Coming into focus: Spisak strengthens Honors identity

UI Honors Program Director Art Spisak

UI Honors Program Director Art Spisak. Photo by Tim Schoon

Art Spisak has quite the view from his perch inside a fourth-floor corner office in the Blank Honors Center. And that’s not only because his two walls of windows are the canvas of a spectacular panorama that captures the Cleary Walkway, the Iowa River, and a full pallet of fall colors.

No, Spisak, the new director of the University of Iowa Honors Program, is most excited about what he sees going on inside the Blank Honors Center and the possibilities that lie ahead.

“This program has a lot of good things going on,” Spisak says. “That was obvious to me right from the start. But now it’s moving towards a stronger identity—it’s finding its focus.”

By focus, Spisak means the Honors experience will be more defined. What does it mean to be an Honors student at Iowa? What should be the requirements? How can we best prepare high-achieving students to excel after graduation?

Currently, the only requirement once a student is admitted to Honors is that the student maintain a 3.33 grade-point average. That has led to some 6,000 Honors students on campus, of which approximately 1,500 to 2,000 are what Spisak calls “active.”

“We want to see what that group is doing and use that piece to tell us what the students already are doing that makes them Honors active,” Spisak says. “Then add to that what we have seen is most effective for high-capability students.”

To do that, Spisak and others applied for and received a grant and will take a look at the UI Honors student population, national standards, and best practices for honors colleges and programs across the country, taking a particularly close look at Big Ten schools and other peer institutions.

Based on their findings, they’ll recommend a set of requirements beyond the minimum GPA, which Spisak says could possibly lead to tiered levels of Honors.

“Could be something like having to take so many honors classes in your time here,” he says. “You may have to be involved in undergraduate research, or an internship, or study abroad, or a selection from a menu.

“The strength of the program now is that it has a lot of flexibility, so students can tailor it to their own wants and needs. We want to try to keep that as much as possible.”

Spisak, who came to the University of Iowa from Missouri State, was a visiting professor at the UI more than a decade ago. “I taught in the Classics department for a year and a half,” Spisak says. “While I was here, I thought to myself, ‘This is the perfect university and town for me. This is where I want to be. This is my ideal job.’ I’m pretty happy to be here, and flattered and pleased.”

Not only is it an ideal school and town, but his Honors position is a great fit for his preferences. “I like working with people, and that’s from the students all the way to my colleagues and the upper administration, and it extends into the community, too,” Spisak says. “It’s the people contact that makes the job exciting to me. And I still like the research part, too. So, if there is a way for me to dive into a topic, I like doing that.”