Honors College

History Narration

The History of the Honors Program and College at MTSU 1973-2011

By June McCash

The Honors Program at Middle Tennessee State University was founded by President M.G. Scarlett, following a three-year committee study chaired by Dr. William Holland of the Department of English. Dr. Scarlett appointed as the program's founding director Dr. June Hall McCash (then Martin), professor of French. Dr. McCash began in the spring semester of 1973 to make plans for the program that would open its doors to students in the fall semester of the following academic year 1973-74.

An Honors Council was appointed, with representatives from each of the four undergraduate schools, Dr. Barbara Haskew (Business), Dr. James Huhta (Liberal Arts), Dr. Robert Prytula (Education), and Dr. Alvin E. Woods (Basic and Applied Sciences), as well as two at-large faculty members, Dr. William Windham and Dr. William Holland, and two honors students, David Dodd and Laura Smith. The Academic Vice-President, Dr. Howard Kirksey, also served as an ad-hoc member of the Council.

The Council held its first meeting on January 22, 1973. Its initial task was to draft and approve a set of honors guidelines, which would set requirements and goals for the program. These guidelines established the program's admission requirements at a minimum of a 25 composite score on the ACT or a 3.0 grade point average.

The program was designed to provide to honors students the personal attention, small classes, and academic challenges characteristic of an excellent small liberal arts college, but with the greater scope and resources of the larger university. The Council sought to offer honors courses both in general studies and in major programs. It also provided for a series of upper-division interdisciplinary seminars that encouraged students, as they became more narrowly specialized in their major fields, to maintain a broader perspective on their individual roles within a larger spectrum of societal issues.

The director's most difficult initial task was to "sell" the program to department chairs, many of whom were reluctant to commit faculty members to teach smaller classes with fewer students, when staffing was already tight. She met with faculty members and their chairs in all four schools to discuss the program, outline its goals, answer questions, and seek to allay concerns that the program was "elitist." Department chairs were encouraged to appoint their best faculty members to teach in the program, and, in some cases, the Honors Council or director requested specific professors. The next task was to recruit the best and brightest students at the university into the program, to show them the benefits of the smaller classes and the excellent faculty. Overall, the program proved to be a major success. Waiting lists formed for popular general studies courses, in which enrollment was limited to 20 students, as well as for the interdisciplinary seminars, which were capped at 15 students. These early years, no doubt the most difficult for the program, were a time of challenge, particularly given the budget constraints of the 1970s. Nonetheless, the program flourished.

During its first seven years, under the leadership of Dr. McCash, the Honors Program's fundamental structure was established, including departmental honors courses as well as University Honors classes, which involved junior and senior interdisciplinary seminars, the honors thesis, and the University Honors Lecture Series. During her tenure as well, the program offices moved from their initial location in what is today the Alumni Center to the third floor of Keathley University Center and then to the first floor of Peck Hall.

Over the years the program has grown and developed, with each director leaving his or her mark. When Dr. McCash stepped down as honors director in 1980 to assume the position of chair in the Department of Foreign Languages, Dr. Ronald Messier from the Department of History was appointed to replace her. Under his leadership, the H-option was added to the program, allowing students to develop individual contracts with professors to do special honors work within non-honors courses, and the Honors Lecture Series was televised. Dr. Messier served as director until 1990, when he returned to full-time teaching and research, and Dr. John Paul Montgomery from the Department of English was appointed to replace him. During his tenure the program added the Honors Student Association and an Honors Living and Learning Center (located in Wood and Felder halls), which opened in 1996. Admissions standards were raised to a 26 composite score on the ACT or grade point average of 3.5. As of January 1, 2000, students were required to have a minimum GPA of 3.0 and a 26 ACT score or a 3.5 GPA and a 22 ACT score. Graduation requirements were also increased from the initial 24 honors credits to 36, including 18 general studies hours in honors courses, 8 upper-division Honors hours, 6 hours of interdisciplinary University Honors courses, a 1-hour thesis tutorial followed by the 3-hour Honors thesis. Despite these more stringent requirements, the program has continued to flourish, both in quality and numbers. Students enrolled in the Honors College include several National Merit Finalists, many Presidential Scholars, and a large number of high school valedictorians and salutatorians. They also include a number of gifted musicians and artists, as well as published authors. More than a thousand students now participate in the program.

