NDSU without an Honors Program

John Swanson | Photo Courtesy
The once lively Honors space in the library is now empty.

Academic program slashed due to budget cuts

About four years ago I was prompted by my grandparents, two very enthusiastic NDSU alumni, to visit the campus and consider it for my own studies. Now, all I really knew about NDSU were these two things: it was a football school and a party school, with the former often initiating the latter. 

As much as I can understand the temptation to attend a school on these alluring prospects alone, I wanted to get my degree from a school where my education would carry on past four fun years of college.

My tour consisted of lots of football talk, even some party talk, and when I was catcalled even with my male tour guide by my side, I was just about to throw in the towel. But then I was guided to the basement of Askanase Hall to meet with the director of the Honors Program, Dr. Matthew Salafia.

Personally, I roll my eyes at the idea of an Honors Program as much as the next person, but its presence on NDSU’s campus showed me that there was an academic underbelly present at the university that went beyond just getting your degree. This, in tandem with Dr. Salafia’s enthusiasm and sincerity in the program, showed me that NDSU is a school where academics could flourish.

Today, a few years down the road, the Honors Program has just been canceled and NDSU is more aptly thought of for its problems with racism than academics. It makes me ache for the days of football and partying. 

Without the Honors Program, NDSU is losing just another assurance to prospective and current students that this is a university first and business second. We don’t have the best reputation for academics as it is (regardless of whether or not this is really fair), but if I was considering NDSU today without an Honors Program, well, I really wouldn’t be.

Over time, Honors programs have the ability to gain their own notoriety within a school, much in the way that Pennsylvania State University, University of California or the University of Illinois maintain Honors programs that are often more exclusive than getting into the university in the first place. 

Now, most schools don’t have Honors programs, but at the same time, many schools allow their academic performance to speak for itself. GPAs don’t define students, and it is sometimes the case that they don’t define universities either, that being said, the average GPA has been rising in the last nine years, but it sat at 3.16 for the 2019 year. 

This number is not something to scoff at, but it also doesn’t exactly set us up as being as competitive academically as we are athletic. U.S. News and World Report have NDSU listed at number 284 out of 388 national universities (placing us in the bottom 30 percent). 

Not to fear though, Niche college rankings have NDSU in the top 10 percent of schools for partying and conservatism. The best statistic yet? It has us listed as only the second-best school in the Fargo area. We’re not even the top school in our home city!

An Honors program will not directly translate to the upward movement of the university as a whole in national rankings on academics, but it could. When students who value the educational opportunities provided by such programs attend the university they begin to form a community within the school for like-minded individuals.

This is not to say there aren’t plenty of intelligent, ambitious and passionate individuals here at this school not enrolled in the Honors Program, because there are too many to count. However, even those students typically know that NDSU’s legacies in the nursing, engineering and agriculture fields will never be as well known as the field in the Fargodome. 

And the Honors Program here at NDSU was about more than just academic prowess. In my two-and-a-half years in the program, I have taken courses on business ethics, local cuisine, revolutions, failure, strengths and off-the-path literature. I got to take classes from professors I never would have met in my normal major studies, as well as receiving guest lectures from a dozen or so more professors from around the university.

I’ve had classes where I’ve written papers for a grade, classes where I’ve just talked allowed for a grade and classes where I showed up and ate some dessert for a grade. The Honors Program also offered undergraduate students the opportunity to build their own research plans and work with a faculty advisor on their thesis. All of this is to say that this program is unlike anything I’ve experienced at NDSU. 

There were moments of awkwardness, or what I so-lovingly-call “learning moments,” when a class that has never been held before runs into some hiccups. Yet, at the same time, I was confronting these issues with students from every college at NDSU, working in teams with people both alike and not-so-like myself. The Honors Program was a way to grow into a more well-rounded and invested student, and now it’s on its way out the door. 

So today, four years down the road, I have to consider what my degree from NDSU will mean now that the program that got me here, the legacy I thought students here were building, is actually just the endnote in a short chapter of the university. We are still a party school, although that has been somewhat stalled this year (although not as much as it should) and we are still a football school. 

Yet, our reputation in these last few months has also meant the addition of being a school that has been publicly, and rightfully, condemned for its handling of racist actions by its students. I firmly believe changes need to be made, and no better encouragement can come but from the students themselves, still, this is not the kind of fame students want to be tied to.

Budget cuts were made recently, which is why we’re seeing the loss of the Honors Program, among many other things. In order to keep the program afloat for the students grandfathered into the program, the Honors Program was given $12,000 in this year’s budget. Which, if you’re curious, is roughly the same amount given to the Madrigal Dinner and the Career Center for their printing needs.

Really, I want the Madrigals to get to sing their hearts out in full garb and I don’t want to discredit the hefty printing requirements of the Career Center, but when the total budget coming out of the President’s Office this year under Salaries-Regular Benefitted was adjusted for an increase of $11,151 to a grand total of $709,899 (not including $171,325.05 in fringe benefits), I think our priorities become abundantly clear. 

Dr. Matthew Salafia, the director of the Honors Program, and one of the best advocates of students I’ve come to know at NDSU, decided to give up his position and his job in the middle of the pandemic in the hopes that there would be enough money for students currently in the program to be able to finish with their minor. 

No one can go back in time, and many of the events of the last year would have been impossible to predict, but if you had told me four years ago that the program that encouraged me to come to NDSU would be canceled, one of my favorite professors and the person who convinced me I would find my place here would lose his job, that during a pandemic NDSU would still invite students to campus in order to get money from the residence halls and issues of racism would be so poorly handled, no, I would not have attended NDSU. And looking to the future, there will be other potential students who will feel the same. 

All this being said, for the sake of the wonderful students and staff present at the university, I can only hope our standing will improve. There was a lot of value in the Honors Program, and even with the loss of Dr. Salafia, the students and professors involved in the program will not soon forget that. 

Here’s to a new semester and a new year, and please, for the love of God, some good news coming soon. 

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