The Honors Program is an open-enrollment program which provides a rich and challenging experience for motivated undergraduate students. At BYU, an Honors education is not merely a more intensive general education or a more strenuous program in a major. It’s about thinking differently, exploring diverse perspectives, and expanding horizons.
The central focus of the program is the study of great questions. Through coursework, research, writing, and hands-on experiences, students explore interdisciplinary approaches and consider ways in which unexpected connections can be found between different disciplines, leading to a deeper understanding of the questions we seek to answer.
"University Honors" is the highest academic distinction awarded by BYU to students at the undergraduate level.
We aim to develop student-scholars from across the university who will become broad thinkers, creative problem solvers, and influential leaders by cultivating:
Skills of Inquiry
Interrogating ideas through hands-on research and experience.
Exploring connections between ideas, disciplines, and people.
Community of Scholars
Building friendship, leadership, and learning across the campus.
Demonstrating high achievement in and out of the classroom.
|Honors Program History||Karl G. Maeser:
|Robert K. Thomas: Our Founder|
“To stimulate, encourage, and motivate anyone who desires to improve and excel”
The BYU Honors Program was created in 1960 under the direction of then BYU President Earnest L. Wilkinson and began with just 100 students. He described the Honors Program as “a plan for the cultivation of the best young brain power in the nation.” The broad aim of the program was to model a liberal arts education by emphasizing quality courses taught by dynamic teachers in small classes that would create a sense of community. Interdisciplinary colloquia were the heart of the Honors curriculum from the outset. Today’s program is built on this foundation, and continues a tradition of academic excellence. Many thousands of students have participated in Honors courses, and graduates of the program have increased significantly in number since the first four students graduated in 1963. According to Noel B. Reynolds, a former associated academic vice-president of BYU, the Honors Program has been a major force in the increasing national recognition given to the academic quality of Brigham Young University and its graduates.
Since its early years, the Honors Program has evolved and adapted to changing needs. In the mid 1980’s the Honors Program moved to an open enrollment model. Richard D. Poll, the first Associate Director of the Honors Program, announced the change was implemented so all students with the curiosity, motivation, and persistence could take full advantage of the program’s benefits. Students from all disciplines, majors and backgrounds continue to self-select into the Honors Program, creating a dynamic cohort of motivated undergraduates. As one Honors graduate, now a member of the faculty, puts it, “It’s not so much about graduating with the distinction of University Honors as it is about the process of getting to that point. It is less about the ACT scores and GPAs, and more about the self-selection by students who are interested in learning in a different kind of way than their peers.”
In the 1970s, the Honors Program curriculum moved away from the original interdisciplinary colloquia to a “Multi-departmental Program” offering a combination of honors sections of departmental courses around campus and Honors seminars taught on specialized topics. Over the years the program has included a variety of colloquia, seminars, writing courses, and unique courses proposed by faculty. In 1981 the program formally adopted a thesis requirement and the “Great Works” program, with more than 100 titles on the Honors reading list.
In 2014, the Honors Program once again adapted to changing demands on resources and the need to better prepare students for the increasingly diverse and connected world in which we live. The Program transitioned away from the Great Works model, returning to our roots in broader, interdisciplinary inquiry. Living up to its long-standing role as the testing ground for new and innovative ideas, the program launched a new series of “Unexpected Connections” courses. Through coursework, research, writing, and hands-on experiences, students explore interdisciplinary approaches and consider ways in which unexpected connections can be found between different disciplines, leading to a deeper understanding of the questions we seek to answer and the problems we seek to solve. A more unified, cohesive core of Honors courses replaced what had become a widely dispersed and disparate offering of electives. The Honors thesis continues to be the culminating Honors experience.
Housed in the historic Karl G. Maeser building, today the Honors Program mentors over 1,200 students. Nearly 35 years later, the words of Dr. Poll still ring true: “The accolade ‘Honors’ has never been more widely coveted and the program has never touched the entire university community more demonstrably than it does today.”
Karl G. Maeser
Born in 1828, in the town of Meissen, in Saxony, Germany, Karl G. Maeser was recognized as a bright scholar from a young age. He received some of the most innovative and highest quality teacher training offered in Europe at the time and began his teaching career in Dresden in 1852. After joining the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he immigrated to Utah and was asked by Brigham Young to start an academy. He served 16 years as principal of Brigham Young Academy and although he was not the first principal of the Academy, he is considered its founder. The Academy became Brigham Young University (BYU) in 1903. Maeser went on to train thousands of teachers and helped found over fifty schools, many of which are now prominent academic institutions in Utah.
Throughout his life, Maeser made a lasting impression on his students at the Brigham Young Academy. He focused on teaching students how to develop rational thought and build intellectual inquiry. His philosophy left a legacy and foundation for the Honors Program today, as exemplified in the four pillars: academic excellence, community of scholars, interdisciplinary thinking, and skills of inquiry.
Shortly after his passing in 1901, plans were drawn for the Karl G. Maeser Memorial building-- a temple of learning to commemorate the beloved teacher. This building was the start of the development of the “upper campus,” where most of the University is now located. The Maeser Building remains the oldest building in use on BYU’s campus and is known for its beautiful classical architecture. Today it houses the administrative offices of Undergraduate Education and is home to the Honors Program.
Robert K. Thomas
Dr. Robert K. Thomas, Professor of English, founded the BYU Honors Program in 1960. After joining the BYU faculty in 1951, he became a vocal advocate for an Honors Program at the University. He wanted a space at BYU where the best and brightest could gather and create a community of scholars. Professor Thomas was largely inspired by his own undergraduate experience as an Honors student at Reed College in Oregon, and knew an Honors program at BYU could provide students with life-changing educational experiences. Specifically, Thomas advocated for smaller and more specialized classes that could facilitate valuable discussions between students and professors. Dr. Richard Poll, the first Honors Associate Director, said of Robert K. Thomas, “He felt a special affinity for the aspiring few and truly believed they would set a standard that would raise the level of academic achievement throughout the university.”
Because of his advocacy, years of support, and professional accomplishments, Professor Thomas was appointed as the first Honors Program Director. He lead the program from 1960-1967 and in 1967 he was named an Assistant Vice-President. Later he became an Academic Vice-President of the University. He was well known for his article A Literary Analysis of the Book of Mormon and the 5 volume series he co-edited titled Out of the Best Books. In the later part of his career, Professor Thomas stated that he considered one of his greatest achievements at BYU as “getting the idea of an Honors program rather widely accepted.”
Robert K. Thomas retired from BYU in 1983 and was called to serve as a mission president in Melbourne, Australia. He passed away in 1998 at the age of 80, and shortly afterwards the Robert K. Thomas professorship was created in BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School in his Honor. In 1999 an anonymous donor endowed a generous scholarship fund in Robert K. Thomas’ name to be granted to Honors students to commemorate his memory. As of 2019, over 200 students have benefited from a Robert K. Thomas Scholarship.