The Honors Forum & Its History
In 1997, Skidmore College created the Honors Forum. The idea for an honors program at Skidmore College was not new; the College considered it in the 1920s, 1970s, and the 1980s. In the 1990s, Jon Ramsey, Dean of Studies, encouraged the Skidmore faculty and administration to create a welcoming space for students with high academic aspirations, some of whom transferred from the College in their first year because they lacked a community of like-minded peers. In 1995, Dean Ramsey presented an outline for an honors program to support Skidmore’s highest achieving students in their academic careers and co-curricular endeavors. The faculty and administration endorsed the plan enthusiastically. The Honors Forum inducted its first twenty-eight members in the spring of 1997 and offered its first courses in September 1998. The Skidmore Class of 2001 included the first graduating class of fourteen Honors Forum members. The annual Jon R. Ramsey lecture honors Dean Ramsey’s vision.
The Honors Forum has faculty and student leadership positions. A director works with the Honors Council, the faculty/administration/student governing body of the Honors Forum. The Student Executive Committee, referred to as Exec Co, has a president, vice presidents, and class representatives. Members of the Exec Co sit on Honors Council. The Council also has a part-time administrative assistant.Innumerable faculty and administrators have served on the Council and made a difference in the program. Many of their names appear in this history while the names of others who did much to create and sustain this program appear in materials housed in our website Archives; click here for more information. Linda Santagato, Carol Goody, and now Lisa Bradshaw have served ably as administrative assistants over the years. The Forum is currently under the leadership of its fourth director. Below, each of the Forum’s directors explains how the Honors Forum grew under his or her leadership, mentioning highlights of the program during his or her tenure.
Dean of the Faculty Phyllis Roth appointed me as the inaugural director of the newly-named Honors Forum to create an academic and co-curricular program. Dean Ramsey and I established an Honors Council of faculty, students, and key administrators, which advised us on the construction of an Honors program unlike any other. In addition, I met regularly with four representatives of the Honors Forum student body (which would later evolve into the Student Executive Committee) to plan co-curricular programs and consider additions to the curriculum. In addition, I met regularly with four representatives of the Honors Forum student body (which would later evolve into the Student Executive Committee) to plan co-curricular programs and consider additions to the curriculum. In essence, the Honors Forum we crafted consisted of a curriculum of both freestanding and add-on courses that raised the bar of faculty expectations and student engagement. Critical to the program’s success was the offering of those courses to all Skidmore students with the anticipation that a “rising tide lifts all boats” – that is, by providing courses with higher standards for all enrolled students, the Honors Forum would encourage academic engagement and achievement across the board.
In the program’s first full year, Dean Ramsey, Associate Dean of the Faculty Susan Bender, and I developed and implemented HF101, an introductory course for the approximately 30 incoming Honors Forum students in order to build an honors community. This interdisciplinary 1-credit course, team-taught by the three of us, was the only HF course open exclusively to HF students. The size of the HF was meant to be modest with 30 first-year students inducted each fall with openings for an additional 30 applicants in the second semester. Our aim was to have a membership of approximately 240 students or 10% of the student body when the program reached full strength after four years.
Associate Dean of Students Anita Steigerwald and Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Tina Levith led the co-curricular program in its initial years. A highlight of the program were the residential clusters in the student dormitories (Adams House and Hathorn House) where HF students could engage with each other beyond the four walls of the classroom. Co- and extra-curricular events (lectures, discussions, field trips, etc.) enhanced the lives of the HF students and built a community of like-minded students – precisely the goal of the Honors Forum. First-year retention increased nearly from the inception of the program, a testament to the vision of the Skidmore faculty.
As a coda to the program, Associate Dean Levith and I devised the Academic Festival, an annual end-of-year celebration of academic achievement sponsored by the Honors Forum, where students from the entire student body could present their work – again, in the spirit of openness and accessibility that the Honors Forum fostered. The Festival’s first year saw a modest level of participation – some 35 students, mostly seniors, gave presentations of theses, independent study projects, and collaborative work – and more than a decade later participation has grown to nearly 350 students from first-years to seniors. The “rising tide” succeeded.
Michael Arnush’s leadership established a solid infrastructure of honors courses and committed faculty members teaching them. Under his guidance, the Forum was already making a difference in boosting Skidmore’s first-year retention. The Forum had established Academic Festival and had sponsored or cosponsored a number of scholarly discussions, guest speakers, and field trips.
