Raised driving tractors and dump trucks on a dairy farm in Michigan, UF Honors Program director candidate Kathy Cooke is a first-generation college student. Cooke shared her plan for making UF Honors a top-five program in itself Monday afternoon.
The professor of history and founding dean of the University of South Alabama Honors College is the final of three candidates to present their Honors plan to the Honors community and participate in a Q&A. The search committee will make their selection for the next UF Honors Director in the next week.
“I learned about the importance of land grant universities, the possibility of contagious enthusiasm for learning and how crucial diverse viewpoints are for Honors,” she said. “This is the foundation.”
Her working plan for UF Honors includes the idea of an “intellectual playground” as a foundation of honors at a public university, she said.
“The Land Grant Public university can be a source of contagious enthusiasm — an intellectual playground — that serves culturally pluralistic students with diverse viewpoints, who in turn serve others,” her thesis read.
Cooke’s plan to make UF a top-five honors program includes meeting with stakeholders and considering the strengths and weaknesses of UF’s Honors Program. Identifying programs for comparison is another step in her plan, she said. This will help create a matrix for national standing.
The final steps of her plan include identifying essential starting points and beginning high priority work. The rest of her plan would be reviewing this process and adjusting as needed, she said.
She outlined five different categories she thinks are important to the Honors experience.
Academic challenge is the first category and would create opportunities for students to maximize their learning opportunities, she said.
“How do students push themselves just enough so that they can take the next step forward and learning without feeling like they push too hard and they’re going to fail?” she asked.
Cooke included diversity in one of her academic challenge bullet points. Making sure Honors welcomes students who do not have strong backgrounds in higher education or might need extra guidance is something that deserves attention, she said.
The second category, prominence in the Honors community, included talks of membership in various Honors groups like the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities and Honors Education at Research Universities (HERU), both of which UF is already active in.
The National Collegiate Honors Council is one group UF was once active in, but it is not currently. The Southern Regional and the Florida Collegiate Honors Council are two groups UF is not a member of but should visit the topic of becoming a member, Cooke said.
Cooke also visited the topic of signature options. A signature is what would make UF’s Honor program special, Cooke said. A seminar on leadership with the university president, travel to international campuses or service projects paired with a leadership opportunity are a few options, she said.
The fourth category was a top public experience — how Honors gives students the feel of a small liberal arts college and a large institution in one, she said.
“Many of these elements already exist,” Cooke said. “But leaning into that and honing that experience such that it matches that expectation for honors and fits with an expectation that's commonly held for top public universities.”
Part of this, she said, would be making research experience a focal point in Honors, which would make undergraduates a part of the higher education mission of cultivating knowledge and culture.
The last category she believes to be essential to the Honors experience is general prominence. Cooke emphasized the UF Honors signature and leadership opportunities. Increasing endowments to support student scholarships is also important, she said.
Cooke is up against the current UF Honors interim director, Melissa Johnson, and Michael Blandino, assistant dean of Louisiana State University Ogden Honors College.
The search committee will have its final meeting April 17, where they will discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate. It will pass its findings on to Associate Provost of Academic Affairs Angela Linder, who ultimately has the final say, said Kevin Knudson, committee chair.
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Ella Thompson is a third-year journalism major who's on general assignment for The Alligator's metro desk. In her free time, she likes to read, cook and think of feature stories for The Alligator.