History of the Honors College

The MU Honors College was established in 1958-59, making it the first public Honors College in the nation, by a committee of faculty who were interested in bringing together “superior students and highly able faculty” for the purposes of enhancing the educational opportunities at Mizzou. Their goal – the development of a broadly interdisciplinary curriculum of study for MU’s most accomplished students – was derived from the work already underway in a thriving “Humanities Series” of courses that were focused on the great books and great ideas. The College also supported the development of discipline-based honors programs of study within individual departments. It has only grown from there to include not only a distinguished academic program, but also extensive co-curricular and living-learning facets.

MU’s Honors College is simultaneously grounded in the past — we are the oldest Honors college in the nation — and forward thinking in our vision, engagement, and programming.

Over the years, the College has had a total of twelve directors: Dr. Rod McGrew (1958-1964); Dr. William “Mac” Jones (1964-1966); Dr. Richard Renner (1966-69); Dr. Bill Bondeson (1969-1972); Dr. James Holleran (acting, 1972-1973); Dr. Paul Nelson (1973-1975); Dr. George Fasel (1975-1977; 1978-1979); Dr. Ted Tarkow (acting, 1977-1978; 1979-1983); Dr. Edwin Kaiser (1983-1991); Dr. Stuart Palonsky (1991-2011); Dr. Nancy West (interim, 2011-2015); and Dr. J.D. Bowers (2015-present). Each of them brought their own unique talents and engagement to bear on the College’s direction.

The first true “home” of the Honors College was at 612 Kuhlman Court, which was once a street south of Ellis Library with ten to twelve formerly private homes that over time the University purchased. At Kuhlman Court, there was, among other things: a lounge on the first floor (where honors students and faculty could purchase coffee for 5 cents a cup) and a seminar/classroom on the second floor. The classroom was occupied from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. virtually every day. The lounge allowed students to drop in and out whenever they wanted. It was kept open evenings during Finals Week, and student groups could use it on evenings/weekends during the Fall and Spring semesters.

After Kuhlman Court, the Honors College was housed in a several different locations, including Connelly House, until 1988, when it was moved into Lowry Hall, its present location. Lowry Hall, located on Lowry Mall, is most distinguished by the sculpture on the southeast corner of the building, Yielding Spire, from which the College takes its current “unofficial” logo. The College’s current space holds administrative and advising offices, two classrooms, computers, a lounge area, and a dedicated Honors library.

Over the years, we have shared our space with several other important programs, co-locating for the benefit of our students, including both MedOpp and the Fellowships Office.

For most of its early existence, the College existed within the framework of the larger College of Arts & Science, out of which it originally grew.  It was not until the late 1980s that the College truly took on its own identity, marked by its transfer to the Office of the Provost in 1988.

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The Humanities Series enjoys the distinction of being continuously offered since 1954 and is a four course series – The Ancient World; The Middle Ages & The Renaissance; The Early Modern World; and The Modern World – offered in rotation. In 2015 the Humanities Series was the subject of a published research paper, “A Case Study of University Honors Students in Humanities Through a Disciplinary Literacy Lens,” (Literacy Research and Instruction, Routledge) by Jonathan Cisco, a former series instructor.

Other Series courses were created to replicate as much of the design and teaching of the Humanities Series as possible, although each is also unique in its own way. Today we also offer the Science Series, the Social & Behavioral Science Series, and the Constitutional Democracy Series (this latter series is offered in partnership with the Kinder Institute).

From the outset, the College also offered courses that were topically and structurally built around career exploration seminars, discussion groups, seminars, colloquiums, independent study, preceptorships, and departmental-based honors courses. In the late 2000s the College added the Tutorial offerings.

One point of history is that the first course at MU ever offered on Women’s Studies was taught, as an Honors College course, in 1971. It enrolled seven women and two men and was focused on the history of women’s rights in American history.

