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January 22, 2015

Like Pitt, UHC is getting stronger, dean reports

—Edward Stricker,  UHC dean

—Edward Stricker, UHC dean

“The University of Pittsburgh in the year 2015 is not the way it was in the 1970s. It’s not the way it was in the 1980s either. It’s way better,” said University Honors College Dean Edward Stricker in his annual state of the honors college address.

“The faculty is stronger, by which I mean there’s more research being done, more papers being written, more impact in what comes out of the University,” said Stricker, a veteran of more than four decades as a Pitt faculty member.

The student body also is stronger. “I don’t mean that the best students now are better than the best students then … But there are way more of them than there used to be. The University is attracting much more of a high-end high school student, now from all over the country.

“You can see it in the classrooms,” he said. “Students are sharper, more prepared, more inquisitive, with more definite aspirations and plans for how they can pursue their career goals.

“Against that backdrop of a University that’s gotten conspicuously stronger in the last 25 years, I would say that the honors college is keeping pace with that development, that it’s helping stimulate that development at the University and that we are continuing to increase the strength of the academic community,” Stricker said in his presentation in the Frick Fine Arts auditorium last week.

“The mission of the University Honors College is to provide an enriched educational experience for undergraduate students who want an enriched educational experience,” he said, noting that not all students — particularly at the start of their college career — necessarily have that desire.

“In time most of them turn the corner and they start to plan for themselves an adult life that’s different from the teenage life they had been living from the time when they first came to the University. …. And that’s great. And, whenever it is these students turn the corner and want something more substantial than the path of least resistance in getting through college … the honors college is happy to help them at that point in their development.”

Stricker said he’s observed that students are willing to work harder as long as they learn more and are learning something they want to learn. “Students need to figure out what they want to learn. It could be multiple things. It could be something this year, something else next year and something different the third year,” he said.

“College is a great place to change your mind. It’s safe. There are a lot of opportunities to explore. And one of the wonderful things about going to college is the opportunity to explore. A lot of students take advantage of that opportunity sooner or later.”

To that end, the University Honors College offers opportunities for greater depth and breadth of learning.

Greater depth can be found in honors courses, which cover more material in greater detail. About 50 honors courses — most in seminar format with a class size of 15-20 students — are offered each term, he said.

Another opportunity is through the honors college Bachelor of Philosophy program — unique among six BPhil programs in the nation, Stricker said. While other BPhil degrees are awarded to students who complete a series of specified courses, Pitt’s BPhil is based on a mentored independent research experience.

Students write a thesis based on their research and defend it before a committee. “It’s graduate training for undergraduate students,” Stricker said.

Opportunities for greater breadth come through UHC programming such as the Brackenridge research program.

The summer program is limited to 45 students but it attracts three times that many applications, he said. To accommodate the strong interest, the Brackenridge program has been expanded to spring and fall terms. And, two years ago, UHC launched a similar “honors college in the health sciences” program that attracted 15 students last summer and will be expanded to accommodate two dozen this year, Stricker said.

Both programs require students to present their research projects to peers outside their field in order to learn communication skills along with their research skills. “You have to be able to present what you’re doing to an audience that is sharp but doesn’t necessarily know exactly what you’re talking about,” he said. “You have to deliver a talk which everyone can understand, which means you have to get rid of jargon and explain what you’re talking about.”

Certificates and courses on the horizon

Looking ahead, UHC is awaiting the provost’s decision on a proposed multidisciplinary certificate program and is working on another certificate program that would add an honors component to existing certificate programs — in the same spirit of offering honors courses in regular course curricula, Stricker said. Students would defend some sort of capstone document before a faculty committee in addition to the honors coursework.

Stricker also has been working to expand “multidisciplinary” courses in which faculty from different disciplines team-teach on a single complex issue, as well as to introduce “interdisciplinary” courses in which faculty from different disciplines team-teach a course with no common topic. As opposed to serial teaching, faculty in these courses would be together in class to comment on each others’ presentations and discuss similarities and differences.

For instance, in fall Stricker plans to teach neuroscience as part of an interdisciplinary trio, with Seymour Drescher of history, who will talk about slavery in colonial America, and Paul Bové of English, who will talk about 20th-century American poetry with a focus on Wallace Stevens.

“The point isn’t for it to be overlapping interests, but to have three people who do rather different things talk about what is similar and what is different about the way they approach things,” he said, adding that the experience could especially benefit students who are still unsure which academic direction to pursue.

Honors housing

Stricker said UHC is leaving its housing space in Brackenridge Hall for Pennsylvania Hall next year in order to have honors housing for sophomores and juniors closer to freshman honors housing in Sutherland Hall. The proximity will simplify honors programming at the residence halls, he noted.

Faculty and alumni participation

Although UHC’s main focus is on undergraduate education, Stricker said the honors college recognizes its duty to those who identify as its faculty and alumni, even though there are no official faculty appointments for those who teach honors courses and no official “membership” in the honors college for students who take those courses.

UHC has reached out to alumni of the honors college to create a 12-member board of visitors that met first last March and is set to meet again in June.

The graduates, who had positive experiences as undergraduates, “now want to return the favor,” he said. “All have the same perspective and the same interest in giving back … staying interested and being helpful,” he said.

The honors college also has instituted a faculty fellows program to recognize faculty who are making significant contributions to UHC and to tap them as ambassadors and advisers. (See Jan. 8 University Times.) All 46 individuals invited to join the initial cohort accepted the offer, Stricker said, noting that the group’s first meeting would follow his state of the honors college address.

“We are hoping for a community, rather than a collection of individuals. The honors college is uniquely positioned to help create a community across the campus by drawing people from all the schools,” he said, adding that interactions among UHC faculty fellows would serve to break down silos within the University.

A transcript of Stricker’s prepared 2015 address is posted at

—Kimberly K. Barlow