Honors Program 2018 Letter from the Director

Sidney MilkisDear Students and Friends of the Honors Program:

Since taking over as Director of the Politics Department’s Honors Program this past Fall – after serving as one of the American Politics tutors for the past decade – I have been enjoying the opportunity to get to know the exceptional students presently enrolled in the program and reconnecting with our highly distinguished alumni.  Although I have done many administrative jobs since coming to the University of Virginia in 1999, including a stint as Department Chair, never have I occupied a position with such enthusiasm and a greater sense of purpose. I am immensely grateful to my predecessor Gerard Alexander, who worked so effectively to maintain the rigorous standards and intellectual ambition of Politics Honors. Just as important, Gerard made very impressive strides, with the generous support of our alumni, to enhance the financial standing of the program.  I am pleased that he has agreed to remain in Honors as one of our tutors in Comparative Politics. Colin Bird (Political Theory), George Klosko (Political Theory), Lynn Sanders (American Politics), Todd Sechser (International Relations) and Jonah Schulofer-Wohl (Comparative Politics) will also help mentor our outstanding students.

In the next three years, I look forward to the challenge of working with the students and alumni to make what already is an exceptional program into an even better one. There can be no more important task at a time when many universities around the country are trending to larger and on-line courses and face immense challenges in upholding the liberal arts tradition.  It is telling, I think, that our program is the only Honors program still standing in the University. Fortunately, the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Ian Baucom, is immensely proud of UVA’s strong commitment to undergraduate teaching and views the Honors program as a jewel in the crown of the University and its mission to provide students with a rich intellectual experience. We have been steadfast in our commitment to limiting the Honors program to 6 or 7 students a year. Yet the quality of our students, nurtured by four intensive tutorials and the challenge of writing a thesis worthy of a young scholar of politics, has greatly amplified the University’s well-deserved reputation as a first-rate public university. Notably, during the past five years, the Honors Program has graduated four of UVA’s six Rhodes Scholars: Joseph Riley (2013), Evan Behrle (2014), Russell Bogue (2016), and Aryn Frazier (2017).

I am, therefore, confident that the Politics Honors program is not a rearguard of intensive tutorial education; rather, it can be the vanguard of a renewed dedication to academic excellence. My experience last year as the John G. Winant Visiting Professor of American Government at Oxford University confirmed this deep commitment to the Politics Honors way. Oxford has remained one of the world’s best universities through an admirable, the short-sighted say stubborn, commitment to an undergraduate education based on intimate, challenging engagement between first-rate scholars and highly motivated students. Like our Honors students, Oxford’s graduates excel in a wide range of positions that defy the nostrum that a liberal arts education does not prepare individuals for the “real world.” Thanks to one of our talented and enterprising third year students, Eric Xu, I now have a fairly complete data base on the graduates of the Politics Honors program dating back to the 1950s. As I perused this list, I felt a deep sense of pride; but I was simply blown away by the breadth of accomplishment. Many of our former students, not surprisingly excel in academic life; but their talents also have been displayed in a great variety of “practical” professions, including law, business, politics, all sorts of nonprofit work, medicine, and the military. Most of the Politics Honors alums with whom I have kept in touch cherish the extraordinary academic experience that they had in the Honors Program, even its most nettlesome challenge – writing a thesis! At the same time, they insist that the wide-ranging two-year intellectual immersion of the program gave them the ability to think, write, and converse in ways that were critical in to their accomplishments once they left academic life.

One of my prime objectives is to reconnect with the students I taught in the Honors program and to get to know many of our alumni I did not have the pleasure of mentoring in the American Politics tutorial. I participated in a major alumni event that Gerard organized in the fall of 2012, which was well attended and instrumental in putting the Honors Program on a sounder financial footing. David Billings, Politics Honors ’84 – now General Counsel and Secretary of American Managers Group (a global asset management company with equity investments in leading boutique investment management firms) – gave indispensable support to this gathering of alumni. I had the great pleasure of meeting David and his wonderful family in Oxford last year, and he has expressed his continued devotion to the Honors Program and enthusiastic support for another convocation that I plan to hold next Fall.

I will be in touch with all of you over the next few months about this event; however, I hope to bring some you to grounds before it occurs to engage with our tutors and students. One of the first things I learned on the job is how much students enjoy meeting their predecessors in the program. I have the good fortune to work with Bill Antholis – Politics Honors ’86 – who is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Miller Center, where I am a senior fellow. Bill generously offered to take the Honors students and me to dinner at Bang, one of Charlottesville’s best and most fun restaurants. This festive gathering, attended by 12 of the 14 current Honors students, showed just how much our students relished spending time with accomplished and convivial alumni like Bill as well as spending “social” time with each other. As our relentlessly cerebral third year Daniel Ajootian conveyed to me, expressing a sentiment shared by all of the students who attended, one of the highlights of his first year in the program was “dinner with Dr. Antholis, a really wonderful time to get to know what an amazing community this program is.” Another devoted member of this community I enjoyed met this past semester is Calvin [Woody] Fowler, President and CEO of the prominent Richmond law firm, Williams Mullin.  In a recent visit to Grounds, Woody regaled two fourth year students – Christopher Benos and Maggie Beck – and me both with his memories of the graduate program (both fond and highly anxious ones) and the great challenges posed by contemporary developments in the law profession.

I look forward to organizing more of these events in the Spring and throughout the next three years. I know that our students are eager to learn more about life after the Honors Program; and I am sure that many of our eminent graduates will love meeting our current core. Like many of our alumni, our students excel, not only in the tutorials and independent scholarship but also in activities beyond the classroom and research arena. To provide just a small sample of these extracurricular activities:

3rd Years

Eric Xu is editor in chief of the Virginia Review of Politics, a nonpartisan undergraduate run political magazine, which has over 50 subscribers.

Ankita Satpathy served as the Secretary General for the Virginia Model United Nations conference, a policy simulation which brings over 1,000 high school students to UVA for a weekend to debate pressing international issues.

Daniel Ajootian, the beneficiary of a Double Hoo Grant, has been doing research in collaboration with Jack Furniss, a PhD candidate in History, about Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill’s move from anti-slavery advocacy to their defense of imperialism, asking whether this shift marks the rejection of one form of racial subjugation only to adopt another.

4th Years

Magdalene (“Maggie”) Beck has researched and contributed to a TEDx Talk on women and negotiation, served as an intern and Spanish translator at a nonprofit legal aid clinic, and worked as an Investigative Intern and Spanish translator at the Maryland Office of the Public Defender.

Christopher Benos: Christopher has worked for, and now serves as a representative on, the UVA Honor Committee; he also directed the Wilson Journal of International Affairs, led a youth mentoring program, and is a member of the Raven Society.

Austin Owen: Austin has served as President of the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society and is a four-year Editor of the University’s undergraduate journal of American politics and political theory.

I am so proud to direct a program that acts as a yeast in elevating the University’s academic and public affairs profile.  Inspiring such an exceptional group of students is relatively easy work — the fun and challenging parts of my job will be to help them and their tutors continue to build their outstanding records of accomplishment; and to strengthen the network of the Honors Program’s extraordinary alumni.

I wish you all a healthy and productive New Year – and promise to be in touch again soon. Please also know that I would love to hear from many of you – let me know how you are, and what ideas you have to enrich the Politics Program.

Warm regards,

Sid Milkis