University of Iowa

The Infrastructure of Honors Education

by Honors Program Coordinator Jess Waldschmidt

It’s not likely that you know what “NCHC” means if you are an honors student, were an honors student, or are a parent of an honors student. However, you can trust that it has had an impact on honors education at the University of Iowa. Honors Director, Dr. Art Spisak, who is currently the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC) President, says, “If you’re looking for research on and resources for honors education, you look to the NCHC.”

The NCHC is a 51 year-old nonprofit organization designed to support and promote undergraduate honors education. It is the official international authority for best practices and standards in honors education. It also is the home of two journals and many monographs on the subject of honors education.

In addition to large public universities, the NCHC represents honors programs and colleges at two-year institutions, smaller colleges, and universities. For such a large organization with so many components, one has to wonder what Spisak is most proud of in his tenure.

“The culture has changed. I worked hard to enable that. Shared governance is important when serving students across disciplines. Transparency is important, and the NCHC’s Board of Directors are serious about their role in driving honors education.”

Besides its publications, the NCHC hosts a national conference each year, inviting its nearly 900 member institutions to gather for a multi-day symposium where thousands of deans, directors, faculty, staff, and students engage in presentations, roundtables, focus groups, panel discussions, and social and cultural activities to cultivate the vision of honors education for over 330,000 honors students in the U.S.

At the University of Iowa, and more specifically the Honors Program, community and collaboration drive our mission, and we value the process of helping students to make their connection. So, when Spisak’s dear friend, the late Jim Ruebel, was elected NCHC President in 2014 and said to him, “you have to run for the NCHC because I’m not doing this by myself,” he jumped right in.

Spisak at that time had been a member of the NCHC Board of Directors for two years. “I chose to run for NCHC leadership after serving on the Board of Directors for two years. Through my Board experience, I saw an opportunity to effect change among the Board and leadership – to increase engagement and thus give the NCHC more influence nationally and internationally.” The NCHC leadership role is of a four-year term: one year each as Vice President, President Elect, President, and Past President.

When questioned on how his leadership experience has impacted Honors at Iowa, Spisak says there has been a direct influence. “Although there’s variation in honors programs, and particularly when their host institutions are very different, there are still practices that translate across programs. For example, many two-year honors programs have the same recruiting issues we do. We can look to each other as an example and share what works well and what doesn’t.”

Spisak says that he has also learned a lot about the world of non-profits. The business operations are set up differently than at universities. Also, he says, “In running the Board, you have a mix of people from a variety of institutions who have influence at different levels in the organization. Each brings a different perspective, and managing that mix really widens your perspective.”

Spisak now sees the NCHC differently because of his Board and his leadership experience. ”We are being sought out as the official representative for honors education. For example, over the years NCHC has developed a definition of honors education as well as the basic characteristics of honors programs and colleges. That has helped make the NCHC the organization that others consult when they want to start or evaluate their honors programs.”

To learn more about honors education and the National Collegiate Honors Council, visit