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O'Connor to Step Down from A&S Honors Program

12/01/11
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Mark O'Connor (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor

Published: Dec. 1, 2011

The numbers were what helped Mark O’Connor decide to leave the College of Arts and Sciences Honors Program.

“I was talking to a group of new faculty last year, and said I was ‘privileged to have taught at Boston College for 35 years,’” said O’Connor, who has been A&S Honors director since 1997. “That number ‘35’ really stood out to me. Then I realized it was also the 30th anniversary of the year I began teaching in the program. I’d been having so much fun, I never noticed how long it had been.

“But I recognized that it was time someone who was the age I once was deserved the chance I once had.”

O’Connor will step down from the A&S Honors Program — one of the oldest such programs in the country — this coming May 31. He will be on sabbatical for the spring 2012 semester, and A&S Dean David Quigley will serve as the program’s interim director. O’Connor says he plans to return to teaching at BC next fall.  

His decision to step down, says O’Connor, is an opportunity to “remake” the honors program, which provides about 500 selected undergraduates with a grounding in the classics of Western thought through a rigorous curriculum, small classes, discussion seminars and ongoing rapport between students and instructors who double as academic advisors.  

“The reason for me to leave is purely out of gratitude,” said O’Connor, the successor as program director to Joseph Appleyard, SJ, who became BC’s inaugural vice president for University Mission and Ministry in 1998. “As much as you love a job, the best way to show it — especially in a Christian context — is to give it to someone else.”

Quigley praised O’Connor for long representing “much of what is best about Boston College. His profound commitment to our students, his steadfast belief in the transformative power of the liberal arts, and his visionary leadership will be sorely missed.”

Approximately 150 students enter the honors program annually, most with combined SAT scores in the range of 1450 and a place in the top five percent of their high school classes. However, program administrators note, A&S Honors also seeks out the “off-beat” students whose academic or life experiences are compelling enough that they might benefit from enrolling. Superior first-year students are also admitted to the Honors Program as sophomores on the recommendation of their instructors.  

The third year of the program is devoted to an advanced seminar, The 20th Century and the Tradition, which encourages critical inquiry into the Western canon while placing it in modern context. For their final year, students are required to complete an honors thesis or creative project.

O’Connor credits past directors Fr. Appleyard and David Gill, SJ, and the support of late A&S Dean J. Robert Barth, SJ, for the development of A&S Honors into “a program with a central intellectual element in each undergraduate year.”

“It’s not a ‘great books program,’ but rather an ‘enduring questions’ program,” said O’Connor, who also served as A&S Honors assistant and associate director. “There will be variations on the texts used, but the variations speak to the same universal questions about existence, identity and the nature of God — and the conversation is always powerful.”

That conversation has been significantly influenced by the rise in academic quality of BC undergraduates, says O’Connor, recalling discussions with students about how one’s academic achievements relate to personal and spiritual formation.

“The best students,” he said, “are teaching me what I teach the next generation of students.”

O’Connor noted that he has maintained friendships with a number of former students “who are one, two, five, 10, even 30 years” removed from BC: “They’ll send an e-mail saying, ‘You probably won’t remember me,’ but I do. I enjoy continuing the conversations we started when they were students. Many of them have new perspectives, but the questions they — we — face are still enduring questions.”