The Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College of Florida Atlantic University opened in the Fall of 1999 as the first public honors institution to be built from the ground up in the United States. The college was championed early on by FAU founding faculty and eventual Vice President of the Jupiter campus, Robert Huckshorn, for whom the campus arboretum is named, and was made possible by the donation of land by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur foundation.
Dr. Huckshorn selected Dr. William Mech, a mathematician, to serve as the College's founding Dean. A past president of the National Collegiate Honors Council, Dr. Mech put together a staff and selected five founding faculty--Dr. Laura Barrett (Literature), Dr. Kevin Lanning (Psychology), Dr. Mark Tunick (Political Science), Dr. Jim Wetterer (Biology), and Dr. Daniel White (Philosophy)--to come together starting in August, 1998 at the RCA building in Palm Beach Gardens to map out a curriculum and set of academic policies, and select 11 additional faculty to be part of the original faculty of 16 that greeted 77 new freshmen in August of 1999 at the brand new Jupiter campus. Several of these original 16 faculty have remained at the Honors College since its opening: Professors Lanning, Tunick, Wetterer, and White (now Professor Emeritus), Dr. Julie Earles (Psychology), Dr. Chris Ely (History), Dr. Michael Harrawood (Literature), and Dr. Tim Steigenga (Political Science), as have staff members April Schimmel (Biology labs) and David Flanigan (Academic Advising). In the ensuing three years additional cohorts of students joined additional faculty hires--including Dr. Rachel Corr (Anthropology), Dr. Jon Moore (Biology), Dr. Wairimũ Njambi (Women's Studies and Sociology), Dr. Chris Strain (History), Dr. William O'Brien (Environmental Studies), and Dr. Miguel Vazquez (Spanish)--and in 2003 the Honors College had its first graduating class. In the 20 years since its opening, the College has grown to more than 40 faculty and 450 students, added a residence hall (with a third planned to open in the Fall of 2020), has well over 1000 alumni, and boasts of over 100 peer-reviewed publications authored or co-authored by its undergraduates.
One of the most important events in the history of the College occurred in 2001 when George Cornell provided a major gift to the college that was targeted for student scholarships, and the college was named after his wife Harriet Wilkes Cornell. The next year the Honors College welcomed its first cohort of 5 Flagler scholars thanks to another generous gift from The William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust (established by Henry Flagler's brother-in-law), to support exceptional undergraduate students from the State of Florida to attend the Honors College by providing the cost of room, board, and tuition as well as four summer enrichment programs. Also in 2002 the Honors College held its first Annual Symposium for Scholarly and Creative Research, at which seniors presented their thesis research either in morning oral presentations, or afternoon poster sessions. This became the precedent for a similar series of research symposiums at the main FAU campus in Boca Raton that began in 2010.
2006 was another banner year for the College. After Dr. Nancy Poulson, the Associate Dean under Dr. Mech, served as Interim Dean for several years, Dr. Jeffery Buller, a classicist, joined the College as its new Dean--a position he filled for the next 10 years; and the Honors College was the recipient of a substantial award from the National Science Foundation that provided scholarships for students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields, through a group faculty proposal led by Dr. Paul Kirchman. During these 10 years under Dean Buller, the College expanded its curriculum from the 19 concentrations offered in 2004-5 to nearly 30, adding programs in among other areas Business, Marine Biology, Neuroscience, and Medical Humanities, and Pathways with other FAU Colleges: Nursing, Engineering, Business, and Education; and it developed a new B.S. degree option for students in STEM fields.
2006 was also a year when the Scripps Research Institute Florida was under construction. It opened soon after, and with the groundbreaking for the Max Planck Institute in 2010, the Jupiter campus in a short time became a magnet for world class scientists, many of whom work with Honors College students as mentors and readers of honors theses. Also with the addition of FAU's Brain Institute and Jupiter Life Science Initiative, the College became situated to provide not only an outstanding liberal arts education for students in the humanities and social sciences, but a unique, remarkable education for students in the sciences. In 2011 the Honors College received another significant gift from the William R. Kenan Charitable Trust, to develop the Kenan Social Engagement program that promotes social entrepeneurship, and which is under the direction of Dr. Tim Steigenga and Dr. Chris Strain.
After Dr. Buller's ten year service as Dean, he stepped down and Dr. Ellen Goldey, a biologist who formerly taught at Wofford College, became the third Dean in the College's history. During her tenure the Honors College forged new ties with Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, the College of Science and the Jupiter Life Science Initiative, and the Brain Institute, that included several joint faculty hires. The College also developed 4+1 programs with History and the College of Engineering and Computer Science, and added a concentration in Data Analytics. Dean Goldey was instrumental in revamping the College's admissions staff and getting word out across the state and nation about the extraordinary opportunities available. In 2018 the Honors College welcomed a new director of Admissions and increased its staff, and also implemented the 'Common Application' for prospective students to use to apply to the College.
When Dean Goldey took a position as the Vice President for Academic Affairs at Centre College toward the end of the 2018/2019 academic year, Dr. Timothy Steigenga was selected as Interim Dean and served for the next 14 months. During his term the college and campus celebrated its twentieth anniversary, kicked off the inaugural year of FAU High School in collaboration with the Max Planck Academy, and welcomed back-to-back record-breaking incoming classes of more than 200 students. The college grew to nearly 500 full-time students and 42 full-time faculty during the 2019/2020 academic year. During the spring of 2020, Dr. Steigenga served on the committee that conducted a successful national search for a new dean and in July of 2020, Dr. Justin Perry officially became the fourth dean in the history of the college.