University Scholars 

by Baylor Line Foundation | April 1, 2019

This article was written by Paula Price Tanner and published in the January 1988 issue of The Baylor Line.

Over the years, they have come from varied backgrounds. One was a city boy from the suburbs of Houston; another grew up in Mount Ida, Arkansas. Two came after stints in the armed services; one, after serving as a high school cheerleader. Two were educated in private grade schools in exotic locales—South Africa and Malaysia. One attended public schools in Waco. And with scholastic interests as varied as their backgrounds, there is only one thing that these people have had in common: the strong sense of inner direction and the intellectual maturity needed to be designated a “university scholar.”

The University Scholars Program was created at Baylor nearly fifteen years ago as an alternative approach to undergraduate coursework for specially gifted students, says religion professor Dr. Bruce Cresson, program supervisor. “The idea was to remove specific course requirements—as much as possible for a few truly superior students and to tailor academic programs for them with an emphasis on broad rather than highly specialized study programs.” 

The program was designed to meet the needs of exceptional students whose talents and interests extend beyond the framework of traditional degree programs. “These are creative people whose interests don’t fit easily into a major in history, political science, philosophy, or whatever, but who can see a way to take courses from several disciplines and fit them together logically,” says Dr. David Hendon, associate professor of history, who serves on the committee which selects the scholars. 

“For example, you might be interested in economics—not only in economic theory but also in economic development. You might want to combine economics classes with courses in history, political science, sociology, and so forth. With the preexisting area majors, you couldn’t match up the proper set of courses.” 

The students, whose diplomas read “Bachelor of Arts, University Scholars,” build their own degree plans almost from the ground up. Only three courses must be taken by everyone. 

“It was decided, due to legal precedents, that all students must take a course on the American constitutional system, Political Science 2302,” recalls Dr. Cresson. “And to honor the university’s relationship with the Baptist General Convention of Texas, we still require the students to take six hours of religion courses. Beyond that, everything is negotiable.”

Sounds like an easy way to go through college—until you start talking to these select few about their studies. 

Miriam (Mim) Phillips Moore has maintained a 4.0 grade average while studying five foreign languages—French, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and Arabic—in addition to her work in the English department at Baylor. “I’m planning to go into foreign mission work with my husband,” she explains; “I want to do teaching and translation while we’re overseas, and I need that kind of broad base in language. You can’t get that with a traditional liberal arts program.” 

Sophomore Dennis Stovall also feels a calling to a career overseas, but he is approaching it in a different manner. “I have concentrations in history, journalism, philosophy, religion, and Slavic studies,” he says, “because I want to go into government foreign service. It just seems to me like those are the things I need to study to be fluent and to understand the other cultures.” 

The University Scholars Program made it possible for Michael Jordan, a National Merit scholar, to replace entry-level courses with more challenging classes in his area of interest. “I’m particularly interested in biology,” says Jordan, “but the biology major is pretty structured; it doesn’t allow for a wide range of additional interests. In my case the university scholar major is very useful because it allows me more flexibility.” Such flexibility allowed Jordan to create a schedule last fall which included classes in chemistry, physics, independent study in biology, bioethics (a religion course), and philosophy. 

These high achievers are not exceptions: they are the rule in the scholars program. The program makes it possible for Tina Kent, a sophomore from Waco, to fullfill her desire for a broad-based education and still maintain her hectic schedule as a university debater. Senior Susan McKinney has used the program to master a wide range of premed courses. And sophomore Heather Dodder is taking a sampler approach: “My goal is to take at least one course from every department in the university,” she says. 

Like students in the University Honors Program, these young men and women have demonstrated high intellectual ability. But the program has a slightly different appeal from that which draws honors students. 

“The honors program takes all of the catalog requirements and adds another layer of requirements on top of that,” says Dr. Cresson, who is a former director of that program. “So in honors you really have a highly structured program which points more toward specialization, with the honors thesis. On the other hand, the scholars program emphasizes breadth rather than intensity in a particular area.” 

