Spotlight on Kilachand Honors College
Symposium illuminates how it does what it does
What does $25 million pay for? At the Kilachand Honors College, it can pay for students’ efforts to fight childhood pneumonia in impoverished countries by designing a symptoms meter that runs off solar power and old cell phone batteries.
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 20th 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.) And it can pay for poetry that looks at life, like “Porta Portese,” Rosanna Warren’s take on Wall Street, written before the financial world tanked, and the value it puts on something “if it whispered on an old tape with the sexual lure of infinite cash…”
Warren and other professors at the college served a buffet sampling of their work September 22 to mark the record $25 million gift given the school by philanthropist and entrepreneur Rajen Kilachand (GSM’74), a BU trustee. Attending the symposium at the School of Management were Kilachand Honors College students, BU President Robert A. Brown, and Kilachand himself, whose gift prompted the renaming of the college. The Kilachand Honors College, which plans to grow its current 139-student enrollment to 400 students by 2016, offers courses to 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 honors college.
“The world’s newest college,” as founding director Charles Dellheim referred to the year-old 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, academia suffers also from “institutional rigidities that impede our ability to innovate,” said Dellheim, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of history.
At the symposium, four Kilachand Honors College professors described their classes to demonstrate how the college innovates—how, in Brown’s description, it augments a major research university with a top-notch undergraduate education.
Thomas Bifano (above), director of BU’s Photonics Center and a College of Engineering professor of mechanical engineering, told the audience that the deformable mirror system would be tested on a NASA flight into space later this week. “We’re going to search for planets outside our solar system,” he said, and the data from the mission will be shared with his students.
Andrew Bacevich, a CAS professor of international relations and history, said that “reinventing the narrative of the 20th century” is essential for students in the 21st century, because “the past needs to be usable.” In his 60s, he said, “I am well into the realm of old fogey-dom,” and the lessons he was taught from 20th-century events—Hitler showed tyrants can’t be appeased, Pearl Harbor showed that the nation can’t let down its guard—while valid, may not always be instructive in a new century. He cited commentators who suggested that 9/11, like Pearl Harbor, required “all-out war.” He lets his Kilachand Honors College students take the lead in formulating weekly discussion questions as they seek to discover “what narrative of 20th-century history will best illuminate the challenges we face in the 21st century.”
Muhammad Zaman (above) explained how he confronts his students with “a world out there that does not even have the basic necessities” and asks how the best of Western technology and medicine can address that problem. Zaman, an ENG assistant professor of biomedical engineering and a member of the Center for Global Health & Development, said the meter his students developed is now being tested. It costs $20, a fraction of what similar technology used at Boston Medical Center would run, he said. In addition to designing new technology, his students ponder questions outside engineering that are relevant in the developing world, where $20 can be big money: “Who should own it? How do you address the IT issues, the copyright issues?”
Warren, BU’s Emma Ann MacLachlan Metcalf Professor of the Humanities, walked the audience through the Kilachand Honors College course she teaches on literature and hunger. On the conviction that poetry explains humanity and “is not a decorative art, and it is not, or not only, entertainment,” she and her students plumb Homer, the Bible, Kafka, and modern poets, among others, to study the role of food throughout history. “We ask, what is food? Who eats what, and why? Who eats whom—what is sacrifice?”
The students at the Kilachand Honors College will obviously get a great deal from the generosity of Rajen Kilachand, but what about the benefactor himself? “I have only one requirement attached to this $25 million,” he told the crowd after the symposium. “Can I attend a few of the classes up here?…After today, I am convinced more than ever that you cannot have a better preparation for what faces you than Boston University.”5 Comments