The College has a long history with endowed scholarships and giving, some of which predates the existence of the College. One of the oldest endowed scholarships is the the Rhodes Clay Scholarship which was established in 1909 through a gift of $5,000 by Colonel Green Clay of Mexico, MO, in memory of his son, Rhodes Clay, 1875-1902. The younger Clay represented Audrain County in the Missouri State Legislature at the time of his death, which is its own remarkable story. On July 10, 1902, Rhodes was shot dead in a duel by his rival and fellow attorney,  Clarence Barnes, on the streets of Mexico, MO. Since both men came from prominent Audrain County families (their fathers were also bitter rivals), the trial was moved to Troy, MO in Lincoln County (north of St. Louis). The trial lasted five days, but the jury returned an acquittal verdict after only 48 minutes, writing, “They could not bring back life to the dead man and saw no use of punishing the living.” But his father sought to commemorate the life and education of his son through his gift to MU.

The Brazeal Honors College Endowed Diversity Scholarship was endowed in 2004 by alumnus Jim Brazeal and his wife Cathy, ensuring that the Honors College would be one of the leading units in the efforts to ensure a thriving and diverse academic community at MU. This was followed up in 2012 with the formation of a Diversity Committee, made up of students, faculty, and staff, that set down the goals for a College based on an on-going commitment to diversity and social justice.

In 2017 we were charged with taking over the Dorothy Blatchford Scholarship, an award for Native American students who seek to use their education to make a difference for their nation and peoples.

One of the hallmarks of the MU Honors College has been the development of undergraduate research and artistry opportunities. It started with the formation of the Discovery Fellows in 2004, under Dr. Palonsky’s leadership, and was followed in succession by the creation of the Show-Me Scholars in 2013 and both the International Scholars and the ASH Scholars programs in 2015, the latter being a program dedicated to ensuring that students in the arts, humanities, and social sciences all had equal opportunities to engage in academic career-changing opportunities. Several of these programs serve as the focal points in a published chapter (Chapter 5) on advancing honors education, written by then Director, J.D. Bowers, entitled “Incremental Innovation” in Excellence, Innovation, and Ingenuity in Honors Education, edited by Graeme Harper and published by Cambridge Scholarly Publishing, in 2019.

In late 2016, we were honored to be the recipients of a major philanthropic gift from Peggy & Andrew Cherng, through the educational arm of their Panda Charitable Foundation. The Cherng’s gift provided us with the seed funding to launch a whole new series of scholarships, undergraduate research programs including the Cherng Summer Scholars and the Cherng Fellows programs, and an innovative series of courses focused on leadership, problem-solving, and contemporary challenges facing our world. The latter was coupled with a short-lived program, known as the CIRCA Scholars, which lasted only two years; despite its scholarship and popularity, the program was not viable for the long-term. In 2019 the Cherngs extended that gift for another five years, allowing us to expand the existing Scholars & Fellows programs but also add several more, including the Founders Memorial Scholars and undertake a partnership with the Deaton Institute and the Deaton Scholars Program.

All together our Scholars & Fellows programs serve nearly 450 students each year.

In 2016 MU also became the forty-second Stamps Scholars institution, joining with the other exceptional universities and colleges that host a cohort of scholars. We began with a program of five scholars per year, as we built it out to become Mizzou’s only full-ride academic scholarship.

By the time that the College entered its 61st year, it ran or collaborated in 17 different programs designed to enhance our students’ education through the practical application of knowledge, skills, and artistry, allowing us to offer up to 450 funded positions per year.

Among of the most distinctive and enjoyed experiences in the College are the Tutorials, small classes (usually capped at five students) that are based on a singular idea, concept, work, or approach, in which faculty and students can intensely study the ideas and issues at work. In 2015 the idea for Tutorials was expanded to include the possibility of some slightly larger classes (capped at ten students), but ones that were integrated with significant high-impact elements, including courses such as Photographic Representations of Race, Ethnicity, Identity and Culture, Death & Dying in the Civil War, the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (held in Washington, D.C.), the ever-popular course on BBQ, which explores the subject through environmental, business, cultural, and culinary lenses, and includes an extended exploration of the BBQ sites; and the affiliated course based on the True/False Film Festival.

Over the years, programs that began in the Honors College–such as the Office of Service Learning–have spun off to become their own entities, still serving the students within the Honors College but also the broader MU community of students.

