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Barrett, the Honors College at ASU, Is a Close-Knit Community; Some Say Too Close

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Barrett, the Honors College, is a school within a school.

Admissions documents say Barrett consists of "living-learning communities" of academically driven students from across ASU's four campuses. Barrett is where the cream of the ASU crop goes to be educated.

Barrett marked its 25th anniversary in 2013. The University Honors College was granted official status in 1988, when it became the first residential honors college in the nation. It was renamed for former Intel CEO Craig Barrett and his wife, Barbara, a former ambassador to Finland and Arizona gubernatorial candidate, after they endowed the school with a $10 million gift in 2000. The college has undergone great growth in recent years, with its current student body size rivaling its alumni population.

In its admissions literature, Barrett distinguishes itself from the wider university. Though the majority of ASU students were in the top 25 percent of their graduating high school classes, for example, most Barrett students were in the top 10 percent. One year, students donned T-shirts that read "_arrett, the Honors College. We don't get B's."

All of Barrett's honors faculty fellows hold Ph.D.s, and the school boasts a 15-to-1 student-faculty ratio, small in comparison to ASU's ratio of 22-to-1. Students, sometimes called "The Commas" in a reference to the school's stuffy title, almost universally refer to Barrett as tight-knit.

The college's largest campus is at the corner of Apache Boulevard and Rural Road in Tempe, neatly tucked behind a set of iron gates on ASU's central campus. The Barrett campus is fully enclosed, and were it not for some classes they take elsewhere, Barrett students practically could spend their college lives there. Students are, in fact, expected to live on campus for at least their first two years.

Barrett's central campus is reminiscent of the exclusive private schools Barrett emulates. It's got everything but the ivy and, indeed, references to the Ivy League (Harvard of the Southwest, anyone?) are not uncommon. Some students jokingly refer to the campus as "The Nerd Cage."

Outside, students gather in groups and study in solitude on the sandstone benches surrounding Barrett's green lawns. There's an outdoor fireplace for cold-weather gatherings and a volleyball pit.

Inside, Barrett's buildings serve multiple purposes, reflecting the insular nature of the Barrett community. One can find professors' offices, student dorms, and classrooms interspersed throughout any given structure.

In the Honors Hall -- in many ways, the hub of Barrett life -- there's a gym with flat-screen TVs and elliptical machines, a spiral staircase leading downstairs to a coffee shop, and a recreational area with ping-pong tables.

There's also the beautiful Refectory, or, as students call it in a reference to Harry Potter's Hogwarts, the Great Hall. On a Friday afternoon in December, one student casually played the grand piano as others sat at long tables with high-backed chairs and feasted in the hall's wood-paneled dining room.

In an adjacent hallway, photographs of Barrett students who went on to win prestigious fellowships line the walls: 185 Fulbright scholars, 52 Marshall scholars, 54 Goldwater scholars. The list goes on.

Barrett students major in any field they choose, taking classes in the disciplinary college of their choice. One student says there can be tension between Barrett and the rest of ASU, in part because of the special privileges afforded to Barrett students. Barrett students get to register for classes before others, for example, and sometimes are offered special courses the general ASU population can't take.

This includes the Human Event, a mandatory two-semester seminar taken during freshmen year.

Barrett freshmen may take a different professor for each semester of the intensive course, but they are encouraged to stick with one. They also are encouraged to participate in for-credit, study-abroad trips with their professors during the summer after the course finishes.

The Human Event is "a wonderful course to get students into the idea of working closely with a professor," says a former staff member who asked to not be identified. But she says she also believes the class has contributed to the problem of too-close professor-student relations.

"Because it was so friendly," she says, "if you had any faculty members who were not terribly ethical in how they related to youngsters, it was a situation in which they could take advantage."

With these professors, sources tell New Times, office hours turn into intimate meetings. Examination of the ancient Greeks may have an odd focus on the sexual relationships between mentors and mentees. Trips abroad are fueled more by alcohol than by learning.

To many, Barrett's very structure, intended to create a close learning community for students and professors alike, has instead become something sinister: a way for predatory teachers to grow close to -- sometimes, even sexually -- the young and ambitious students in their tutelage.

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Ashley Cusick
Contact: Ashley Cusick