On August 1, 1998, the Tennessee Board of Regents approved the transformation of the Honors Program, then in its twenty-fifth year, into the University Honors College, the only one of its kind in a public university in the state of Tennessee. Dr. John Paul Montgomery was named as its first dean. It was Dr. James Walker, then president of MTSU, in concert with the Provost and Academic Vice-President, Dr. Barbara Haskew (a member of the University's first Honors Council), who had initiated the move to convert the Honors Program into an Honors College. The concept was endorsed by the committee that developed the Academic Master Plan during 1997-98 and was subsequently approved by the Tennessee Board of Regents.*

On January 12, 2004, the University Honors College opened the doors of the brand-new Paul W. Martin Sr. Honors Building, a 21,000 square foot facility made possible by a two-million dollar donation by MTSU's first graduate with University Honors, Paul W. Martin Jr., and his brother, Lee Martin, with the provision that their donation be matched by other donors. The magnificent new four-million dollar building has become the veritable neighborhood and heart of the Honors College, providing a place for honors classes, seminars, lectures, social events, an honors library, faculty offices, and a variety of other programs and events.

The success of the Honors Program and College over the years can best be gauged by that of its graduates, a large percentage of whom have gone on to do successful work in graduate and professional schools throughout the country and to highly successful careers in such areas as law, medicine, education, science, and business. They have been admitted to graduate schools at Harvard, Oxford (England), Vanderbilt, Yale, and many others, as well as to prestigious law and medical schools. They number among community leaders throughout the southeast and even include several members of the MTSU faculty. Thousands of students have participated at various levels in the honors program, and, to date, about 300 have graduated from the University Honors College (or program), a distinction difficult to achieve. All in all, the Honors Program begun in 1973 has served the university well, helping to attract the brightest and the best of students to MTSU.

All three of the Honors College's first leaders, Dr. June McCash, Dr. Ron Messier, and Dr. John Paul Montgomery retired from MTSU in the year 2004. That year President Sidney McPhee appointed Dr. Phil Mathis, a distinguished professor of biology and the first winner of MTSU's Outstanding Career Achievement Award in the year 2000-2001, as Honors Dean. Under his leadership, the College accepted responsibility for the literary magazine, Collage, which has won a number of national awards. Dr. Mathis also established an Undergraduate Fellowship Office in the College in 2005 and initiated the Paul W. Martin, Sr. Lecture Series that same year. The following year, the College selected Dr. Scott Carnicom, a psychology professor who helped establish an Honors Program at Marymount College, as its first full-time associate dean. In 2007, the College welcomed its first class of 20 Buchanan Scholars, who are selected for their academic excellence and public service and who take a core of classes together; it also selected its first Board of Visitors.

When Dr. Mathis retired in 2008, Dr. John R. Vile, long-time chair of the Department of Political Science and two-time winner of MTSU's Outstanding Research Award at MTSU, was selected as dean. About the same time, a newly refurbished residence, Lyon Hall, was opened to Honors students. Vile oversaw the formulation of an updated Master Plan for the Honors College, has helped establish a chapter of Omicron Delta Kappa Honor Society, and, with the help of a devoted staff, has helped increase the number of students who have won national scholarships. The year 2010 marks the first year in which two MTSU students won Fulbright Awards for teaching and research abroad and the first in which an MTSU Honors student was named to the top USA TODAY All-Academic Team. The College will soon be publishing a journal of undergraduate research in the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities known as Scientia et Humanitas, and is supporting the publication of a book of poetry, edited by Dr. Mathis, to commemorate the University's centennial.

Membership in the Honors College is now open to incoming freshmen with a minimum 3.5 grade point average and a 25 on their ACT. Currently-enrolled students with a minimum 3.25 college grade point average are also eligible to apply.

