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April 27, 2017

Dean finalists describe their visions for UHC

Four finalists for the job of University Honors College (UHC) dean presented their visions for the college to internal search committee members and others in the Pitt community recently.

The candidates, all long-time faculty members, each addressed how they would use UHC’s open structure to benefit the college and its students. Unlike most honors colleges, UHC has no official faculty or students, recruiting instructors and individual course enrollees from across the University. Thus, the new UHC dean faces the perennial challenge of finding the right faculty, the proper mix of courses and the best students.

The candidates also highlighted how their own histories influenced their plans for UHC’s future and the value of the honors college, both intellectually and practically.


Joseph Alter, faculty member and former chair, Department of Anthropology, Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences

Joe Alter copyAlter began his academic career conducting research on medical anthropology in southeastern Asia and creating multidisciplinary projects concerning wisdom and aging. His current work has been on gender and health, particularly how culture affects the epidemiology of chronic diseases.

“Anthropology in many ways is a microcosm of the liberal arts,” he noted. “My scholarship … was extremely dependent on teaching and working with undergraduates, and to be inspired by that teaching to do things that translated into public work.”

This led to an emphasis on globalization, which pushed him to develop six courses across disciplines on environmental challenges, including expeditions to the Himalayas to study both mythology and the geology of glaciation.

At Yale-NUS College in Singapore, he helped a team of nine cross-disciplinary faculty members “reimagine” the liberal arts for students there, he reported.

The future of higher education depends on fostering such diversity of thought, he said, in a “dynamic teaching environment.” That means “making sure that information doesn’t get confused with knowledge,” and adapting to new technology.

“Working with undergraduates involves recognizing their individuality, their individual needs, their individual aspirations,” he cautioned. Yet one of the central tasks of Pitt’s open UHC is “inspiring the emergence of an honors college identity,” he said. He called for “an intellectual community with a sense of ownership, affiliation and shared commitment” and “making the University Honors College more visible, engaged and fully integrated into the University.

“It can’t be everything to everyone,” he continued, “so the critical balance is between inclusion and so you’re not just opening it up to do too many things.”

In concert with the other candidates, Alter pressed for better faculty recruitment, improved fundraising and increased alumni relations.

Overall, he sees the dean’s role as “not to invent programs that are designed from a vantage point of a particular perspective but … to inspire faculty who are working with students to come up with ideas that I could then facilitate.”

That means creating more global and transnational programs, including study abroad opportunities; maintaining a balance across the liberal arts (the arts, humanities, social sciences and sciences); and fostering cross-unit collaborative teaching among the Dietrich school and the Swanson School of Engineering, Katz Graduate School of Business and the schools of the Health Sciences.

“It certainly wouldn’t be an easy task,” he said, “but I think the intellectual effectiveness that will come out of that is well worth struggling against the bureaucratic intransigence” that might block this.

Don Bialostosky, chair of the English department, Dietrich school

DBBialostosky highlighted his work as chair of the Year of Humanities in academic year 2015-2016 and head of the University’s Humanities Council, as well as his early Ph.D. research as a university scholar at the University of Chicago. “Teaching undergraduates is a crucial part of my long-term commitment” to Pitt, he added, noting that with a former graduate student he is writing a book on the close reading of poetry for undergraduate teachers.

Pitt’s distinctive honors college organization, he said, can lead to “problems and opportunities.

“It’s a clear advantage at admissions for the University to offer something like this to students,” he noted. But while top prospects for the next Pitt freshman class may hear about the UHC during the recruitment period, “many other qualified students don’t realize the college’s resources are open to them,” he said.

He also believes it is unfortunate that there’s not enough room in honors housing for all who qualify. Honors housing thus “looks closed to those outside,” he said, making residents into a “de facto” honors college membership.

Why not invite those who make the dean’s list to take honors courses, he suggested: “We should not have to wait for students to recognize themselves as potential honors students.”

While UHC could have the greatest impact on students from underserved minorities, “doors that seem daunting to enter can seem especially daunting to minority students of all kinds,” Bialostosky said. To encourage more minority enrollment in honors courses, he said that UHC should encourage participation among a more diverse group of faculty via direct invitations.

“My colleagues don’t understand the structure of the opportunities. We might be a bit more evangelical.”

All students should be prompted to explore UHC courses, not just incoming freshmen, he added: “Some students don’t discover their natural talents and intellectual ambitions until they get here.” He also hopes to explore an incentive program to increase enrollment in UHC courses.

He urged the college to institute new one-credit courses that explore professors’ research or that concentrate on a single book for a semester. “These shorter [courses] also might attract students to explore full-length honors courses,” Bialostosky said.

He also recommended more courses on current issues, supplementing UHC’s current lecture series on climate change and the practice of journalism, and adding more service-learning components to UHC courses.

