Oxford — Since its creation in 1997, the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College has been a focal point for the University of Mississippi in drawing top students throughout the nation.
Enrollment has grown steadily and earlier this year, Reader’s Digest named SMBHC one of the three best honors colleges in the country, along with honors colleges at Pennsylvania State University and Arizona State University. In conferring the recognition, Reader’s Digest editors noted SMBHC’s educational quality to prestigious private liberal arts schools, as well as its affordability.
Douglass Sullivan-Gonzalez, dean of the Honors College, credits the rating to a comprehensive commitment to student excellence at all levels-university leadership, alumni leadership via individuals such as Jim Barksdale and the late Sally McDonnell Barksdale, teachers and administrative staff.
In this Q&A with the Mississippi Business Journal, Sullivan-Gonzalez shares his perspective on SMBHC’s rise in prominence, as well as its direction for the future.
Mississippi Business Journal: The Honors College has drawn attention on the national level, most recently this year as one of the best in the country by Reader’s Digest. What key factors were instrumental in that achievement?
DSG: The Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College succeeds through the efforts of a committed and spirited leadership by Chancellor (Robert) Khayat and Provost (Carolyn) Staton, the incredible support of Jim Barksdale and the late Sally McDonnell Barksdale and the heart and soul of a committed faculty and staff to some of the greatest students in the world.
MBJ: Personalized attention via smaller classes has been identified as a major attribute. How are you able to accomplish this given the growth of the SMBHC over the years?
DSG: More than 150 faculty members have supported our efforts since we transformed our historic Honors Program into the Honors College in 1997.
Department chairs have provided release time for faculty from all of the disciplines to support our pedagogical goals and everyone has risen to the challenge. I cannot tell you how many times faculty members who have recently taught in our college pull me aside and say, “Now I remember why I went into teaching. These kids excite me and make me want to be a better teacher.”
MBJ: What can you tell us about this fall’s incoming class statistics? Are you increasingly drawing from a national audience?
DSG: We now have 495 students, our largest number ever compared to 354 in 2002. These students come from 20 states and five foreign countries. We have 55% women and 45% men and a minority representation of 9.5%. We could not be more proud of our freshman: 163 freshman joined us this fall-our biggest class yet-and they averaged 30.1 on the ACT and our 16 Barksdale and Pichitino scholars averaged 33.4 on their ACT. Wow!
MBJ: In university publications, we’ve read about students who have chosen SMBHC over other prestigious universities. From the students’ perspective, what are you seeing as your major advantages?
DSG: We generally ask prospective students two questions: “If I can provide you with the same teaching environment as an Ivy League school that charges $50,000 per year at a cost for an in-state student at $14,000 a year, why go to the Ivy League?”
We then ask, “Why not be a big swan in a small pond?” These SMBHC students quickly team up with professors on research projects, even teach labs as undergraduates and organize other students in all manners of student life. These students have a chance to learn some real leadership skills in addition to dominating the classroom.
MBJ: What areas are you trying to improve/expand upon from a student recruitment/retention perspective?
DSG: We have worked hard to “firm up” our numbers, make sure that we have students who are committed to the Honors College for the long haul. We have a significant waiting list for students who want to participate and scored on their GPA/ACT just shy of our minimum. We have also diversified our extracurricular activities and stressed travel in the greater United States and abroad, including our successful Freshman Ventures, our Sophomore service trip and our Junior “City as Text” trip. Students get the chance to talk with trend setters from chemistry to literature to politics.
In January, a group of students will meet with Salman Rushdie, who weathered a death threat and stood up for academic freedom when standing was not too popular. Two years ago, some of our students met with Dr. Oliver Sacks, the famed medical doctor-author who engages patients who suffer from Tourette’s Syndrome and other neurological disorders. Our students crave these opportunities, and we have seen our retention improve dramatically. A better program increases our recruitment and enhances our retention.
MBJ: How do you support/reinforce academic excellence and internships once students are in the SMBHC?
DSG: We have a strict GPA with no exceptions. Freshman must score a 3.2 GPA by the end of their first year, Sophomores must score a 3.4 and juniors and seniors must have a 3.5 GPA in order to graduate as a Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College Scholar.
We budget $75,000 for study abroad and internships, and the students jump at the chance to enhance their education. We also just announced our first-ever Extraordinary Student Awards given to two outstanding students.
MBJ: What percentage of your graduates go on to earn advanced professional degrees and what trends do you see regarding their areas of expertise?
DSG: Our classes do have personalities: one graduating class had 33% go to med school, 33% went to law school and 25% attended grad school. Of this past year’s 70 graduates, 26 are going to grad school, nine are going to medical school and eight are going to law school. Our current statistics show us that one-third of our students are in the sciences, 15% are in the Croft Institute for International Studies, and the rest are spread throughout the humanities and professional schools.
We have noticed a trend favoring the number of students majoring in journalism, in political science, in business and in electrical engineering.
MBJ: Where would you like to see the SMBHC in three to five years?
DSG: We will have 600 students in our program depending upon funding, great recruiting and enhanced retention, and we will have 100 students graduating each year as Honors Scholars. Watch out Mississippi!
Contact MBJ contributing writer Karen Kahler Holliday at firstname.lastname@example.org.