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January 24, 2013

Dean reviews state of honors college

UHC Dean Edward Stricker

UHC Dean Edward Stricker

Amid criticism by a group of students calling itself the “University Honors College in Exile,” UHC Dean Edward M. Stricker discussed the honors college’s status and future direction in his second annual state of the University Honors College address.

About 40 people attended Stricker’s Jan. 11 talk in the Frick Fine Arts auditorium. Outside the hall, students distributed a letter decrying changes in the honors college following the death of its founding dean, Alec “Doc” Stewart, in 2010.

The group has expressed concern that the “intellectual hedonism” and “life above the neck” Stewart promoted are being lost in favor of a pursuit of more career-driven definitions of success since Stricker became UHC dean in July 2011.

“Encouraging students to become creative thinkers is not what the honors college is focused on anymore. Instead of teaching its students to become broad, interesting, passionate people, it is teaching its students to become better applicants for prestigious jobs, scholarships and professional schools,” the letter stated.

The group cited overexpansion of honors  housing, the addition of premedical advising and reduced funding for reading groups and honors activities among its concerns.

In his talk, Stricker said, “I think that the honors college has been doing well, is doing well, and is planning to continue to do well.

“I believe the traditional practices and principles of the honors college remain intact, although I not only acknowledge, but I point out, that there are changes that have been made.

“Speaking generally, it’s my experience when there are changes, it’s often invigorating but it’s also, I think, that change sometimes can be unsettling,” he said. “People feel uneasy when they don’t know what’s happening next or they don’t understand why something is happening.” Following his address, Stricker invited questions from the audience but no questions were posed.


Stricker commended alumni with ties to the honors college for their ongoing passion and interest. “I think that sense of attachment and that sense of concern are wonderful sentiments,” he said, noting that he observed even before he became dean how impassioned alumni were in taking interest in what is happening in the honors college.

“They had an experience in the honors college or with someone in the honors college that was so meaningful to them that it shaped their education. And they credit that experience with the growth that they have received, growth which they value,” he said.

“Because of that, they wish that something similar might happen to the next generation of students, so they want to stay connected to the honors college, want to know what’s happening in the honors college. They care about it.”

In announcing his intention to form a board of visitors, consisting mostly of alumni, to advise the honors college, Stricker said, “It’s my hope they stay connected with the honors college and I hope future alumni have the same wish for the same reason.”


The honors college provides opportunities to enrich the academic environment for students and faculty in hopes of strengthening the intellectual culture “to make it clear that the first priority of the faculty is to instruct and mentor the students and the first priority of the students is to get a first-rate education,” Stricker said.

He urged faculty not only to teach honors  courses, but also to serve as mentors to students who are pursuing scholarly projects or research.

Stricker said faculty also can serve as advisers — not the type who can guide students through prerequisites and University requirements, but those who can provide information on career choices by facilitating shadowing experiences in which students can learn firsthand what it’s like to be an academic scientist or educator.

“I would encourage students to seek it and faculty to provide it,” he said.


Stricker said the honors college remains committed to its primary mission of providing a first-rate undergraduate education. In part, that’s done through research scholarships and honors  courses, he said.

Honors  courses

Stricker said honors  courses range from small seminars to large lecture classes and could be discipline-specific or multidisciplinary. Size is not as relevant as the goal of the class, which he said is to “promote a greater understanding of the material than might be obtained in a regular class.”

Honors  courses may come in the form of a 1-credit supplement to a regular course or stand alone, either covering more material or covering material in more detail, Stricker said.

This academic year, honors  courses in the fall and spring term totaled about 110 with an average of 15-20 students in each. Enrollment in the courses has averaged 75-80 percent of capacity, he said.

Stricker said the honors college wants to ensure that students always have a good selection of honors  courses available. “That’s why at the same time we’re encouraging students to take more courses, we’re encouraging more departments and faculty to teach more courses.”

Students in honors  courses are expected to work harder and to read, write, think and discuss more, he said. “In consequence, they learn more.”

He added: “That motivation to understand and to learn has been called intellectual curiosity … a phrase that I was not familiar with until last year, but one which I am very familiar with as a trade,” describing it as a mission that preoccupies faculty and students as they pursue the desired knowledge.

“I can tell you, having done it, it is fun, not work. The idea of pursuing something without constraints — if there’s something better than that, I’m not sure what it is,” the dean said.

