Creating a Community
Honors College is Changing the Landscape at UMass Amherst
Dan Gordon says UMass Amherst has had an honors program since the early ’60s, and an honors college since 1999. What it didn’t have — at least to the degree that he and others would like — is what he called “an honors community.”
But now, it may have one of the best in the country.
The Commonwealth Honors College Residential Community (CHCRC), a $192 million, 517,637-square-foot complex across Commonwealth Avenue from the Mullins Center, opened its doors in August, and it’s already turning heads with a number of constituencies.
Indeed, the gleaming, seven-building campus within a campus is gaining the attention of other students at the university, high-school juniors and seniors weighing their options about where to pursue their undergraduate degrees, and other institutions looking to build an honors community of their own.
“I feel like a professional tour guide — that’s what I do,” said Gordon, interim dean of the Common Honors College, or the CHC, as it’s called, and a history professor, who told BusinessWest that he’s probably leading four or five visits a week.
There is plenty to show those who take the excursion — from the air-conditioned dorms to state-of-the-art classrooms; from the Roots Café, complete with a brick pizza oven, which is open 24/7, to the 200-seat, multi-function event hall. There’s even an art gallery, currently displaying photos from throughout the school’s 150-year history.
What’s much harder to show people, but is really the essence of the CHC, said Gordon, is that concept of community he mentioned. Tours don’t capture the honors students discussing leaders and intellectual innovators in a course called “Ideas that Changed the World.” Nor do they show the interaction between students and the two professors in residence at the CHCRC, or underclassmen pushing each other to reach higher.
Dan Gordon says the CHCRC is a “game changer” for the reputation of the honors college and UMass Amherst as a whole.
“We used to be an honors college with a list of academic requirements, but we really aspired to be an honors community, a living-and-learning community,” he explained. “We wanted a place where we can integrate what goes on in the student’s residence hall with their academic experience, where students could stay up late at night debating big ideas based on their readings in classes.
“It’s a dream come true,” he continued, “and a game changer for the reputation of the honors college and UMass Amherst as a whole.”
Indeed, it is this sense of community — as well as the amenities — that are making the Amherst campus more a “part of the mix,” or “part of the discussion,” when it comes to where top students will choose to pursue their degrees, said Wilmore Webley, an associate professor of Microbiology.
He said the CHCRC, as well as a number of other additions in recent years — from new sciences buildings to an integrated arts complex to a new academic facility taking shape in the center of the campus — have taken UMass from being a ‘safe’ or ‘fall-back’ school for students with other aspirations (something it was considered years ago) to being a school of choice.
Rebecca Spencer, an associate professor of Psychology in the school’s Neuroscience & Behavior Program, agreed, and said that at the same time, the new residential component is creating what she called “positive peer pressure among honors students.”
“You can already see it — people getting engaged in research early, getting engaged in the additional opportunities they have … and it becomes much more a lifestyle to be that high-achieving student here.”
The CHCRC, or at least its residential component, came a few years too late for Renee Barouxis, a political science major from Westfield who will graduate in May. But she said she can sense the feeling of community in this new campus, and believes it will be a tremendous asset for the university moving forward.
For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest joined the list of those taking a tour of the CHCRC. Those we talked with spoke enthusiastically about what’s been created on what used to be a parking lot and several tennis courts, and what it means for the school.
UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said creation of the CHCRC is a reflection of an ongoing trend at large public universities to create honors residential communities.
There are facilities at the University of Michigan, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and especially Arizona State University that helped inspire the campus at UMass and serve as models for what would eventually take shape here.
And by getting into the game comparatively late, he went on, the university benefited from observing what other schools had done and learning from mistakes they had made, and, in the end, created a facility worthy of the phrase ‘state of the art.’
The Amherst campus had what was becoming an urgent need for more residential facilities, said Subbaswamy, noting that overall enrollment is up 22% from a decade ago, but also a desire to create that campus within a campus.
Students mulling top private schools with $60,000 price tags now have another big reason to consider the state university’s flagship campus, which, for in-state students, costs just over $23,000 annually, he said, adding that many top private schools are currently challenged by endowments diminished significantly the Great Recession and the fact that more students need help paying for a college education today.
Rebecca Spencer and Wilmore Webley, associate professors at UMass, say the CHCRC will make the school more competitive in its quest for top students.
“This gives an option to high achievers who have traditionally looked at the private colleges, and it provides an alternative that is much more affordable,” he said. “Many of those private colleges cannot support as many students as they used to.”
Tracing the history of the honors college at UMass Amherst, Gordon said it began in 1960 as a program that made honors courses available not only in the arts and sciences, but professional schools as well. By the late ’70s, there were 400 students enrolled in the program, a number that continued to swell through the ’80s and ’90s.
In 1996, the Mass. Board of Higher Education proposed the concept of an honors college for the Commonwealth, and accepted a model proposed by UMass Amherst. Commonwealth College, as it was called then, welcomed its first class in 1999. The college had requirements to be met for entry, including a minimum grade point average and class rank, he explained, and students were required to take a specifed number of classes and complete a senior honors thesis. The college staged a number of special programs and lectures annually.
