taught by the university's finest scholars.

Gronbeck-Tedesco, associate dean of the KU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, stepped in during July to assume duties formerly managed by Barbara Schowen, who retired.

"I feel good about the program," Schowen said. "It's in good shape, and it's going to go on to be even better."

Schowen ran the program since 1996 as it grew from 1,079 students and 54 courses to 1,523 students and 83 courses.

For the record, KU students earned a Rhodes, three Marshall, 20 Goldwater, four Truman and nine Udall scholarships during Schowen's tenure with the program.

Gronbeck-Tedesco said his job responsibilities at KU would be arranged in a way that allowed him to spend more than half of his time on the honors program. Schowen divided her time equally between teaching and the honors director's job.

"It's a position that is very important to the institution," said Gronbeck-Tedesco, who will continue teaching a graduate course in theater and film. "It can't be short-shrifted in terms of the amount of time given to it."

He'll remain interim director at least until discussions are completed at KU about potential modification of the program. It's possible the administrative organization could be changed, he said.

"It's still pretty early," he said. "We'll be making some kind of decision early in the fall."

Hiring a new director won't be a step taken lightly.

"The institution ... is attempting to make sure this program is functioning at the highest level possible. That's why it's taking time," Gronbeck-Tedesco said.

He said the honors program was blessed with an experienced staff.

"That's a very good staff," he said. "They're on task. They're incredibly dedicated."

University officials are pleased with enrollment in the program and are enthusiastic about the quality of students it attracts. Students qualify for the university's program through ACT or SAT scores, high school grade-point average and courses taken, recommendations from teachers and an essay.

There's no discussion of limiting admission to the honors system, Gronbeck-Tedesco said.

However, the curriculum is always under review as faculty try to push the envelope of instruction. It's possible classes could have more of an interdisciplinary flair. Rather than offer honors students a more personal version of a normal history class, they could enroll in a history course that merges history with politics.

"The honors program has been in some sense a laboratory for teaching and learning which has been used to enhance teaching and learning throughout the university," Gronbeck-Tedesco said.

He said techniques and activities that work well in the honors format could be assimilated into the general university.

If the quality of the day-to-day program remains strong, he said, students will continue to capture prestigious scholarships.

"Winning of large and notable scholarships is a symptom of quality," he said. "There is some degree of confirmation of whatever happening in honors program is indeed making students competitive."

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