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November 21, 2013

Honors college adds assistant dean position

Gordon R. Mitchell

Gordon R. Mitchell

The University Honors College (UHC) will get its first assistant dean on Jan. 1, when Gordon R. Mitchell, associate professor and chair of the Department of Communication in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, moves into this half-time post.

The three-year appointment will see Mitchell aiming to increase the number of honors courses throughout Pitt as well as focusing on the Brackenridge research program and on developing a proposal for a new certificate program in research and scholarship.

UHC Dean Edward M. Stricker isn’t certain why Dean G. Alec Stewart, who founded the college in 1987, never instituted the position.

“But I could use an assistant,” Stricker says, particularly in his push to bring honors courses to more disciplines, which has been a major emphasis of Stricker’s in his two and a half years heading the UHC.

Mitchell was the top choice, he says, because “the honors college is for undergraduate students. I wanted somebody who was deeply involved in undergraduate issues on campus. He’s famous for dealing with undergraduate issues.”

Stricker points to the fact that Mitchell has been the recipient of the Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award and the David and Tina Bellet Teaching Excellence Award, and that he coached intercollegiate debate at Pitt for 21 years before becoming department chair in 2012.

A Pitt faculty member since 1995, Mitchell also was deputy director of the Matthew B. Ridgway Center for International Security Studies and associate director of the Humanities Center.

He says he is pleased that his new appointment will enable him to increase opportunities for research-based undergraduate education and “to expand experiential learning and structured co-curricular courses” — all emphases of Provost Patricia E. Beeson, he points out. He wants to be able to tell prospective Pitt students that “when they come to Pitt, doors will open to access world-class faculty members directly. “Our size and our talented faculty position us strategically in ways that allow us to deliver on research opportunities … that our competitors can’t match,” he adds.

While many think of honors courses as upper-level offerings, Mitchell explains, his tenure also will help the UHC institute new honors courses at the introductory level — another Beeson priority, he says.

Already, the communication department is instituting an honors recitation section for a large introductory lecture course, Rhetorical Process. Mitchell also has designed a new department course: Undergraduate Research Honors Proseminar. Proseminars normally teach graduate students how to do scholarly research, but there have not been enough courses with a similar emphasis for undergrads, he says.

Mitchell, who also is associate professor of clinical and translational science, says the Brackenridge program will continue to present undergrads with the chance to do truly interdisciplinary research with faculty members year-round. In the program, students from the natural and social sciences as well as the humanities are challenged to present their research programs to students from outside their own disciplines.

Such interdisciplinary work will be featured in another new UHC course in the spring term, Energy: Science, Society and Communications, taught by Alexander Dale, faculty member in the Swanson School of Engineering. Last year, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering chose Pittsburgh as the pilot city for its science and engineering ambassadors program, which hopes to bring crucial questions in these disciplines to greater public attention. Mitchell says program officials then approached the UHC to institute this course, which will bring the ambassadors — many of them industry professionals — to Dale’s class and help students form small teams to take what they have learned back into the community.

In addition to Mitchell’s experience, Stricker says, he values the new assistant dean’s complementary background in the humanities, balancing Stricker’s perspective from the natural sciences.

“Every time I chat with him it’s fun,” Stricker adds. “He’s a good guy; he has interesting ideas.” And he is able to implement them, which is even more important, the dean says.

Mitchell’s successor as communication chair, a current department faculty member, has been selected and is awaiting approval by the Dietrich school dean.

—Marty Levine

Filed under: Feature,Volume 46 Issue 7

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