Note: Dr. Jan Leone, Associate Dean of Liberal Arts, is editing a book on the history of MTSU that will include an extended chapter on MTSU's history written by Dr. Phil Mathis.The History of the Honors Program and College at MTSU 1973-2011

By June McCash

The Honors Program at Middle Tennessee State University was founded by President M.G. Scarlett, following a three-year committee study chaired by Dr. William Holland of the Department of English. Dr. Scarlett appointed as the program's founding director Dr. June Hall McCash (then Martin), professor of French. Dr. McCash began in the spring semester of 1973 to make plans for the program that would open its doors to students in the fall semester of the following academic year 1973-74.

An Honors Council was appointed, with representatives from each of the four undergraduate schools, Dr. Barbara Haskew (Business), Dr. James Huhta (Liberal Arts), Dr. Robert Prytula (Education), and Dr. Alvin E. Woods (Basic and Applied Sciences), as well as two at-large faculty members, Dr. William Windham and Dr. William Holland, and two honors students, David Dodd and Laura Smith. The Academic Vice-President, Dr. Howard Kirksey, also served as an ad-hoc member of the Council.

The Council held its first meeting on January 22, 1973. Its initial task was to draft and approve a set of honors guidelines, which would set requirements and goals for the program. These guidelines established the program's admission requirements at a minimum of a 25 composite score on the ACT or a 3.0 grade point average.

The program was designed to provide to honors students the personal attention, small classes, and academic challenges characteristic of an excellent small liberal arts college, but with the greater scope and resources of the larger university. The Council sought to offer honors courses both in general studies and in major programs. It also provided for a series of upper-division interdisciplinary seminars that encouraged students, as they became more narrowly specialized in their major fields, to maintain a broader perspective on their individual roles within a larger spectrum of societal issues.

The director's most difficult initial task was to "sell" the program to department chairs, many of whom were reluctant to commit faculty members to teach smaller classes with fewer students, when staffing was already tight. She met with faculty members and their chairs in all four schools to discuss the program, outline its goals, answer questions, and seek to allay concerns that the program was "elitist." Department chairs were encouraged to appoint their best faculty members to teach in the program, and, in some cases, the Honors Council or director requested specific professors. The next task was to recruit the best and brightest students at the university into the program, to show them the benefits of the smaller classes and the excellent faculty. Overall, the program proved to be a major success. Waiting lists formed for popular general studies courses, in which enrollment was limited to 20 students, as well as for the interdisciplinary seminars, which were capped at 15 students. These early years, no doubt the most difficult for the program, were a time of challenge, particularly given the budget constraints of the 1970s. Nonetheless, the program flourished.

During its first seven years, under the leadership of Dr. McCash, the Honors Program's fundamental structure was established, including departmental honors courses as well as University Honors classes, which involved junior and senior interdisciplinary seminars, the honors thesis, and the University Honors Lecture Series. During her tenure as well, the program offices moved from their initial location in what is today the Alumni Center to the third floor of Keathley University Center and then to the first floor of Peck Hall.

Over the years the program has grown and developed, with each director leaving his or her mark. When Dr. McCash stepped down as honors director in 1980 to assume the position of chair in the Department of Foreign Languages, Dr. Ronald Messier from the Department of History was appointed to replace her. Under his leadership, the H-option was added to the program, allowing students to develop individual contracts with professors to do special honors work within non-honors courses, and the Honors Lecture Series was televised. Dr. Messier served as director until 1990, when he returned to full-time teaching and research, and Dr. John Paul Montgomery from the Department of English was appointed to replace him. During his tenure the program added the Honors Student Association and an Honors Living and Learning Center (located in Wood and Felder halls), which opened in 1996. Admissions standards were raised to a 26 composite score on the ACT or grade point average of 3.5. As of January 1, 2000, students were required to have a minimum GPA of 3.0 and a 26 ACT score or a 3.5 GPA and a 22 ACT score. Graduation requirements were also increased from the initial 24 honors credits to 36, including 18 general studies hours in honors courses, 8 upper-division Honors hours, 6 hours of interdisciplinary University Honors courses, a 1-hour thesis tutorial followed by the 3-hour Honors thesis. Despite these more stringent requirements, the program has continued to flourish, both in quality and numbers. Students enrolled in the Honors College include several National Merit Finalists, many Presidential Scholars, and a large number of high school valedictorians and salutatorians. They also include a number of gifted musicians and artists, as well as published authors. More than a thousand students now participate in the program.