While the college’s enrollment continued to grow, Gordon continued, its facilities didn’t, at least not proportionately. He described its offices as a series of cubicles in Goodell Hall, which served as the school’s library before the current 27-story tower opened in the early ’70s.
“There wasn’t even a sign in front of the building that said ‘Commonwealth Honors College’ — it was very cramped, and we were sharing space with many other programs,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, while honors students were encouraged to attend lectures at Goodell, many found the long trek from dorms located in remote corners of the campus inconvenient.
The limitations posed by the honors college’s location and facilities drove home the need for what could truly be called an honors community that would include residence halls, said Gordon, adding that long-time Honors College Dean Priscilla Clarkson, who died just weeks before the CHCRC opened its doors, led the drive to make it reality.
There are now roughly 3,000 honors students at the university, and about half of them live at the CHCRC, which consists of an administration building and six residence halls, all named after trees: Birch, Elm, Linden, Maple, Oak, and Sycamore.
The honors college, strategically located only a few minutes from most classroom buildings, also features nine seminar-style classrooms, two faculty members in residence, the events hall, an art gallery, a café, and the Bloom Honors Advising Center, which helps students maximize the opportunities available to them and plan their academic paths, especially that year-long senior honors thesis that remains a prerequisite for graduation.
And while the CHCRC is somewhat separated from the rest of the campus, it is very much an inclusive, rather than exclusive, community, said Gordon, who repeatedly summoned the word “permeable” to describe it.
He noted that more than 20% of the classes held in its classrooms are for courses open to all students, the Roots Café is open to all members of the campus community, and a roadway through the honors complex connects it to other areas on campus, especially a residential community called Southwest.
Still, the honors college and its new residential community have become something to aspire to, he said, adding that this phrase applies to students already on campus who can transfer into the honors program, and high-school students as well.
Course of Action
Gordon said there is already some evidence that CHCRC is making a difference and that the Amherst campus is become more of a viable option for top students. And it comes in the form of an informal statistic of sorts called “the melt.”
That’s not an acronym, but rather a term used to describe the sum of those students who get accepted at a school, say they’re attending, but then ultimately go elsewhere.
“The residential community has ratcheted up our competitiveness,” said Gordon, adding that there was recognizably less melt this past spring and summer (he didn’t have exact numbers), and he believes the CHCRC has something to do with that.
“We haven’t seen a big difference, but we will soon,” he said, noting, as others did, that the residential honors community is just one of many factors putting UMass increasingly into that aforementioned mix, or discussion.
“UMass is no longer the ‘safe’ school that some people used to consider it,” said Webley. “Every year, we see the average SAT scores moving up and the number of incoming students increasing, and with a community like this one, it will only continue to increase, because we’ll be able to attract the kinds of students with high academic standing that we’ve always said we wanted to attract.
“With the university putting this kind of investment into an academic facility, it’s saying, ‘we’re serious about this; we’re not just talking about this,’” he went on. “And that gets me excited as a professor.”
Beyond making the school more competitive when it comes to attracting top students, however, the new residential campus has created an intriguing learning environment, said Spencer, returning to that notion of positive peer pressure among those living and learning at the CHCRC.
“It takes those good students and puts them together, and they seem to have very quickly caught on to challenging each other,” she explained. “They hear in the hallway that one student’s already started their research as a freshman, so then they all feel they need to get their research started early, which is great for us.
“That’s one thing that Harvard probably has always had,” she went on, “and now we have it as well.”
Barouxis told BusinessWest that the honors college created this sense of community at something called ‘honors RAPs’ (residential/academic programs) on designated floors in some of the dorms spread across campus, but the new honors complex takes it to a much higher level.
“There was a sense of positive competition on my floor,” she said, noting that it was occupied by fellow political science majors. “I think the honors college saw how effective that program was, and that gave them even more inspiration to go about a project like this.”
Barouxis, who interned with U.S. Rep. Richard Neal’s office last spring and later worked on Elizabeth Warren’s successful campaign for the Senate, said she believes the honors complex and its many programs will not only inspire competition within the walls of its residence halls, but also inspire other students not currently in the program to reach higher and be a part of that community.
Webley agreed. “I take both honors and non-honors students,” he noted, “and my non-honors students are being challenged by the honors students, and they’re working very hard to improve their GPAs, because they hear the honors students talking about their experiences there. It’s a very positive thing.”
Added Spencer, “I’ve always incentivized students about what honors can do for them — there are opportunities that the honors college gives students that the general population doesn’t get, such as smaller class sizes and the opportunity to apply for small research grants.
“There are a lot of incentives beyond just the buildings,” she went on. “But what the buildings do is give a face to it — it gives that real distinct character to the honors college that it didn’t have before.”
As he talked with BusinessWest about the CHCRC, Gordon repeatedly pointed out the windows of his office to the surrounding dorms, dominated by glass, brick, and attractive landscaping.
He did so to reference everything from the two faculty apartments to the complex’s proximity to academic facilities, to the view to the Holyoke Range to the south and west.
But he reiterated many times that it isn’t the air conditioning, the view, or the pizza oven (or, at least, not only those things) that make this facility special.
Instead, it’s that sense of community that has historically been missing from the equation, but is now there in abundance at a facility that may be setting a new standard when it comes to honors colleges. n
George O’Brien can be reached at email@example.com