For a period of more than three decades, one of our most successful programs was the MedOpp Program, which served nearly 1000 students a year with skilled programming, practice interviews, application process guidance, and letter writing all in preparation for admissions to professional schools; this focus began in the College with our reorganization in 1988, and has been extremely successful in helping our students gain entrance to the medical and dental schools of their choice, beating the national averages by more than 50%. In 2019 this program was, like so many others before it, spun off into its own area, in a cooperative venture with Fellowships and Pre-Law.

MU Honors College’s most notable programs are our extensive research and artistry opportunities, the Series courses, our Tutorial classes, and our partnerships with MU graduate schools for classes and research.

In 2014 the College also took over the leadership of the Missouri Scholars Academy, hosting the three-week program (which had been on MU’s campus since its inception in 1985) for the first time in the next summer of 2015. In that same year, Dr. Steve Keller, was appointed as the Director of MSA, taking over from Dr. Ted Tarkow, who stepped down after many years of service. MSA serves as the Governor’s School for the state of Missouri and brings 330 rising high school juniors to campus from over 200 different schools each year.

In the fall of 2019 an MSA alum became the first high school student to ever be allowed to enroll in an Honors course here at Mizzou. Julia Bowers (MSA 2017) a student at Rock Bridge High School, enrolled in both Calculus III and the Odyssey in Translation Tutorial, which was created to connect with Emily Wilson’s visit to MU, based on her role as the first female translator of the famed work by Homer.

In 2018 the College expanded its outreach into secondary education, with the creation and launch of the Cherng Global Leadership Academy for high school students. The CGLA is a ten-day program focused on developing skilled, ethical leaders for the future, by engaging in discussions around contemporary social, political, and economic issues, as well as character development.

One of the College’s most distinctive elements is its growing ties with graduate schools at MU. We have classes for students that are offered by faculty from three of MU’s most prominent graduate programs – the School of Medicine, School of Law, and Harry S. Truman Graduate School of Public Affairs – giving our students unparalleled access to higher-level studies, faculty who are engaged in cutting edge research, and professional mentoring.

In 2015 the College, like the University itself, was deeply impacted by the acts of racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and First Amendment controversies that occurred on campus. True to its mission and values, the College stepped forward to help lead the discussions on campus about the challenges facing our students and community and the strength and depth of effort that it would take to heal. One way that the College stepped forward was, in cooperation with the MU School of Law, to invite Mr. Bryan Stevenson to campus as a keynote speaker (a lecture and visit supported by more than twenty-two different campus organizations, departments, and colleges), who could speak to the issues from multiple perspectives, and provide expert commentary on the lasting challenges. By adopting a social justice outlook, even prior to the events in the fall of 2015, the College was square in the middle of helping MU become the leader in discussions on these topics.

Subsequent visits to the College by the author Zadie Smith, the activist Loung Ung, medical-vacination specialist Dr. Paul Offit, essayist George Saunders, author Rebecca Makkai, and the professor and translator Emily Wilson, have continued to introduce our students to the issues of today and of the future.

The College now has over 13,000 graduates who have benefited from their engagement in the College’s courses and programming. Many of them have gone on to distinguished careers in law, politics, medicine, non-profits, and corporations. Many have also gone onto prestigious graduate programs both here at MU and at other institutions, including University of Chicago, Michigan, Virginia, Stanford, and more. Among the most notable graduates of the Honors College are Senator Claire McCaskill, Jim Hirsch, Jay Felton, Ken Lay, former Governor Jay Nixon and First Lady Georgeanne Nixon, and former University of Missouri Interim President, Mr. Michael Middleton.

Since 2010 the College has been named one of the top fifty public Honors Colleges in the nation [J. Willingham, A Review of Fifty Public University Honors Programs, 2014, 2017, 2019] and is a member of both the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC) as well as the Honors Education at Research Universities (HERU) a group founded in 2013 for those universities in the AAU and with Research 1 Carnegie designations, as well as the SEC Honors Group.

Sources: Honors College Archives; Jonnel D. Clothier, “The History of the University of Missouri Honors College, 1960-2003,” for Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis (ELPA) 499, Nov. 2003.; University of Missouri archives and webpage.