On August 1, 1998, the Tennessee Board of Regents approved the transformation of the Honors Program, then in its twenty-fifth year, into the University Honors College, the only one of its kind in a public university in the state of Tennessee. Dr. John Paul Montgomery was named as its first dean. It was Dr. James Walker, then president of MTSU, in concert with the Provost and Academic Vice-President, Dr. Barbara Haskew (a member of the University's first Honors Council), who had initiated the move to convert the Honors Program into an Honors College. The concept was endorsed by the committee that developed the Academic Master Plan during 1997-98 and was subsequently approved by the Tennessee Board of Regents.*

On January 12, 2004, the University Honors College opened the doors of the brand-new Paul W. Martin Sr. Honors Building, a 21,000 square foot facility made possible by a two-million dollar donation by MTSU's first graduate with University Honors, Paul W. Martin Jr., and his brother, Lee Martin, with the provision that their donation be matched by other donors. The magnificent new four-million dollar building has become the veritable neighborhood and heart of the Honors College, providing a place for honors classes, seminars, lectures, social events, an honors library, faculty offices, and a variety of other programs and events.

The success of the Honors Program and College over the years can best be gauged by that of its graduates, a large percentage of whom have gone on to do successful work in graduate and professional schools throughout the country and to highly successful careers in such areas as law, medicine, education, science, and business. They have been admitted to graduate schools at Harvard, Oxford (England), Vanderbilt, Yale, and many others, as well as to prestigious law and medical schools. They number among community leaders throughout the southeast and even include several members of the MTSU faculty. Thousands of students have participated at various levels in the honors program, and, to date, about 300 have graduated from the University Honors College (or program), a distinction difficult to achieve. All in all, the Honors Program begun in 1973 has served the university well, helping to attract the brightest and the best of students to MTSU.

All three of the Honors College's first leaders, Dr. June McCash, Dr. Ron Messier, and Dr. John Paul Montgomery retired from MTSU in the year 2004. That year President Sidney McPhee appointed Dr. Phil Mathis, a distinguished professor of biology and the first winner of MTSU's Outstanding Career Achievement Award in the year 2000-2001, as Honors Dean. Under his leadership, the College accepted responsibility for the literary magazine, Collage, which has won a number of national awards. Dr. Mathis also established an Undergraduate Fellowship Office in the College in 2005 and initiated the Paul W. Martin, Sr. Lecture Series that same year. The following year, the College selected Dr. Scott Carnicom, a psychology professor who helped establish an Honors Program at Marymount College, as its first full-time associate dean. In 2007, the College welcomed its first class of 20 Buchanan Scholars, who are selected for their academic excellence and public service and who take a core of classes together; it also selected its first Board of Visitors.

When Dr. Mathis retired in 2008, Dr. John R. Vile, long-time chair of the Department of Political Science and two-time winner of MTSU's Outstanding Research Award at MTSU, was selected as dean. About the same time, a newly refurbished residence, Lyon Hall, was opened to Honors students. Vile oversaw the formulation of an updated Master Plan for the Honors College, has helped establish a chapter of Omicron Delta Kappa Honor Society, and, with the help of a devoted staff, has helped increase the number of students who have won national scholarships. The year 2010 marks the first year in which two MTSU students won Fulbright Awards for teaching and research abroad and the first in which an MTSU Honors student was named to the top USA TODAY All-Academic Team. The College will soon be publishing a journal of undergraduate research in the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities known as Scientia et Humanitas, and is supporting the publication of a book of poetry, edited by Dr. Mathis, to commemorate the University's centennial.

Membership in the Honors College is now open to incoming freshmen with a minimum 3.5 grade point average and a 25 on their ACT. Currently-enrolled students with a minimum 3.25 college grade point average are also eligible to apply.

Note: Dr. Jan Leone, Associate Dean of Liberal Arts, is editing a book on the history of MTSU that will include an extended chapter on MTSU's history written by Dr. Phil Mathis.