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Tilting at Windmills - Educational Misadventures in the Big Ten (Draft 02-10-06)
David L. Nanney
10. The Biology Honors Program
The failure of the NSF grant did not kill the hands-on program entirely. Doc vowed to find some campus space for experimental biology. A few days later he came up with a proposal for temporary housing. Harker Hall was an elegant old 19th century wreck, the oldest university building still standing on the campus, and conveniently close to the Natural History Building. It had been condemned and was occupying bespoken space, adjacent to the new Illinois Union. The University planned to demolish Harker Hall to make room for an additional wing for the Union. Harker Hall had been erased from the campus blueprints. No date, however, had been set for demolition and no funding had yet been provided for the new wing for the Union. Doc requested temporary use of Harker Hall for experimental biology, with minimal improvements.
The main problem with Harker Hall was the size. There was no way the building could serve as an adequate facility for any large number of SOLS undergraduate students. The program was reconsidered, scaled down, and presented to the faculty as the SOLS Honors Program. Applications were solicited from students who were eager for an experimental program and willing to invest significantly more time and effort in an unusual experience. Critical to this effort was Doc’s success in finding funds for staffing particularly to employ Judy Willis whose husband John had just joined the Physiology Department to serve as wheel horse for the program. He also helped obtain a new line for the Entomology Department that was conditioned by a teaching commitment for the Population course; Arthur Ghent was recruited for that role. Herb Stern from the Botany Department was intrigued by the challenge and was allowed by Botany to join the team. The Biology Honors Program was instituted and continued to serve a distinctive and eventually distinguished clientele for some 40 years, despite the continuing erosion of the laboratories in the deteriorating basement of Harker Hall.
Harker Hall was eventually rescued from the death penalty, and recognized as a distinctive architectural landmark. The Biology Honors Program was moved elsewhere and Harker Hall was cleaned up, restored to a semblance of its earlier Italianate glory, and converted into an Alumni trap. Illinois never developed adequate facilities for hands-on exploration in biology, though a Howard Hughes grant program starting in the 70s was tapped to bring honors students into research laboratories in small numbers. The grants program at Howard Hughes is currently supervised by Peter Bruns, who completed his PhD under my sponsorship in 1969. Bruns is still urging a national effort to provide experiential instruction in universities.