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Growing Honors

by Rich Barlow, Leslie Friday, and Art Jahnke

What does $25 million pay for? At the Kilachand Honors College, it can help finance students’ efforts to fight childhood pneumonia in impoverished countries by designing a symptoms meter that runs off solar power and old cell phone batteries, or special lectures by visiting faculty, or field trips to local cultural events.

It allows students to work with “deformable mirrors” that clarify for astronomers the blurry views of distant planets, and for doctors the blurry views of retinas from conventional equipment. It can pay for a professor teaching students to reimagine the geopolitical history of the twentieth century. (Instead of a power struggle between the West and others for control of Eurasia—a conventional wisdom at the end of the Cold War—maybe it was a struggle for the Middle East and against the Islamic world.)

Established in 2010, the Kilachand Honors College welcomes BU’s highest-performing incoming freshmen who are enrolled in one of the University’s undergraduate schools and colleges, but take a quarter of their credits through the select honors program. “The world’s newest college,” as founding director Charles Dellheim referred to the institution, comes at a pivotal moment for American higher education. Beset by a financial crisis that threatens its quality and accessibility to students and by public doubts that it helps graduates attain desirable careers, Dellheim noted that academia suffers also from “institutional rigidities that impede our ability to innovate.”

Freshmen in Kilachand Honors College take one seminar each semester, choosing from classes like War for the Greater Middle East, taught by Andrew Bacevich, a CAS professor of international relations, and Engineering Light, with Thomas Bifano, Photonics Center director and a School of Engineering professor of mechanical engineering. The classes are paired with a two-credit studio course that hones writing and research skills.

Sophomores take a two-semester course titled Insight and Innovation, which explores six fields in the arts, sciences, and professions. Past topics include the Large Hadron Collider, France during the Nazi occupation, and intellectual property, among others.

The junior seminar is intended primarily to prepare students for a senior keystone project, which they use to showcase how research, creation, and invention take place in their respective fields. Students studying engineering, communications, and business, for example, could team up to create a business pitch for a new concept in biomedical engineering.

That $25 million pledge was made by Rajen Kilachand (GSM’74). A member of the University’s Board of Trustees, Kilachand is chair and president of the Dodsal Group, a multinational conglomerate that holds interests in engineering, mining, trading, and hospitality businesses. He is also a committed philanthropist, whose social initiatives span a spectrum of giving—from sponsoring music and art festivals to funding community theaters and AIDS awareness programs in Africa and Papua New Guinea.

The gift is the largest in the University’s history and prompted the renaming of the college to the Arvind and Chandan Nandlal Kilachand Honors College. It has provided the tools to expand enrollment to 400 students by 2016 in what Dellheim describes as “a new approach to liberal education.” At the time of the donation, the Honors College had 137 students in the freshman and sophomore classes combined.

Most recently, Kilachand’s gift was used to create the Arvind and Chandan Nandlal Kilachand Professorship. The academic chair was appointed to Dellheim, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of history. The newly created chair recognizes his status as the founding director of the Kilachand Honors College. Dellheim anticipates that future directors of the College will be appointed to the chair.

Kilachand Honors College has the feel of a small liberal arts college, embedded in a great research university. All the College’s students live in the same dorm their freshman year. Classes are small, and designed to cultivate a deep intellectual exchange with some of the University’s most esteemed faculty.

The students are an unusual bunch, and they know it. “We kind of have our own community within the larger BU community,” says Sarah Blair (CAS’14). “One thing that’s really notable about everyone is that they’re so passionate about what they like. And it’s really infectious.”

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