Paul Gilmore, left, is the administrative dean of the Honors College. Matt Matsuda is its academic dean.


Paul Gilmore, left, is the administrative dean of the Honors College. Matt Matsuda is its academic dean.

Nick Romanenko

Atop a rise overlooking the Raritan River, the Honors College is a new and distinctive landmark for Rutgers University–New Brunswick. With its clock tower and brick façade, you can’t miss it—a visible sign of progress at Rutgers’ historic College Avenue Campus. But the Honors College, with its just-planted greenery and gleaming windows, isn’t just a new building; far from it. The Honors College is an idea for how to change education at Rutgers—and beyond—and it’s one with more than 500 brilliant first-year students bringing a spirit of innovation to its seminar rooms and lounges.

Of course, honors offerings are nothing new at Rutgers. And the Honors College, rather than replacing the honors programs at Rutgers–New Brunswick schools, augments them, doubling the number of high-achieving students with access to an honors education.

“The inaugural class of the New Brunswick Honors College is a community of 530 students drawn from across New Jersey, the nation, and the world,” says president Robert Barchi. “These young women and men have distinguished themselves as outstanding high school students involved in a remarkable range of leadership activities, and with standardized scores averaging more than 300 points higher than their peers in New Brunswick, and more than 600 points higher than the state and national averages. They are living and learning alongside faculty advisers in a state-of-the-art facility that will encourage the cross-pollination  of inquiry, ideas, and perspectives from  colleagues engaged in a wide array of schools and majors.”

These first-year students are not just English and philosophy majors. They’re not just would-be electrical engineers, sculptors, environmental scientists, and marketing and pharmacy professionals. They’re all of the above, and it’s that mix that’s likely to give the Honors College its energy and spirit.

“We’re building off of the strong tradition of honors at Rutgers, and we wanted to do something different and new, especially with the university joining the Big Ten and the CIC [Committee on Institutional Cooperation],” says Paul Gilmore, administrative dean of the Honors College. “What’s really different about the Honors College—and it’s fairly uncommon among honors programs across the country—is bringing together the liberal arts and the professional schools.”

The Honors College reflects a shift in higher education, with a greater emphasis on the intersection of the arts and sciences and the professional disciplines. Globalization, meanwhile, demands a new approach to problem solving. “This is not being driven by some kind of an academic project,” says Matt Matsuda, academic dean of the Honors College. “The world is changing in dramatic ways, and we’re essentially preparing our students with an education for the 21st century.”

Of course, an interdisciplinary approach sounds ideal, but how do you actually get a student planning to major in the classics, say, to collaborate with a dancer and a biomedical engineer? One key conduit is the Honors College Forum, and while that name sounds lofty, it’s got distinctly real-world goals. In the signature class at the Honors College, students hear from leading professors and  experts on global challenges and how to address them. They work in teams to come up with plans for a range of social-innovation projects and, later in the fall, pitch their projects to professionals for possible funding, mentorship, and implementation.

That’s just a part of the Honors College experience, but it’s an example of the spirit of creativity, exploration, and innovation expected of these students. It’s a spirit that certainly extends beyond the confines of classes and into the gathering spaces of the Honors College building, located along Seminary Place. Faculty are living there, including Matsuda, who is a noted history scholar, along with a landscape architecture professor and an engineering professor and his family. Because the building includes high-tech seminar rooms and communal spaces, other faculty members are in and out of the building, along with  guest speakers.

After their year living at the Honors  College, the 530 students will still be a part of the Honors College but they will live elsewhere on or off campus as they pursue their studies. Their undergraduate experience culminates in a 6-credit capstone project as seniors, under the supervision of a faculty  adviser. Eventually, about 2,000 Honors College students will be attending Rutgers University–New Brunswick. The building  itself will serve as a hub of Honors College activities. “It will be a place to call home  regardless of where the students go after their first year living there,” says Matsuda. “It’s a destination for the university.”

In fact, the ethos of the Honors College extends far beyond its walls. There’s a ripple effect as students from the Honors College, with their interdisciplinary way of thinking—and engagement with the world—bring their ideas and outlook to their classes and to university life.

Ambitious, yes, but the students are clearly eager for the challenge. As Matsuda puts it: “We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change the landscape of higher education through honors here at Rutgers.”

And this will likely have an effect on everyone associated with Rutgers, as the Honors College attracts top students to the university. “The more high-quality students  we attract to Rutgers, and who go out and change the world, who win Fulbrights, who  get Rhodes scholarships—that increases  the value of a Rutgers degree for everybody,” says Gilmore. •