“It’s not a program for everyone,” points out Dr. Hendon. “It’s for those people who have their own agenda, their own self-definition. They don’t want to be put in a box; they want to build their own boxes. There is a structure that comes out of it. It’s just that the individual has some ability to determine how that structure is set up.” 

Several factors work to ensure that the quality of the program remains high. Program applicants are screened carefully by the faculty committee; students must propose a program of study and demonstrate why their interests won’t fit into a standard major. They must be admitted to the program early in their college career, with no more than thirty-two hours of credit completed. This prevents students from using the program as an eleventh-hour catchall for a jumbled mix of courses. Instead, scholars must sit down during their first year and create a coherent program to follow. 

Partly as a result of the thirty-two hour limit, the number of students in the program is kept low. Only eight students currently participate in the program (out of over 11,000 on campus), and only ten have been graduated with the degree since the program’s inception. 

Keeping the numbers down makes it possible for each scholar to receive a great deal of personal attention from the program director. Students and committee members agree that Cresson provides important guidance to the students as they select their courses each semester. Students are urged to take two laboratory science courses and at least one foreign language. Basic courses in math and computer science are also often recommended. And grades are closely monitored: all scholars must maintain a 3.5 cumulative grade point average throughout their college programs. 

The strongest incentive for excellence, however, seems to come from the students themselves. “These people want to take something unusual and hard, for the challenge of it,” says Hendon. “It’s refreshing. So many people prefer to take something easy; but in the midst of the many people who want to be told what to do, who want everything in structured, black-and-white categories, we get these highly gifted people who want something demanding. They are inspiring.” 

It’s not just what these students say that tells you they are special; it’s also what they don’t say. They will talk seriously about the importance of making good grades; they won’t mention that they all are making nearly straight-As and that most university scholars are selected for Phi Beta Kappa. 

Until asked, they don’t mention that they’ve earned impressive academic scholarships. What they do talk about is how much they enjoy learning. 

“I knew from day one that I’d be going on to graduate school or law school, just because I love school,” says senior Kimberly Otte. “I expect to get my career training then; I think the most valuable thing during my four years here is to become broadly educated, to learn how to learn.”

Otte has done just that. An early interest in women’s studies led her to the University Scholars Program, she says: “There’s no women’s studies program at Baylor, but the university scholars major allowed me to pull from several disciplines to have a complete program. As it’s worked out, I have done mostly philosophy and Russian; I’ve also taken a lot of political science and English, and this spring I’m taking quite a few business classes.” 

Otte believes that the program has made it possible for her to maintain an enthusiasm for learning. “Sure, I’ve spent a semester in a class I didn’t want to take. But some people spend years doing that. Many of the business majors I’ve talked to aren’t particularly enthusiastic about what they’re learning. I’m enjoying all my classes because they’re not just means to an end for me. It was my decision to take them, and I’m enthusiastic because they mean something to me.” 

These scholars don’t talk like they put an unusual amount of time into their studies, but underlying such talk is an assumption that serious students study hard. “I probably don’t work any harder than any other pre-med student,” says Michael Jordan, —at least any other student who takes as many hours as I do and keeps up his or her grades.” 

“The scholars program doesn’t really require us to work harder,” says Mim Moore. “It’s more a compulsive reaction: we have high expectations of ourselves.” 

Pulling from a variety of disciplines is not particularly difficult, these students say. But they are quick to acknowledge that it is their ability to integrate diverse elements that makes their work go smoothly. “I don’t see any problem in studying so many different subjects,” says Stovall, “because to me they all seem related.” 

“It surprises me how a lot of students never see how interrelated all the disciplines are,” says Kim Otte. “They have no idea that finance could possibly have anything to do with political science, or how the political science has to do with the literature of a given period. Being able to see that it’s all interrelated is a valuable outlook.” 

“Maybe we’re just all perfectionists,” laughs Peggy Buechner, a senior from Richardson, Texas. “Maybe we just don’t like to think that anyone else knows more about something than we do. My roommate used to kid me about that. We’d meet someone who’d say, ‘I’m a chemistry major,’ and I’d say, ‘Oh, that’s one of my areas of concentration.’ Then someone else would say, `I’m taking English,’ and I’d say, ‘Oh, that’s one of my areas, too.’ I felt like an amoeba, engulfing every subject I encountered.” 

