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High on Honors

A trial run of the new Honors College ethics seminar for faculty generates good talk — and good feelings

By Kevin Foley Article published August 25, 2004

Honors Symposium
Professor Alan Wertheimer co-led a three-day summer symposium that let faculty wrestle with some of the same questions and texts that will face students enrolling in the new Honors College. (Photo: Bill DiLillo)

Don Loeb is perched on a desk in the front of a seminar room in Kalkin, clearly in his element. He has tossed out a question about a Jonathan Rauch essay and, for the moment at least, there are no takers. “I can wait as long as you can,” says the associate professor of philosophy, and then the room erupts.

It’s summer school — Honors College-style.

Thirty-four faculty from throughout the university, with expertise ranging from biomedical technology to natural resources, took three days off from summer writing and research to return to the classroom early… as students. The faculty symposium, which ran from Aug. 16-18, studied many of the issues that will be explored in the new Honors College's seminar course for first-year students, "Making Ethical Choices: Personal, Public and Professional." Organizers hope the event, along with other activities sponsored by the new college, will stimulate new conversations and connections across the campus and among the disciplines.

On a sunny Wednesday, even after about 12 hours of often-intense conversation over the almost three days, this hope seems to be playing out. In a session tackling issues in higher education, faculty wrestle with Rauch, whose essay, “The Truth Hurts: The Humanitarian Threat to Free Inquiry,” challenges campus speech codes and argues in part that conversations about ideas should be painful at times, and attempts to limit that pain risk stifling knowledge. Over the course of a bit more than an hour, about two-thirds of the class has something to say, and Loeb obviously loves the breadth and depth of the talk.

“It was great to get together with so many smart, accomplished people,” he says later. “It was very stimulating. Back in college you used to stay up all night and talk about the existence of God, and it was nice to do something like that again.”

Strong response
Loeb, along with Alan Wertheimer, professor of political science, led the seminar and developed the inaugural foundation course for first-year students. They had originally envisioned the event that eventually became the symposium as more of an informal gathering of course faculty, but through conversations with Robert Taylor, the new college’s dean, the idea broadened into something more like a professional conference and came to include many faculty currently unaffiliated with the college.

“We expected a modest response, maybe twelve people at the most,” Taylor says. “We were blown away by the number of applications. Having stumbled into this, it has become obvious from this experience that there is a real openness to this kind of conversation — not just about ethics, about lots of things. It’s great for faculty colleagues to get together and talk about important things that cut across disciplines.”

Symposium participant Chris Koliba, an assistant professor of community development and applied economics and director of the masters of public administration program, said the classroom conversations were directly relevant to the ethical issues he teaches in his courses, but that the chance to spend lots of time with people he didn't know was even more valuable.

“I’m not a good mingler, but I tried to make a point of sitting with different people, and striking up some different conversations,” Koliba says. “I established at least name-face recognition to lots of people and had a few in-depth conversations that may lead to something in terms of collaboration. I’m hoping this will become an annual event.”

Jacqueline Weinstock, an associate professor in the human development and family study program who also attended the symposium, echoed some of Koliba’s themes.

“I do not have enough opportunities to have thoughtful and reflective conversations with my colleagues around campus,” she says. “Even though I’ve been here since 1996, this was the first time that I had engaged like this with people across the campus. I feel like I know many more people now. I feel more positive about what other people are doing.”

College crossing
Feedback like that would likely please Taylor. Part of the idea behind the Honors College is that it will be positive not just for the students in the college, but for students outside the college, the faculty, and the university community generally. Taylor hopes that a successful Honors College will resonate throughout the entire institution. One of his jobs now, after the successful symposium, is to find ways to keep the momentum going.

“It’s obvious that we have tapped a vein and there is a lot of interest and a lot of good feeling so we want to encourage comparable events and activities,” he says.

Another of the dean’s pressing tasks is to teach one of five sections of the first-year seminar. Though the symposium was not intended as prep for that, he believes that issues discussed in three days of conversation will resonate in his classroom.

“The conversations raised all sorts of interesting questions and angles that I had not thought of before,” Taylor says.