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May 26, 2011

Stricker discusses UHC, appointment as dean


Edward M. Stricker

“I’m surrounded by allies,” said Distinguished University Professor of Neuroscience Edward M. Stricker, as he prepares to take on the duties of dean of the University Honors College (UHC) on July 1.

Stricker was chosen last week from among a half-dozen finalists to succeed founding UHC dean G. Alec Stewart, who died in April 2010.

“I don’t think I would bring a new philosophy — it’s the same philosophy that Alec always had, and that a lot of other people have always had too,” he maintained. “I thought that as a dean I might have a better platform for advocating for … the importance of quality education, quality mentoring, quality teaching in the classroom,” Stricker said.

“It already is in lots of classes and all I want is to have it be more — more faculty involved and more students benefiting. I want there to be more opportunities for students, more for the faculty, and certainly to enrich the academic environment” in Pitt’s classrooms, labs and libraries. “I would say that’s essentially what Alec had always wanted,” Stricker said.

As dean, “I understand the visibility and I’m happy to be the spokesperson for that position. But I don’t see it as a unique position. And I should point out that neither the provost nor chancellor would disagree with that either,” he said, pointing out that by virtue of his selection the administration is charting the course for UHC’s future. “We’re all on the same page. If they wanted to take the honors college in a different direction, they would have chosen somebody else,” he said.

Following the successful and beloved Stewart may appear daunting, but Stricker said doesn’t look at it that way, given their like-minded philosophies. “Part of the reason I was interested in the position was because he wasn’t there to look after the honors college,” Stricker said.

UHC has many successful elements that merely need to be maintained and perhaps expanded, he said. “It’s a wonderful unit and I think it’s important to the University that there be an honors college that functions the way it does and I would like to preserve it.”

In a prepared release that highlighted Stricker’s many accomplishments, Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg stated,“It would be very difficult to find many other faculty members, here or in other universities, who have built a broad-based record of achievement that equals the record built by Ed Stricker. … Even more important, in terms of his appointment as dean of our honors college, is his career-long commitment to teaching and mentoring, which is evidenced by his receipt of the highest teaching honors awarded by our University.”

Patricia E. Beeson, provost and senior vice chancellor, expressed confidence that, as dean, Stricker’s “scholarly leadership, dedication to undergraduate students and commitment to excellence” will serve Pitt well. “He personifies our institutional belief in the value of the highest quality education and the importance of imparting a lifelong interest in learning and research to our students.”

Stricker came to the University in 1971 as an associate professor of psychology and biological sciences. He became a professor in 1976 and was named University Professor of Neuroscience in 1986.

He became the founding chair of the Department of Neuroscience in 1986 — at the same time that Pitt trustees approved Stewart’s proposal to form the UHC out of what had been Pitt’s honors program.

That serendipitous timing put Stricker and Stewart into regular contact as they found themselves in the same meetings and in orientations for new administrators. Through those coincidental interactions, Stricker said he found common ground with Stewart’s strong focus on quality education.

The two saw eye-to-eye on “the importance of research and scholarship and the idea that students should explore while they’re in college,” Stricker said.

Students should “try things out and have opportunities to be curious and examine their own ideas, and find out what they’re interested in and what they’re good at. All these things that we did in the department, they did in the honors college too.”

Stricker has interacted with honors college students in 25 years of teaching his introduction to neuroscience course, which includes an honors section that offers a subset of 15-20 students a more in-depth examination of the primary scientific literature.

Stricker said Stewart often directed students interested in the biological sciences toward the neuroscience department. “He thought this might be a good home for them,” adding that a steady stream of students came and stayed. “Because we were successful in mentoring and nurturing these students, he kept sending us others, so we grew as he grew,” Stricker said, labeling it a “very happy relationship.”

In their professional interactions, Stewart’s concern for students was unmistakable, Stricker said. “We saw each other maybe once a month and it was always coincidental — we happened to be at the same meeting, or would bump into each other,” he said. “Invariably we would talk not about programs or courses but about students,” he recalled. “Years after a student had come through our program and graduated, he was still asking about them. … It was remarkable.”

The sort of devotion Stewart embodied contributes to the attractiveness of the honors college and fosters the sense of belonging and subsequent loyalty of UHC alumni. UHC students “are not bystanders,” Stricker said, noting that following a presentation he made last month as a candidate for the dean’s job, he received more than a dozen emails from students who had questions, comments or concerns.

In his April 14 presentation, Stricker outlined five successful aspects of the honors college that he believes should be maintained: recruiting; advising; building community; the bachelor’s of philosophy degree awarded by the honors college, and the Brackenridge summer research fellowship program.

He also proposed offering UHC programming to more students, noting that some students who weren’t at the top in high school develop into some of the best students in college. “What do you do with those students who become some of the best?” he asked. “There are more special students than the University first identified,” he said, arguing that UHC students’ experience won’t be diluted by bringing in more first-rate students. “I’m not suggesting blowing the doors off the honors college,” he said, noting that not all students are interested, and not all can handle the intensity. Still, he said he’d rather welcome those who want to be included.

Stricker said he also would like to create a vehicle through which UHC alumni could talk to current students about their experiences and offer advice on how to make the honors college as meaningful to others as it was to them.

He also wants to work with faculty and department chairs to expand honors courses either by offering more of them or increasing their enrollment.