In fact, Buechner has narrowed her range of studies during her years at Baylor. A self-described “orchestra wastrel” in high school, she planned to be a music major. But strong interests in journalism and foreign languages vied for her attention as well. Through the University Scholars Program, she was finally able to reconcile these interests in a program emphasizing English literature, German, and Spanish. Her musical skills she maintains by playing violin in the orchestra at Highland Baptist Church each Sunday. 

Buechner, who plans after graduate school to teach English on the university level, appreciates the personalized approach to degree planning that the scholars program has provided. “It seemed like so many of the requirements—like PE classes—were just filler for me. And people who have had a lot of cultural experience don’t need to take courses in art appreciation or music appreciation.” 

She agrees, however, that it takes a particular type of student to put the freedom of the scholar program to good use. “Everyone in the program has a strong desire to achieve or feels a calling to do something. I think that no matter what we did, we all would take it seriously,” she says with a smile. “By nature, we’re pretty driven people.” 

Because only a few people are admitted to the program each year, earning the title of “university scholar” is a distinct honor. But once again, you won’t hear it from the scholars themselves. 

“I appreciate the kind of reputation that comes along with it, but that’s not why I’m in the program,” says Mim Moore. “In fact, when I’m asked what my major is, I never say, 

`university scholar.’ I just say, `French and English.’ “ 

“I don’t like to talk about the program with people outside of it,” Peggy Buechner agrees, “because they think it means so much more than it is. You don’t want them to mark you off as being some brain in a jar.” 

“It’s hard to explain the program,” says Moore. “If you try to give a full explanation, it can sound like you’re an intellectual snob.” 

“And,” adds Dennis Stovall, “if you’re casual and don’t try to explain, it sounds like you’re just goofing off.” 

Most of the scholars say that the program’s only drawback is that it is difficult to explain. They worry that graduate schools will not understand the meaning of a “university scholar” major and that the confusion might reduce their competitive edge when applying to law schools, medical schools, or graduate programs. 

“There can be a communication problem initially when a graduate school sees ‘university scholar’ as the major on a transcript,” acknowledges Dr. Hendon, “but it’s not a problem for very long. Once the graduate school or medical school understands, it can work in favor of a student. 

“For example, many medical schools have over the past few years tried to diversify the incoming student body; there’s an effort not to have people who are just gradgrinds, fact seekers who just have one narrow area of learning. Someone with the university scholars background who had all the science and other pre-requisites for medical school would have a definite advantage.” 

Philip LeMasters, a 1984 university scholars graduate, agrees. “I found no problem at all in applying to graduate schools,” says LeMasters. “I was accepted to both of the schools to which I applied for master’s studies; I applied to six PhD pro-grams and was accepted to four of them. I found that good universities understand that schools have odd programs like this and that they’re okay.” 

LeMasters, whose university scholar emphases were in religion and languages, went on after graduation to earn a master’s degree in religious studies at Rice University. Now, at the ripe old age of 23, he is studying Christian ethics in the PhD program in religion at Duke. Looking back, he is glad that he chose the university scholars major. 

“The program allowed me to concentrate on areas that I knew would be important for the kind of graduate work I wanted to do. I didn’t have to spend a great deal of time in introductory math and science courses; the math and science classes I did take were in areas that were of particular interest to me, like a physics class in cybernetics. 

“The program allowed me to focus my energy on what I was interested in—Christian ethics, Greek, theology. And it allowed me to work as fast as I wanted to, so I was able to finish my undergraduate degree in two and a half years.” 

Conscious of the wide expanses of knowledge to be conquered, these self-directed achievers are doing more with their college years than many students ever dream of doing. And though they are modest about their achievements, their peers and professors will tell you that this small cadre of people who have devoted four years to “learning how to learn” richly deserve the title “scholars.” 

Says Dr. David Hendon: “These are gifted and unique individuals. There may not be many of them, but they are the kind of people the university has a special obligation to serve.”

 


 

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