When I became the Forum’s second Director in January 2001, one concern surfaced: the need to clarify our mission and distinctiveness for Honors Forum members and the larger Skidmore community. In one way or another, most of my tenure as Director until June 1, 2007 involved issues related to who we were and what we wanted to become. I met with the Honors Council and the newly formed Student Executive Committee, which was comprised of able student leaders (most notably Erin Cassidy [`07], Matthew Cronin [`06], Leah Elliott [‘06], Adam Epstein [`08], Sebastian Fica [`07], Allison Feigen [`07], Lauren Masterson [`05], Justin Rogers-Cooper [`03]), to set up a short and long-term agenda to strengthen our mission as a Forum. The Exec Co arose from the students’ desire to have a student-only parallel to the Honors Council to which it reports.
We turned first to our namesake: a Forum. We were constituted as a group dedicated to discussion, exchange of ideas, and the life of the mind. Consequently, four programs we developed between 2002-2006 had dialogue and debate as centerpiece: Shades of Gray, which became a yearly examination of controversial topics (e.g. The Sopranos and Ethics; Cultural and Student Diversity at Skidmore; Skidmore Grading and Grade Inflation; American Military Involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan); “Fridays at 4:00”, informal discussions in the Honors Lounge with Faculty on a provocative topic (e.g. “The Electoral College, Preparing the Skidmore Orchestra for Performance, Whither the Electric Car, Misunderstandings of Islam); the Skidmore College Debate Society, established in 2006, which competed in Parliamentary Debate tournaments with teams from schools such as Bates, Colby, Cornell, Tufts, and Wesleyan. The Jon R. Ramsey Honors Forum Lecture (aka the “Ramsey Lecture”, named for the retired Dean of Studies, who was instrumental in the Honors Forum’s development) replaced the Honors Forum lecture and elevated our annual event to inclusion within the College’s cycle of annual named lectures.
Faculty developed four new course experiences that emphasized the activities of a “forum” engaged in dialogue. HF 203: Citizen Studentship, developed and mentored by Prof. Roy Rotheim, Department of Economics, became Skidmore’s first student-developed and administered class. Jane Austen in Bath, first offered January 2005 by Prof. Catherine Golden, was the first College travel seminar to receive honors credit. Junior Great Books Seminar and Practicum, also taught and administered by Prof. Catherine Golden, was a two-course sequence providing Honors Forum members with the opportunity to become certified as Junior Great Books instructors (Fall term) and to teach in local middle schools (Spring term).
After considerable deliberation and debate—in keeping with the spirit of our members being responsible citizens of the Forum, Skidmore College, and the Saratoga Springs community—we instituted a Citizenship Requirement for all Honors Forum members. Drawing upon the traditions of co-sponsorship of on-campus as well as off-campus speakers and events, Honors Forum hosted an annual middle and high school literary and art awards ceremony, sponsored trips to the NYC opera, the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA, Cooperstown, NY Museums, and a Hudson River boat tour. And we devoted considerable time and energy each spring to planning and conducting the annual Academic Festival.
I was Honors Forum Director from June 1, 2007 to May 31, 2011. Some of the curricular changes that I oversaw during that period included the further evolution of HF101 to give a greater emphasis to introducing incoming Honors Forum students to Skidmore faculty. HF was not as successful in forming community as it had been under Michael Arnush’s tenure in part because the new FYE program and its Scribner Seminar courses (which led to the dissolution of Honors housing) took over that role. Also, by 2007, entering classes of the Honors Forum had become quite large (over sixty students entering in the fall). Beginning Fall 2009, the Honors Council changed the format of the course to weekly readings and discussions led by a different faculty member each week to improve it.
Beginning in 2009, the Council made changes to the honors credit for study abroad program that my predecessor, Phil Boshoff, initiated. After extended negotiations with the OCSE and the Registrar’s Office, we streamlined the procedure for obtaining honors credit for study abroad and made all experiences a uniform 3 credits. We also extended the list of study abroad programs pre-approved for honors credit. Finally, I presided over the creation of new Honors courses from the departments of Mathematics, Physics, Studio Art, and Music, all areas that had been previously underrepresented in the Honors Forum curriculum, as well as a number of add-ons to courses in a range of departments.
Under my directorship, the Honors Forum merged with the Periclean Society. In 2008, the Periclean Honor Society was de-chartered as an SGA organization. The previous year, the Office of Academic Advising had ceased to provide support to the society, so the Honors Forum provided Periclean with a new home. The Council also approved an increase in the minimum GPA required for membership in the Honors Forum from 3.4 to 3.5. During the spring of 2011, we made changes in the membership of the Periclean Scholar Award Committee as well as in the Honors Council itself.
