Under the guidance of then Dean of Instruction Robert Parks, the University Honors Program was established in 1960 and attracted 40 students in its first year. Because the program was designed for students who had proved their ability to perform well at Iowa State, freshmen could not be admitted to the program. In its earliest iteration, the Honors Program did not offer courses, but rather allowed students to engage in individual study or research or to alter their curriculum. Within a few years, a non-credit, optional interdisciplinary seminar was offered to Honors students and the first Honors course, Psychology 234 (Developmental Psychology), was offered in 1963.
The Honors Program was run by faculty members on a part-time release, beginning with Don Charles of the Department of Psychology. In 1966, Edwin Lewis, also from the Department of Psychology, became the Chair of Honors. Dr. Lewis had a special interest in special educational experiences of superior students, an interest which would benefit the Honors Program for many years. Wanting to develop some educational activities that would promote the idea of Honors, the mission to encourage breadth of intellectual experience, and interaction among Honors students in the different colleges, for-credit Honors seminars were created. These seminars continue to be an integral part of the Honors Program. With the help of the Honors Program Committee, Dr. Lewis organized a Student Advisory Board. In 1967 the first permanent office for the Honors Program was opened in Old Botany (now Catt Hall) and a full-time secretary was hired.
In 1973, Dr. Lewis was appointed Assistant Vice President for Academic Affairs and moved to Bearshear Hall. Dr. Lewis retained oversight for the Honors Program and William Larsen of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, as Chair of the Honors Program Committee, assumed more direct responsibility for the supervision of the program. The day-to-day administrative details of the program were invested in a newly created position called Coordinator of Special Programs. In order to fund the coordinator's position, the secretary's position was dropped. Ann Feyerherm, then a recent Iowa State graduate, was named Coordinator.
Several significant events in the program's evolution occurred in the mid-1970s. In 1973, the Freshman Honors Program was inaugurated on an experimental basis to provide an honors experience and encourage a sense of group identity among students early in their college career. In 1975, the Honors Program moved to Osborn Cottage. This move was significant because for the first time the Honors Program had a full-fledged home and identity. Finally, in 1977, Elizabeth Beck was named Coordinator of Special Programs. Liz would play a pivotal role in shaping the future of the Honors Program.
In the early 1980s, the program began to mature. An Honors Program was developed in the newly created Colleges of Business and Design. The College of Engineering broadened its program to better match those of the other colleges by adding Associate membership and a final project. The Freshman Honors Program expanded, both in number of students and in the scope of the program. The Freshman Mentor Program, a research experience, was created in 1987. Ed Lewis developed an intensive training program for freshman seminar leaders. The idea of Honors components of courses was developed and implemented. Poster sessions for presentation of Honors Projects were started.
Honors student activities took off in the 1980s. The students created a twice-yearly literary magazine called The Cockroach. In the fall of 1987, the Honors students initiated the First Annual Honors Week, a week full of activities designed to promote the Honors Program and to recognize the faculty and administrators who have devoted time and effort to the program. Honors students played an important role in planning and staging the Upper Midwest Regional Honors Conference in the spring of 1988. Through their annual Call-A-Thon, the Honors students raised money for special projects including the purchase of computers for a computer lab in Osborn Cottage and supporting student travel to regional and national conferences.
The Honors Program continued to grow in the 1990s. Enrollment in the college programs increased from 420 in 1990 to 919 in 2000; the Freshman Honors Program grew from 167 students in 1990 to 416 students in 2000. Student participation in the Freshman Mentor Program (research) grew from 83 in 1990 to 147 in 2000. Research grants for the Mentor Program were established in 1993. Faculty development grants for professors teaching Honors seminars were established in 1991, helping to attract additional faculty to teach the seminars. The North Central Association Accreditation Report in Fall 1996 found the Honors Program to be a "notable strength" of ISU.
Ed Lewis retired from Iowa State University in 1998 and Howard Shapiro was named to the newly created position of Vice Provost for Undergraduate Programs with oversight for the Honors Program. David Holger has since taken over responsibility of oversight as the Associate Provost for Academic Programs. The expansion of the student population necessitated an increase in the Honors Program staff. In 1990, the Honors Program staff consisted of a Director, a Program Assistant, and one merit employee. By 2000, the staff increased to a Director, an Assistant Director, a half-time Graduate Assistant, two part-time Undergraduate Assistants, and two and a half merit employees.
In Fall 2002, the Honors Program moved into the newly-built Jischke Honors Building overlooking Central Campus. This prairie-style building provides a comfortable home for Honors students, faculty, and staff, and includes three classrooms, lounge space, a computer lab, a kitchenette, and staff office space, and will serve the Honors Program well for many years to come.
Currently the Honors Program staff includes an Administrative Director, a half-time Faculty Director, two Assistant Directors, two merit employees, a Graduate Assistant and three part-time Undergraduate Assistants.