The head of the University Honors Program will step down at the end of the semester after almost a decade in the role.
Maria Frawley announced last week that she will leave her position as executive director of the program and return to the English department next fall after she takes a one-semester sabbatical. Officials and faculty said Frawley has improved the stature of the program during her tenure, increasing student retention rates, boosting research efforts and supporting students and faculty after two student deaths in 2014.
Frawley said her decision to step down was “difficult,” but she wants the program to see a leader who can bring a new perspective to the program.
“A new person, fresh to the program, is going to be able to see things anew that I, because I am so immersed in the program, can no longer see,” she said. “I don’t have a wishlist of things that I didn’t accomplish, but I do think that new energy and new perspectives can galvanize people to roll up their sleeves and tackle problems.”
Ingrid Creppell, an associate professor of political science and international affairs and the deputy director of the honors program, will serve as the interim director, according to an honors program blog post.
Terry Murphy, the deputy provost of academic affairs, said the University is currently conducting a search for an associate provost for special programs and the Mount Vernon academic experience, who, once hired, will oversee the search for a new honors program director. The search will be internal, she said.
“We hope the future director of the honors program will bring the same level of commitment and enthusiasm that Dr. Frawley brings to the role,” Murphy said.
Frawley said her experience as director has been “extremely rewarding,” and she was able to both work on the administrative side of the program and also interact academically with faculty and students.
“When you’re at the head of the program like this, you have obligations to be overseeing the academic side of things but also very invested in student affairs and student life, so, for me, that has been ideal,” she said.
She said that when she first stepped into her position in 2009, the retention rate for the program stood at roughly 40 percent. But over her tenure, Frawley has dropped the GPA requirement from 3.4 to 3.0 and made the curriculum less “restrictive” – changes she said have helped boost the retention rate to about 90 percent.
Frawley said she has bolstered the program’s visibility on campus and improved the diversity of course offerings. She said that as director, she has worked to infuse more research into the department by establishing a program that pairs faculty with honors students to conduct research.
She said her most memorable moments as director outside the classroom have included hikes to Harpers Ferry and social outings to the Shakespeare Theatre with students.
“It’s getting to know students outside of the classroom that has been the highlight of my time working as the director of the honors program, and it’s the part of the job that I’m extremely sad about letting go of,” she said.
But Frawley’s tenure was not without challenges. She oversaw the program’s move to the Mount Vernon Campus in 2011, which students said fostered a disconnect between the program’s students and other freshmen.
“I have maintained our commitment to all of our students to continue to offer classes at Foggy Bottom and to maintain a presence in our townhouse, which has been so vital to our sense of community,” she said. “I’ve just tried to role model a spirit of doing our best to make things work, even when we face hurdles.”
After two honors students committed suicide in West Hall in 2014, Frawley said she hired more staff in the program’s Mount Vernon Campus office to foster a sense of community.
“I learned a lot about crisis management, and I had a lot of conversations with students and with parents, and I think the simple fact of being available to talk and be open to conversations on a myriad of concerns that people raised was most essential,” she said.
Bethany Cobb Kung, an assistant professor of honors and physics, said Frawley has been supportive of students through initiatives like “Professor on the Town,” where students and faculty visit museums across the city, like the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
“She’s really fostered a shared vision of the honors program as really a strong academic foundation but also a social program where it makes this community at GW,” she said.
Kung said Frawley’s overhaul of the capstone project for seniors in 2013 to include a focus on discussions rather than writing papers has enhanced faculty and student relationships.
“Just sitting down in small groups talking about topics like love – I talk about time with my students – these big topics, just having that intellectual discussion with the students has really been one of the great things that she’s done,” she said.
Mark Ralkowski, an associate professor of honors and philosophy, said Frawley has been “an ideal mentor” and “a visionary for the program,” both with her work to improve the curriculum and her support of faculty research.
He said Frawley reduced the number of classes professors were required to teach after faculty raised concerns that they did not have enough time to dedicate to research endeavors. Faculty were previously required to teach three courses in the fall and three in the spring, but now they are required to teach three in the fall and two in the spring, he said.
“The reason the reduction is a good thing for us is because it frees up time for us to focus on research and write books and such, and it’s not easy to do that when you have a really full schedule,” he said.
He said she developed popular programs like “Food for Thought,” an event that occurs about twice a semester and involves faculty research presentations with students.
“It’s one of the best opportunities for students to interact with faculty about their research so they’re talking about not just ideas in the classroom – they’re actually engaging with faculty and their research, and that just doesn’t happen that often,” he said.
Theodore Christov, an associate professor of honors, history and international affairs, said Frawley is a tireless leader who worked hard to improve the program, but he said she was often “deferential” to University administrators – who he said take the honors program for granted.
“She rarely tried to garner unanimous support to oppose, whenever that was the case, tough administrative decisions coming from the University, such as moving the honors program to Mount Vernon Campus,” Christov said.