When I assumed the directorship, one of the ways that I thought the Honors Forum might grow and evolve would be to sponsor and co-sponsor academic events with students and faculty from institutions other than Skidmore. For example, during the spring of 2011, the Honors Forum helped co-sponsor the Hudson River Undergraduate Mathematics Conference, which involved over 300 students and faculty from dozens of schools in the northeast. Also in 2008, the Honors Forum, together with the FYE program, sponsored an interdisciplinary conference on “Science and Society,” which involved Skidmore and Union. I would love to see further developments along these lines in the future, including perhaps events that are less formal than conferences.
In spring of 2010, the Honors Forum conducted our first self-study and in the fall we underwent an external review. Some of the impending changes that my successor, Catherine Golden, is implementing came out of those studies and the Council’s discussions of the report from the review team.
I had the privilege to serve on the Honors Council twice, under the able leadership of Phil Boshoff and David Vella, before becoming the director on June 1, 2011. I am grateful to the previous three directors who served before me—Michael Arnush, Phil Boshoff, and David Vella—and proud to be the first woman director of the Honors Forum.
Honors Forum has made significant strides since we had an external review in 2010 in which I participated. The 2015-16 academic year is the first that all students in Honors Forum have chosen to be members and were accepted based on their grades at Skidmore and potential for College leadership. The separation from Admissions, which I oversaw, has also led to a dramatic drop in our disqualification rate, which I documented for our 2015 assessment. Other changes I enacted include creating a mission statement, streamlining Academic Festival to become a celebration of excellence, establishing guidelines for Honors worthy writing, increasing diversity among our program members, making the Honors Forum lounge a space to promote community engagement, renaming the Forum to honor the now defunct Periclean Society, incorporating the Periclean Scholar Awards into the umbrella of Periclean Honors Forum, initiating the Career Services’ “Living the Liberal Arts” for Honors Forum (we held two programs during my tenure as director), bringing back a popular housing option for HF students in Wiecking Hall (beginning in 2012), revamping the application process, and increasing participation among HF members.
To describe a few of these accomplishments in more detail, beginning in 2013, Honors Forum now invites programs and departments to submit vetted panels for our consideration, making AF more in line with an academic conference. Academic Festival now has fewer presenters and fewer concurrent sessions, but more attendees at each session and a consistently high academic caliber. We have expanded our social media and both created and revamped our Facebook page. The redesigned website is up to date, user friendly, and, we hope, inviting to prospective and current students. New additions to the website include a rotating flash of pictures of HF events (featuring students and faculty), a calendar of events, and redesigned pages with easy links to the Service Requirement, Curriculum, Housing, and the Periclean Scholar Awards, etc. I have worked with faculty to encourage them to make their courses Honors classes, and we have many new courses in place, some from previously under represented departments and programs. Our courses meet the Cultural Diversity requirement or provide opportunities for leadership, an important goal of the Forum.
Our redesigned password-protected Honors Forum lounge in 321 Ladd Hall now offers students a comfortable place for individual study and group meetings. The lounge has couches and plush chairs, a library, tables, lamps, and a whiteboard. The Franklin Forum, a discussion group that HF co-sponsors, and the Honors Council regularly meet in the HF Lounge, and we also hold many events there. Community building and student leadership remain important priorities. The Council instituted a participation requirement in 2015; simply by taking an HF class, completing a Service Requirement, or attending an HF event each semester, students meet that requirement for the semester. Our goal is to have active HF members, and this policy, to which students have responded positively, seems to be a good way for students to take advantage of what the Forum has to offer. The kick-off picnic, holiday study break, and field trips to New York and Proctors were a big success. The formal dinner at the Tang, which the students requested in 2016, is a great new tradition. Moving the HF student-selected Ramsey Lecture and Induction to the upper-floor dining hall increased our attendance and made for intellectually exciting discussions in a relaxing venue.
The application process is another area that we improved under my tenure as director. The student executive committee (called Exec. Co) asked that we include a personal interview as part of the admissions process, which was well received. Exec. Co designated interviewers called Honors Forum Ambassadors, a title that recognizes the leadership of these HF students and the important contribution each is making to the Forum. The interview allowed each applicant to be connected with an HF mentor from the beginning of his or her HF journey.
As I step down from my leadership position, I aim to remain connected to the Honors Forum. I am excited to see the directions that our incoming HF director, Flagg Taylor, will take to help the Honors Forum continue to prosper and grow.