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Remembering the Days — Palmetto Ivy: How the Honors College came to be

Remembering the Days - episode 55

USC's South Carolina Honors College was born in the 1970s when several other of the nation's first honors colleges came into being. But rather than becoming an also-ran, USC's Honors College emerged as one of the nation's best by offering hundreds of unique honors courses across every academic discipline at the university.



Juhi Patel: “I think I've always just been slightly more curious. I remember in elementary school, the one kid who's always asking too many questions or is always wondering why. Kids that tended to be a little bit more curious, a little bit more, I guess not annoying, but that tended to be a little bit more, I guess, questioning of the world around them — a lot of them are actually in the Honors College now.”

That’s Juhi Patel, a junior pre-med student in the Honors College at Carolina who was explaining to me what makes Honors College students different. I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days and even though I never darkened the door of an Honors College classroom when I was in college, I’ve always been curious about how USC’s Honors College got its start and ultimately how it got the national reputation that it enjoys today.

The story goes back to 1961 when the university had a handful of honors-type classes, and several professors suggested establishing an honors program. Four years later, we had one, and in 1967 there was talk of turning the honors program into an Honors College. That wouldn’t happen until the next decade, but it turns out that’s when most of the nation’s first honors colleges made their debut.

Steve Lynn: “ There are places that say their honors programs go back to the 1930s, but you look at it and you think, was that really an honors program? And maybe that was in one department. But in the ‘60s you started having some momentum. There might have been a dozen or so honors colleges in the ‘70s. 1978 is when we became a college.”

That’s Steve Lynn, an English professor who is the current dean of the South Carolina Honors College.

Carolina’s first freshman class of Honors College students in 1978 had 167 students, the vast majority of them from South Carolina. The big idea behind launching the Honors College was that it would attract more high-achieving students to the university — especially those who scored 1200 or higher on the SAT. Back then, 80 percent of students in South Carolina who scored that high typically went out of state for college.

But before we delve any further into the history of the South Carolina Honors College, here’s a basic question to consider. What exactly is an Honors College? Simple enough question but as it turns out, there’s no definitive answer.

Steve Lynn: “There is no accrediting body that says, ‘Here's what you have to do to call yourself an honors college.’ And there are several really good universities that have honors colleges that really don't offer much of anything. And they may offer a freshman seminar and a senior seminar, and that's it.”

So any university can say it has an honors college. But launching a real honors college requires visionary leadership. And that’s what the first two deans of the South Carolina Honors College provided.

Bill Mould and Peter Sederberg served as deans, one after the other, for about the first 20 years of the college’s existence. They had quite different personalities — I remember Bill as a very affable, friendly guy and Peter always struck me as intense and hyperfocused — but both of them shared a similar vision for the Honors College. They would talk about keeping the promise to Honors College students, an iron-clad commitment to provide top-notch instruction and opportunities for students to pursue their dreams — things like internships, study abroad and research projects with professors.

Bill and Peter were not at all interested in recruiting nose-to-the-grindstone students who were only wanted to make A’s. The word maybe gets used too much these days, but they wanted students who had a real passion for something and were willing to devote themselves to making it happen.

Patrick Kelly was an Honors College student here from 1999 to 2003, and he vividly remembers Peter Sederberg challenging him to be aggressive in his pursuit of learning.

Patrick Kelly: “Repeatedly in advising sessions, Dean Sederberg would look at me and say, ‘Patrick, you're not here to be a sponge. You're here to be a barracuda.’ That was his mentality, and I think it still permeates the Honors College that you're not just here to absorb knowledge, you're here to pursue knowledge. Don't be passive, be aggressive and active in your pursuit of academic growth.

He had the expectations of his honors college students that, I am sure, is equivalent of what anybody at a Harvard or a Yale has for their students. That is very much how he expected us to perform.”

Patrick came to USC as a McNair Scholar — the biggest scholarship the university offers to out-of-state students — and he graduated from the university having won a prestigious Madison Fellowship. That fellowship helped him go on to graduate school and become an award-winning political science teacher at Blythewood High School in South Carolina.

Patrick Kelly: “But for the McNair scholarship and the Honors College, I would not be in South Carolina. It pulled me to South Carolina and the experience at the university was so good that it became a place that I could see myself living and raising a family. So very much so those are part of the story of why my family is in South Carolina right now.”

To make an Honors College, you’ve got to start with an honors program — USC did that in the 1960s. You’ve got to have honors college deans who are unswervingly devoted to students and creating a top-notch learning environment. Bill Mould and Peter Sederberg checked those boxes and so has every Honors College dean since then.

You need scholarship programs to attract the best students who often get offers from multiple schools. The university created the Carolina Scholars program in 1969 for in-state students and the McNair Scholars Program in 1998 for out-of-state students.

Finally, you have to have Honors College classes — not just regular courses with a few extra requirements, but classes designed with Honors College students in mind. Turns out the South Carolina Honors College has done that better than most. Here’s Steve Lynn.

Steve Lynn: “We've evolved to about 600 honors classes, which is just astonishing. I mean, there's no other honors college that has that kind of a curriculum.”

Having 600 honors courses is pretty good evidence that USC’s Honors College is the real deal and a reason why people outside of the university call it one of the best honors colleges in the country. To create all of those courses, you have to have professors who really love to teach and engage with top-level students. I talked to a couple of them, including English professor Cat Keyser.

Cat Keyser: “The Honors College really fosters and encourages creative approaches to traditional material when they run honors sections of required classes. And then they also encourage inventive course topics like the seminar that they frequently run on knitting and philosophy. The sky is the limit in terms of pedagogical inventiveness.”

Music professor Greg Stuart likes how the students respond to the Honors course he teaches on experimental music performance.

Greg Stuart: “They're curious and they're inquisitive. And a lot of the things we do in the class require truly creative thinking to kind of figure out how do I perform this piece, what's being asked of me here in this situation? Everybody's really smart, but it's more about creativity and invention, I think, and they just have that in spades.”

Scottie Greene is an Honors College student majoring in history and political science and she says there is a high degree of rigor in every honors course.

Scottie Greene: “Honors college classes really, I think, encourage you to think on your own and develop the skills to think about this material more so than just you memorizing the material. And I think part of that does come from the passion of the professor, who cares a lot about this subject, and also just the expectation that you're going to put in a lot of work as the student, that you're going to also really want to know about this material, understand it and care about learning it.”

Years ago, the Honors College used to refer to itself as Palmetto Ivy. The idea was that, as an honors college student, you could get an Ivy League-caliber education at the University of South Carolina without having to pay an Ivy League tuition. That idea still holds true. The nearly 2,400 Honors College students on campus today arrived here with standardized test scores and high school GPAs that could have gotten them into just about any top-notch university in the country — which is pretty cool.

In this episode we’ve been talking about really smart students at Carolina. On the next Remembering the Days, we’re going to go way back to the 1830s and a story of two students who got really mad over a trivial thing and then did something that was really not smart. I’ll tell you all about it in the next episode.

In the meantime, thanks for listening. I’m Chris Horn, forever to thee.