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Eric Gerber

Estess Leaving as Honors College Dean

December 4, 2007-Houston-
Ted EstessIn “The Human Situation,” the signature course for the University of Houston’s Honors College, students learn that one of life’s constants is change.

A very real example of that lesson comes with Ted Estess’ announcement that he will be stepping down as dean after leading The Honors College – and before that, the Honors Program – for more than three decades.

“I’ve been doing it so long, some of my colleagues are calling this an abdication,” he said, jokingly.

Estess took the reins in 1977 and will officially conclude “the best job on campus,” as he calls it, this summer.

“I’m not doing this because I’m disappointed or discouraged or even tired. I just have a strong sense that it is time for a change,” he explained.

Estess will remain on faculty (as Professor of English), continuing his affiliation with The Honors College. A search advisory committee will be named shortly and a national search will get under way for his successor this spring, said Provost Don Foss. The provost applauded Estess’ development of the university’s “outstanding honors community” into “one of the premier such organizations in the country.”

The Honors College is an interdisciplinary program (accepting majors from the school’s other academic colleges) with approximately 1200 students enrolled.

Although Estess said he’s “still trying to get it right” after three decades, that’s not false modesty so much as an acknowledgment of the changing and challenging nature of building and maintaining such an ambitious operation.

“This job (the deanship) has changed several times,” he said. “Perhaps that’s one reason why it’s kept me so interested and engaged for so long.”

With a scholarly rigor, Estess traces the program’s evolution in four phases. The first was, of course, the founding of the Honors Program.

“We were faced with locating appropriate faculty and building a suitable curriculum. The core for that was – and I’m pleased to say remains – our team-taught ‘Human Situation’ course, which is modeled somewhat after the ‘Great Books’ approach,” he said.

What informed such choices was the fundamental philosophy of the program.

“It is a shared belief that this is not about the accumulation of a certain number of degree hours but about the collegial interaction of faculty with each other and with our undergraduate students,” he said. However, the program has never been a purely academic exercise interested only in its own esoteric pursuits.

“We have made a continuing effort to link liberal education to the professional schools,” Estess said, recalling that in its early days nearly half the Honors Program student body was made up of engineering students.

The second phase of Honors’ development focused on establishing its own “small college” identity. To that end, Honors claimed its own areas in the residence halls and in building its own programs and academic advising units. But the biggest element was the “spectacular increase” in the number of National Merit Scholars recruited to participate in Honors.

In little more than a decade, starting in the mid-1980s, we saw a steady increase in the enrollment of National Merit Scholars, essentially starting from scratch and building to an average number of 70 new National Merit Scholars a year."

The third phase has been to expand the external focus of Honors, developing creative partnerships with the community and maintaining relationships with the ever-growing number of Honors alumni. “Our longtime supporters and donors and the truly amazing array of our students who have gone on to academic, professional and business careers are, ultimately, the real assets and real success of this enterprise,” Estess said.

Finally, the most recent development has been the most visible – the construction of a dazzling and expansive new home for Honors on the second floor of the recently remodeled M.D. Anderson Library. This comes after many years of being housed in cramped, somewhat dark and dank quarters in the library’s basement. But like the ugly duckling transforming into a swan, the Honors College now boasts what many feel to be one of the university’s most impressive venues.

“Functionally, this was a major improvement,” Estess said, “and it allows us to develop an even stronger sense of community. Beyond that, however, this has enhanced our profile on campus, created even more pride for our alumni, and it’s an important recruiting tool for potential students and their parents.”

As he prepares to leave the dean’s position, Estess looks forward to “more time for reading and writing and teaching,” but is committed to continuing his relationship with The Honors College and supporting his successor.

“Our Honors College is the lever we have for academic excellence at the University of Houston,” he said, “and it’s my hope that the university will continue to use it that way.”

Estess bio: http://www.class.uh.edu/English/faculty/estess_t.asp

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