Research scholarships

Among the honors college research scholarship opportunities are the Brackenridge research fellowships — initially a summer program that last year was expanded into the fall and spring terms.

By design, the scholars come from a broad range of disciplines. Last summer, Stricker said, the 50 scholars represented 44 different majors. Weekly meetings in which participants discuss their research expose the students to diverse areas of research and scholarship. In addition, being required to describe their own work to people outside their field develops in students an important skill of being able to communicate without jargon to people who don’t speak the language of their particular discipline.

“It’s a wonderful experience,” Stricker said. “They learn about all the other research interests that are represented at Pitt. … not just the ones going on down the hall in their department, but things going on in other buildings and other places on campus.”


New scholarships established in memory of Dean Stewart will be given for the first time this academic year, with winners to be announced in February.

Four students each year will receive $1,000 scholarships. Candidates must have benefited in some way by participating in the honors college community and be one year away from graduation.

They must demonstrate high academic attainment, not simply through their GPA but also by demonstrating a passion and interest in learning through their academic pursuits, coursework and experiences outside the classroom.

In addition, they must demonstrate character by showing “an awareness of and concern about students and others around them — willingness to help somebody else rather than be self-absorbed,” the dean said.


Two years ago the honors college began providing advising to premedical, predental and students interested in the health professions.

Pitt’s reputation for strength in biomedical research, health and science professions is among the factors that draw students to the University, with 40-60 percent of incoming freshmen expressing interest in some health-related profession, Stricker said. While many students remain focused on their original intentions, others change their mind after they arrive, he said. Some who find a different area of interest later return to a health-related major.

“One of the goals of the honors college is to assist all of the students, whatever their interests are, to get the education and see the education that they think they need in order to fulfill their aspirations,” Stricker said. “Their aspirations are their call.  We don’t tell them what to do, they tell us what they’re interested in,” Stricker said.

“That’s what our advisers do. They hear what students have to say and they help them get to where the students want to go.”

He said that advising is in addition to, not instead of, advising students in the liberal arts.

As an example, Stricker said the honors college last August hired an adviser for students interested in community engagement.

“The focus of the honors college advising is not exclusive to advising the professions,” he said. “There is zero interest in having it be that.”

In addition, the honors college’s advisers have helped prepare students to compete for prestigious national awards, he said.

Honors  housing

Stricker reported that the University last fall doubled the number of freshmen who could live in honors  residence halls. Honors  housing for undergraduates includes 425 beds in Sutherland Hall West, 200 in Brackenridge Hall and 100 in the Forbes Craig Apartments.

“These are students who are serious about themselves; they’re serious about their interest in getting an education and they want to live with others who are like them in those respects.”

The honors  housing environment is not one dedicated to quiet study, he said. “It’s an environment in which they have interesting people to chat with, people with different ideas from them but who are serious about their ideas.”

Students in the honors  halls are having an educational experience in which they are teaching and learning from peers outside the classroom and laboratory setting, he said.

Honors  designations

Stricker reported that about 2 percent of this year’s graduating seniors have earned the Bachelor of Philosophy (BPhil) degree, the highest academic award bestowed upon Pitt undergraduates. In addition to fulfilling the requirements of their discipline, recipients must produce a thesis based on independent research and defend it before a committee that includes a visiting examiner from another academic institution.

This year’s figure was the highest ever since the honors college began administering the degree in 1987. The number of students pursuing the BPhil is growing, although exponential increases aren’t expected, Stricker said.

The dean revisited a proposal he discussed in his previous state of the honors college address (see Jan. 26, 2012, University Times) to add a less rigorous “certificate of research” honors  designation that would recognize students who successfully undertake a scholarly or research project.

“We would like it to be available to all the students who come close to satisfying, but have not gotten, all of the steps they need for a BPhil,” he said. “We want it to carry the designation honors college scholar.”

Reiterating that, unlike many institutions, Pitt’s honors college is not a membership organization into which students must be accepted, Stricker said: “I’m not saying we want them to have that designation before they graduate. But when they leave, rather than to say in some vague way, ‘I have been connected with the honors college,’ this is the way to certify on their transcript that they have done something that is noteworthy.”

Stricker said he hoped the designation could be in place for spring commencement, adding that it would need to be approved by the senior administration.

University spokesperson John Fedele said Stricker had yet to submit his proposal and could not comment on the designation or whether it could be in place for this year’s graduates.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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