By Daniel Nott
On the south side of campus, UMass is undertaking its largest construction project in its history: a $186.5 million residential and academic complex that will house a reinvented Commonwealth Honor’s College.
The Commonwealth Honors College at UMass Amherst was created out of the university’s honors program in 1996, when the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education agreed to institute a “public honors college” to serve top high school graduates from across Massachusetts. Now, 17 years later the college is receiving a miniature “campus” of its own within UMass, in a change that is likely to have major implications for honors and non-honors students alike.
Associate Dean of the Honors College and History professor Daniel Gordon said the move is a “natural step,” noting that honors programs at large public Universities such as Arizona State, Penn State, and Indiana have their own building,
Like other colleges in the university, the Honors College has a dean as opposed to a program director and offers a number of interdisciplinary classes, though most honors courses are still taught within regular academic departments.
One of the biggest changes that the new complex will bring is a reorganization of housing for honors students. Currently, most UMass students enrolled in Commonwealth College live alongside the larger UMass community, in one of the six residential areas on campus.
An exception is found in the Commonwealth Honors College Residential Academic Programs, or “RAPS,” which are certain floors designated to honors students in a number of dormitories across the Central, Orchard Hill, and Northeast residential areas. Over the course of the year, students take at least two classes with the students on their floor as a way to build community. When the complex opens in the fall of 2013, these RAPS will be consolidated inside the new residences.
“I thought it was a really great way for me to meet like-minded people,” said Wendy Simon-Pearson of the American Politics Residential Academic Program she was in her Freshman year.
Simon-Pearson is now a senior at the Commonwealth College who is pursuing a major in Chinese Government and Economic Affairs through the UMass’s Bachelors Degree with an Individual Concentration, or BDIC. She also studied at Peking University in China for two semesters last year through the Commonwealth College’s 3-year International Scholars Program.
However, some students are skeptical about the benefits of all-honors housing for UMass and the Commonwealth College.
“Unless the new dorms are being built as dilapidated as the Southwest dormitories, I don’t see why Honors students should be getting special treatment just because they complete a Capstone project,” said Felicia Cohen, a BDIC student in Advertising in Graphic Design expecting to graduate in 2014.
“Have you seen the lobby of JQA?” she added, referring to the John Quincy Adams Tower in Southwest Residential Area, which was built in 1966.
Simon-Pearson commented on the benefits of having a diverse mix of students in the dormitories.
“Some of my best friends freshman year came from the non-honors part of the floor, and they’re still to this day some of my best friends,” said Simon-Pearson. “They were just as interested in the things I was interested in but they didn’t happen to have as good of a GPA in high school,”
Gordon acknowledges this preference in many students.
“We estimate about half will want to live in the new building, and half will not,” he said.
“I imagine that many honors students will continue to identify with other communities and choose not to live in the new honors building. Some honors marching band students will want to room with other marching band students who are not in honors.” Gordon said, adding that the same thing would likely apply to athletes, fraternities, sororities, and other student groups.
The new Honors Residential Complex, which will include 500,000 square feet of residential, classroom, and administrative space – including 1,500 beds and nine classrooms- is an attempt to provide centralization to a college that is dispersed throughout campus. It is being built with money borrowed from the University of Massachusetts Building Authority.
“It will help create a community among the students. Without a building, [The Honors College] defined primarily by its course requirements. The building will bring students together academically and socially,” said Gordon.
Currently, Goodell Hall adjacent to the Du Bois library serves as the central location for Honors programs, including the Community Engagement Program, International Scholars Program, Pizza and Prof Nights, and Weekly Wednesday Workshops. It is likely that the range of Commonwealth College programs, as well as their attendance, will increase after their new acquisition.
“A special lecture held in the building will draw a lot of students because so many of the students will be in the building already,” said Gordon. “Right now, we do hold special evening events in Goodell but attendance tends to be low because students have to make a trek over from their residence halls, which can be very far away.”
Gordon and Simon-Pearson both expressed hope that the new residence will help attract excellent high school students to UMass.
The college says: “The honors residential complex will serve as a visible representation of the campus’s commitment to academic excellence for undergraduates in all fields of study.”
The new residential complex is in line with an economic policy of new building construction, which comes as the campus approaches its 150th year in 2012. According to a draft of the UMass Amherst Campus Master Plan, UMass is in the midst of a 10-year, billion-dollar capital improvement program that started in 2004.