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November 23, 2016

UHC dean qualifications discussed

An open forum to discuss qualifications for the next University Honors College dean drew a small but passionate crowd of about 20 people to Posvar Hall on Nov. 11.

The honors college has no dedicated faculty or official students, which left attendees and search committee chair Ariel Armony, senior director of international programs and director of the University Center for International Studies, wondering whether this will be an asset or liability for its new leader, and for the college itself.

“Is the honors college flexibility a strength?” Armony asked early in the session. “Could it be a weakness or a problem in defining a clear vision?”

Participants noted that honors college students can choose to participate at a variety of levels: by taking one or more of its courses; living in honors college housing; or taking part in college-sponsored extracurricular activities. The honors college also funds student research projects.

“It’s interesting that we are in engagement with students who are not focusing on education just to get a job,” Armony said. “So where do we go from here?”

Forum attendees suggested the next honors college leader should:

• Be very accessible to students;

• Seek an outside donor to establish new college programs during the next Pitt fundraising campaign;

• Have experience outside of academia, which students find increasingly important;

• Make certain new department chairs and new faculty know about the possibility of teaching an honors college course; and

• Ensure that honors college courses are better known to students.

The University is seeking an internal candidate for the UHC post.

Lew Jacobson, a biological sciences faculty in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences for almost 50 years, noted that the honors college offers courses that aren’t necessarily geared toward career advancement, while students during the recent recession became oriented more toward classes that lead to jobs after graduation.

“The honors college is the counterforce to that,” he contended. It is “essential that some place in the University stand up for these sorts of values.”

Harvey S. Borovetz, faculty member in bioengineering and chemical and petroleum engineering in the Swanson School of Engineering, asked: “What will be the impact in the future” of the honors college, “and how do you define that impact?”

“Most of the things we should cherish most are difficult to measure,” Jacobson responded. “It’s difficult to design your efforts” to wind up with a more immediately measurable impact. “You measure impact over a lifetime — so you have to do what you think is right and stop fussing over measurable impacts.”

He noted too that, with honors college faculty distributed among their home departments, it has been hard to create “an atmosphere of excellence” in the school.

To help guide the school’s future, Jacobson suggested the school have its own faculty, with scholars joining the college temporarily, from both Pitt and surrounding universities. “You begin to build a clientele that is dedicated to the institution — that is what I would like to see,” he said. “The honors college would be a wonderful place for visiting scholars from other institutions.”

Don Bialostosky, chair of the English department, said the honors college is a selling point for top student prospects considering Pitt; it ought also to be a selling point to attract top faculty to the University, he said.


Forum participants also debated what sort of impact the new dean could or should have on the types of courses offered by the honors college.

Sanjeev Shroff, bioengineering chair and member of the dean search committee, noted that higher-level courses of the type traditionally associated with honors colleges already are offered at the Swanson school. He suggested Pitt’s honors college should concentrate instead on offering unique, interdisciplinary courses that are taught by pairs or trios of faculty from different departments or schools.

“The students said exactly the same” at the student forum concerning the honors college dean search, Armony reported. “Could the honors college be a place for experimentation?”

Brett Curtis, a senior neurosciences major and honors college student, said a strong dean is needed to bring together professors from disparate departments to teach such new courses.

The problem with seeking faculty to teach interdisciplinary courses, Jacobson said, is that faculty essentially are asked to volunteer to do extra work to teach in the honors college.

“More creativity from the faculty needs to be encouraged,” he agreed, and yet “you can’t expect the youngest faculty to do things on a volunteer basis. They need to build their careers” — and honors college teaching may not help a faculty member gain tenure or promotions.

Jacobson also wondered why in the last decade enrollment in UHC courses has been declining when a higher caliber of student — as measured by rising SAT/ACT scores — has been admitted to Pitt across the same period. He suggested that the new UHC dean will need greater support from the administration in allowing under-enrolled courses to proceed.

“If you want to have an honors college at this institution, you’ve got to support it,” he said.

Curtis confirmed that his fellow students sometimes feel too intimidated to take honors courses — both for fear of doing poorly and harming their grade-point average, and at the prospect of being taught by senior faculty. He suggested better marketing of honors courses could counter such impressions.

“Sometimes the word ‘challenge’ has a negative connotation” when describing honors courses, Armony said; perhaps other descriptions would attract more students to honors classes, such as “stimulating.” Others suggested “important,” “exciting” and “broadening.”

In the end, Armony said, students should be taught that honors courses have tremendous value, and that great grades aren’t the only mark of accomplishment in college — or even the most important.

Relating your Pitt experience to employees in a coherent narrative should be a student’s paramount concern, he said. “I have always told my students: If you have graduated and you don’t have a good story to tell, you have wasted your time.”

The job description and subsequent position advertisement for the honors college dean post will be ready after Thanksgiving, he said.

Further suggestions for dean qualifications or specific candidates can be entered in the search committee’s online survey ( on the search website (

Besides Armony and Shroff, search committee members are faculty members Joshua Ellenbogen, history of art and architecture; Janelle Greenberg, history; Kristin Kanthak, political science; Adam Leibovich, physics and astronomy; Cindy Skrzycki, English; and Alan Sved, neuroscience; along with Jason Sepac, academic adviser in the honors college; Marc Harding, chief enrollment officer; and Joseph Kannarkat, undergraduate student in the Dietrich school.

Current UHC Dean Edward M. Stricker plans to step down and return to the Department of Neuroscience faculty next fall.

—Marty Levine 

Filed under: Feature,Volume 49 Issue 7

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