Stricker earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry from the University of Chicago and a PhD in psychology from Yale. He held postdoctoral fellowships at the University of Colorado and Penn and was a faculty member at McMaster University (where he was honored for distinguished teaching) prior to joining the Pitt faculty. He also has been a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins and Cornell.

Recognized internationally as a leading expert in homeostatic systems, especially the control of fluid ingestion and the kidneys, and their integration by the brain, Stricker has received a National Institute of Mental Health Research Scientist Award and an NIMH MERIT Award.

At Pitt, he has received both the Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award and the Bellet Teaching Excellence Award, which honors faculty in the School of Arts and Sciences.

Stricker has served on chancellor’s and provost’s advisory committees and chaired search committees for the senior vice chancellor for Health Sciences and the dean of the School of Arts and Sciences.

In addition to leading the effort to establish the Department of Neuroscience during his tenure as director of Pitt’s behavioral neuroscience program (1983-86), he was founding director of the Center for Neuroscience and Schizophrenia (now the Conti Center for Neuroscience of Mental Disorders) and codirected the University’s Center for Neuroscience (1996-2002). Stricker also was the founding co-director, in 1992, of the NIMH-funded undergraduate research fellowship program.

“I’ve had multiple responsibilities over the years,” Stricker said, highlighting the satisfaction he’s drawn from each facet of his academic career.

Noting that he has taught continually for 40 years, he said, “I’ve always been interested in teaching and it’s always been enjoyable. I teach the courses that I want to teach; I like the students that I teach. I like everything about it, the subject matter. It’s wonderful.” Stricker said he also has a love for research, calling it “the most intellectually stimulating thing I’ve ever encountered.

“It is as good as it gets for intellectual challenges — to try to figure out something that nobody else has ever figured out in the history of the world,” he said. “There are no guarantees at all. So you try your best and see if your best is good enough. I love that challenge and I love the research,” he said.

“Teaching and research as a career, I thought it was heaven on earth. It was great.”

Another opportunity came in chairing Pitt’s new neuroscience department. “I did that for 16 years. That was terrific too. Starting a department that I thought would be a terrific addition to the curriculum of the University both in terms of teaching, research, mentoring … I thought it would be great and it turns out to be great. That was a lot of fun too,” he said.

“People think that administration may not be as stimulating as research. And it isn’t in some ways, and it’s harder in other ways. It’s very challenging and very interesting. You end up dealing with a lot of people and a lot of complex issues,” he observed.

“It’s not just that the teachers and the scientists are good, the administrators are good too. They know what they’re doing. They’re sharp, experienced and insightful,” he said.

“I was at the University a long time without ever having a chance to interact with the deans and provosts and so on. I didn’t fully understand what they did,” he admitted, labeling the acquisition of that knowledge “a wonderful education.”

Serving on University committees gave him the opportunity to meet high-quality colleagues from other areas of the University he wouldn’t otherwise have known, he said. “You end up being proud of being at a university that has people like that in it. … I didn’t know they existed, much less how good they were. It’s all been a lot of fun.”

Stricker, who turned 70 this week, closed his research lab three years ago. “I decided 40-plus years of doing science was enough and I was closer to the end of my academic career than I was to the beginning and I had to think in terms of how did I want to spend the rest of my academic career.”

Knowing he didn’t want to retire, he chose to expand his teaching, which he felt “would be a better way for me to spend the time than being in the research lab,” Stricker said.

“And then came this dean opportunity,” he said, noting that he feels no need to “linger to ensure things will keep going well” in neuroscience given that it is thriving. However, he plans to continue to teach, adding that he would not have considered a position that would have taken him from the classroom.

Through 40 years at Pitt, Stricker said he has seen the University grow from a bankrupt institution to one that is prospering with strong nationally prominent programs and increasing numbers of high-quality students. Yet “there’s still room for growth and there’s a lot of activity that has to be done in order to maintain what you have. The University has given me a lot, and I’m inclined to give back. So it’s very easy for me to accept the position of increased responsibility.”

Stricker said both luck and opportunity have contributed to his many happy years at Pitt. “I think part of it is luck. There were opportunities. People reacted to those opportunities in a way that was unpredictable. When I applied for this position, it wasn’t inevitable I’d be selected. When the department was founded in 1986, the reason it was founded was that I had a job offer at Yale. [Former Chancellor] Wesley Posvar contacted me and asked what he could do to keep me here. And I started talking about the community I was joining at Yale and I said if there was a community like that here, I would stay.

“He was responsible for setting in motion the ultimate founding of the department. He didn’t have to react that way,” Stricker said.

“You don’t know what life might have been like if certain opportunities hadn’t presented themselves. But I had a couple of very good breaks and the University, by which I mean a collection of specific individuals who were in a position to do things to make things happen, provided the specific opportunities they did, and that changed my life in ways that I’m really grateful for. I’ve had chances to develop in ways I hadn’t imagined,” he said.

“I’ve learned how to deal with things in a way that I might not have some years ago. There’s a learning curve for everything,” he said, arguing that learning from experience should make a person more capable. “If you continue to be in a position where you can use that capability in your job, then your job benefits from it.”

As for his future in the honors college, “Alec was dean for 24 years … I’m not going to be here 24 years,” Stricker said.

He said it’s important that he not stay “past the time that I’m effective,” adding, “I think Alec has left it in very good shape and what I would hope to do is to leave it in as good shape or even better. It would make me sad if it wasn’t at least in as good a shape as I inherited it.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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