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Committee proposes changes to Echols Scholars Program

Possible changes include having students apply at the end of their first year, eliminating specialized housing for scholars

<p>The proposed new program would eliminate Echols Scholars-only housing in Balz-Dobie and Tuttle-Dunnington residence halls.&nbsp;</p>

The proposed new program would eliminate Echols Scholars-only housing in Balz-Dobie and Tuttle-Dunnington residence halls. 

Multiple changes are being considered for the Echols Scholars Program following a report by a committee that reviewed the program. After documents on the potential changes started circulating among Echols Scholars last week, the recommendations have been met with concerns from some current scholars in the College’s undergraduate honors program.

The committee — comprised of one current student, five College professors, one representative from the admissions office and an Academic Programs Manager — began meeting in the fall of 2015 to consider how the Echols Scholar Program could be re-envisioned for the 21st century. The committee submitted a report of its review to Rachel Most, Assoc. Dean for Undergraduate Academic Programs, in January 2016.

The committee reviewed the program and shared recommendations of a new program, which proposed a possible Echols fellowship program that would select students at the end of their first year through a combined recommendation and application process. The committee’s report said they believe a delayed acceptance would allow Echols Scholars to better explore and share their passions in their first year.

This proposal would not house first-year Echols Scholars in only the Balz-Dobie and Tuttle-Dunnington residence halls. The report also included a portion on diversifying the class of scholars.

An email was sent to Echols Scholars May 1 containing a letter to Most regarding the report. Since then, students have also circulated a document with the committee’s full report.

“What have been circulating are the committee’s report to the Dean and a letter reaffirming the general content of the report in light of the faculty’s adoption of the new curriculum that was sent to the Dean and Associate Dean Rachel Most,” Michael Timko, a biology professor and the outgoing director of the Echols Scholars Program, said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “Neither were written with the expectation that they would be widely read public documents and therefore have contents and tone that reflect this intent. Both contain a series of recommendations for further consideration.”

Several current scholars have expressed some concerns about the shifting focus from selecting Echols out of applicants to the University to selecting them based on performance during the school year. One concern was that the new program would lack the community the current program has brought them.

“One of my favorite things about the Echols program is the instant sense of community you feel with the other Echols students when you first get here,” first-year College student and Echols Scholar Priyashma Joshi said. “Changing the program for the first-years would take away that from that academic community and would make the scholars program feel like just a title to hold.”

Lena Schulhofer, a third-year College student and Echols Council President, said in an email to the Echols community that the proposals will not change the experience of current students and nothing has been confirmed yet.

Schulhofer said the Council representatives “share the same frustration” and will do their part to ensure the perspectives of current scholars are heard.

Baucom said in an email statement the Echols Program chose to organize a review both as a standard periodic evaluation and as preparation for the possibility of larger curricular reform.

Some of the things taken into account during the review were a “collection of data on Echols Scholars,” such as admissions statistics, majors, GPAs, demographics, “interviews with constituents,” and “research into the components of other similar or honors programs around the country,” according to the circulating documents.

Diversity was cited as an important reason for the proposed changes. The program review stated that “despite the language on the U.Va. Echols website … The program is notably lacking in diversity.”

Timko commented on the diversity of the program in an email to The Cavalier Daily.

“There are a multitude of factors that contribute to the ethnic, cultural and socio-economic diversity of the University, College and Echols Scholars program. There are also multiple mechanisms that have been used, are being used, and have been proposed as possible approaches to assuring that we are doing our best to be broadly representative in all dimensions,” Timko said. “I believe that over the last several years Echols has been actively moving in that direction and we continue to strive for improvement. These documents do not present a complete accounting of all of the information and data that are available on this important question nor are all possible solutions in practice or in planning fully developed or discussed.”

Classics Prof. Jon Mikalson, former director of the Echols Scholars Program, said he learned about the proposal about six weeks ago when the review was attached to an email calling for nominations for a new director of the Echols Scholars Program. Mikalson said he is concerned about changes to the existing program, including its elimination of first-year Echols housing, and how the changes could impact the program’s role as a recruiting tool for the University.

“This is not a revision of the old program, this is kind of a repeal and restore, because it’s a completely different program,” Mikalson said. “It would eliminate the Echols program as it has existed here since the 60s, and I think a lot would be lost.”

Mikalson sent an email to current Echols Scholars a week ago informing them of the proposal and inviting them to share their opinions about the proposal and the appointment of a new director of the Echols Scholars Program with administrators.

“I wanted to make sure, that the process is open and it’s not just dropped on everybody,” Mikalson said. “I’m kind of trying to bring the Echols Scholars into it, so their views are considered.”

Baucom said the program will continue to consider the review and will welcome outside opinions.

“There’s a lot more work to do, and we need additional feedback from the community — additional faculty as well as Echols students and alumni,” Baucom said.

Most said students will be able to share their opinions in upcoming focus groups and a series of open Town Hall meetings.

On Monday, the College named Assoc. Astronomy Prof. Kelsey Johnson as the next director of the Echols Scholars Program. According to an email, Johnson will assume the position at the end of May.