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January 26, 2012

Dean delivers State of the Honors College address

Honors College Dean Edward M. Stricker

Honors College Dean Edward M. Stricker

A new honors college certificate and expanded housing and research programs are among the innovations enumerated by University Honors College (UHC) Dean Edward M. Stricker in his first “State of the Honors College” address.

Stricker, who became UHC dean last July, presented what he said will be an annual update before an audience of about 40 faculty, staff and students Jan. 11 in the Frick Fine Arts auditorium. A link to his presentation is posted at

Noting that UHC will mark its 25th anniversary next month, Stricker said he intends to build on Stewart’s vision by expanding the Honors College and introducing new programs to make UHC more effective.

“There’s no doubt that the Honors College has contributed importantly to the University of Pittsburgh,” said Stricker, citing such “practical” ways as recruitment of superb students who raise the quality of the environment, win prestigious scholarships and awards and increase Pitt’s national ranking.

“These are real benefits. … But there are other benefits that I think are either more important or, I’m certain, just as important,” Stricker said.

“The Honors College fosters educational standards and values without which the University would be less good. The Honors College encourages students and faculty members to do their best work and it prepares students to become learners and thinkers now and for the rest of their lives,” he said.

“I think of the Honors College as a symbol of what the University of Pittsburgh and the whole institution of education is for.”

Certificate of research

Although final details have yet to be worked out, Stricker said UHC plans to launch a new certificate of research by the end of 2012. Currently, UHC confers Bachelor of Philosophy degrees on students who undertake an in-depth project and defend a thesis before a committee. Stricker estimated that 1-2 percent of undergraduates at Pitt earn the prestigious BPhil degree, which is regarded as the highest academic award bestowed upon Pitt undergraduates.

The certificate of research also would require a public defense of a written document before a faculty committee. Stricker said it is intended to represent “an educational achievement that is beyond the ordinary” — more demanding than the University’s graduation requirements, yet less intense than the BPhil requirements.

Estimating that 3-5 percent of Pitt undergraduates might graduate with the certificate, Stricker said, “What we have in mind is some independent, sustained production of research or scholarship of interest to the student.” He defined research broadly, “in the way the word was first intended to mean: Re-search, to search again, to look again at something that has been looked at before and be able to extract information that had not been looked at before, and in that way add something tangible and important to a discipline.”

He said the certificate also should consider character in addition to academic achievement, as do the Rhodes scholarships. “What I mean by character is leadership among their peers and also generosity of spirit — a student who has special talents, recognizes that they do and uses those talents to help other people who are less fortunate than them.”

Research programs expanded

UHC’s Brackenridge summer research fellowship program has been extended into the current academic year’s fall and spring terms. “We’re going to run the Brackenridge program 12 months a year, not just in the summer months,” Stricker said.

The program enables students to pursue research and scholarship, with the added component of regular meetings to present and discuss their projects with other Brackenridge fellows.

Stricker said UHC’s experimental “research abroad” program, launched last summer, this summer will be expanded into a “research off-campus program,” in recognition that “there are research laboratories here in the United States.”

This research program will be open to students who want to pursue research activities off campus, which Stricker said would enable undergraduates to continue their education during summer, a time when undergraduates typically return home.

Honors housing growing

Stricker said a college education not only occurs in the classroom and research labs, but in the dormitories as well.

“Students learn a tremendous amount by interacting with other students,” he said. Interacting with people from other cultural backgrounds goes far beyond the mere exposure to different foods and traditions, by helping students better understand others’ different political and social points of view.

In the dorms, students meet people who not only will be close to them during their years in school, but also throughout life, he said.

“This is true of all dorms but honors dorms are distinctive,” he said, noting they contribute to the social fabric of the college experience in a unique way, by giving serious students an opportunity to interact more closely with like-minded peers.

The University currently has honors housing for 400 freshmen in Sutherland Hall and 100 upperclassmen in the Forbes-Craig Apartments.

Next year, a new honors dorm will be established in Brackenridge Hall, bringing the total honors housing to 700 by adding accommodations for 200 more upperclassmen.

Dispelling misconceptions

In his talk, Stricker also took the opportunity to dispel misconceptions about UHC.

“The University Honors College is an unusual honors college: It has alumni but it doesn’t have students. It sponsors courses but it doesn’t have faculty members,” he said, reiterating that UHC is not an enclave of students who have access to special opportunities that are available only to them.

Unlike most other such programs, UHC requires no membership, nor does it require students to take a certain number of honors classes.

Although many Pitt graduates self-identify as UHC alumni, no one can claim to be a “member” of UHC nor can anyone say he or she is excluded, Stricker said.

While students must meet certain academic standards in order to be eligible automatically to take honors courses, others may request permission to take the classes, Stricker said.

“I don’t mind having high standards to prevent [freshmen] from getting in over their heads,” he said, noting that some students think that because they succeeded in high school honors classes, college honors coursework likewise will be easy.

While incoming first-year students must have a qualifying SAT/ACT score to be eligible automatically for honors courses, upperclass students qualify based on their college performance. A 3.25 GPA is required, he said, noting that half of Pitt’s undergraduates qualify under that standard.

Those who don’t have the required GPA can request permission, he reiterated, adding that the restrictions apply only to honors classes, and not to other UHC activities and events.

Stricker noted that because the honors college has no fixed curriculum, qualified students may take as many or as few honors courses as they like. By not being sequestered from regular courses, these high-performing students can enrich those non-honors courses for their peers as well as their professors, he said.

“The mission of the honors college is to provide the best quality education that it can to all undergraduate students on campus,” he said. ”By quality, I mean the kinds of courses that are intellectually stimulating and challenging and research experiences that inspire and enrich the student and force them to think deeply about what they are doing and the things they are most interested in.

“By education, I not only mean learning and understanding about disciplinary subjects … but I also mean education by the student about themselves, about what they are interested in and what they are good at, because a lot of a college education is that — education about self rather than education about course material.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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