Alongside all the candidates, Bialostosky recommended that UHC alumni be connected more strongly to current UHC students, perhaps to help create an internship program.

“As a humanist applying to a position so far held by scientists,” he concluded, he would aim to bring more humanist material to UHC courses and simultaneously bring more humanities students to science subjects.

“I’ve relished teaching honors courses … and I look forward to making it my principal assignment,” he said.

Lori Jakiela, faculty member in English and creative writing and director of the writing program at Pitt-Greensburg

ljheadshot“Our students are more than just GPAs and SAT scores,” Jakiela said in opening her presentation, titled “Invent yourself here.” “Our students often find, reshape and reinvent themselves over and over again … We want those students.”

While parents increasingly have steered their kids away from the humanities out of fear of limited job prospects, Jakiela noted that corporate hiring departments seek employees with the ability to think broadly and challenge conventional wisdom — lessons UHC teaches.

“Everyone willing to work hard, and who is curious, can be welcome here,” Jakiela said. “We can be exclusive without being exclusionary … We can be elite without being elitist.”

She detailed her family’s story in the small Pittsburgh border town of Trafford: “It starts with people working with their bodies, and it ends with education and creativity.” Growing up, Jakiela wanted to be a writer, but “that was not encouraged. Writing did not equal work.”

It took her college professors to encourage her career, which involved publishing multiple memoirs and volumes of poetry.

“We don’t invent ourselves in a vacuum, which is why the honors college is so important,” she said, citing the many literary and writing events she has developed for students in and near Greensburg as evidence of her capabilities to be dean of UHC.

“One of the main challenges” for the new dean, she allowed, “is getting the University Honors College story out.

“Complexity makes for a tough tagline” in a marketing campaign, she added.

She proposed that UHC dedicate a staff member to public relations, including social media. She also suggested the honors college hold more topical public programming that brings in crowds and includes a chance to introduce UHC to new faces.

“As dean, I would consider myself an ambassador,” she said. “The new dean would also need to encourage and recruit faculty” to teach fresh courses. “We also need an incentive system for faculty to engage with the honors college,” for which she would seek new funding.

Incentives for division chairs and admissions is “another challenge,” she acknowledged, but “budget constraints will always be a problem.”

UHC needs new ways for students and parents to imagine their future there, she concluded: “We need to help students and parents visualize how the University Honors College will play a role in their future success [as] an Ivy League experience that doesn’t have to cost $50,000 a year in tuition.”

Brian A. Primack, assistant vice chancellor for Research on Health and Society; director of the Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health; and faculty member in medicine, pediatrics and clinical and translational science in the School of Medicine

Brian PrimackPrimack detailed his background as it related to what he said would be his approach to UHC.

As an undergraduate at Yale, he studied literature, writing his thesis on Flannery O’Connor, but minored in music composition and also studied abstract mathematics and number theory. “I was very much like that kid in the candy shop,” he said.

His first job was at an international school in the capital of Niger, then he moved to Harvard’s Graduate School of Education to study adolescent and young adult development, including curriculum development and technology use in education.

There, he explored the psychology of students having difficulty in school. “I took some science courses. I loved them,” he said.

His journey took him to medical school, where he was first in his class and chose family medicine as a specialty — an unlikely choice, he noted, given its unpopularity. He discovered Pittsburgh through the UPMC St. Margaret family medicine residency program.

After his residency, Primack joined the Pitt faculty.

“One of the first things I did was seek out the honors college,” he said. He soon was teaching courses on the biochemical and sociological effects of alcohol and tobacco use. He also mentored UHC students, he noted.

Most recently, his studies at the Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health have concentrated on media literacy and health disparities. His work on awareness of the ill effects of hookah bars and social media use has attracted wide media attention.

“I think we need to diversify the offerings we have,” he said of UHC, observing that certain areas of study have not been represented in UHC offerings over the past two years, such as music, languages and Africana studies.

He suggested that students with double and triple majors could help the honors college develop new interdisciplinary seminars and panels at the intersections of their interests.

Noting the power of marketing — he displayed a single letter from several commercial logos, showing that each brand was readily identifiable from the briefest of prompts — he said the UHC would benefit from improved promotional efforts, such as he employed in designing his center’s logo recently.

His own research’s broad notice in the press was not just due to its intersection with popular culture, he observed: “It is also because we know how to write a press release. We know how to talk to the press.”

He suggested the honors college staff should brainstorm about how to sell itself effectively. “If we’re asking students to invest” in UHC courses as part of their education, he said, “we want students to be able to go to the website and see things in language they are used to.”

Another spot where the UHC could use some notice is the National Collegiate Honors Council. UHC is a member of this organization, “but we have not been involved,” he said. UHC needs to promote its open, flexible membership model to other institutions, he said.

The college should perform internal marketing as well, he said, ideally leveraging those faculty honored recently as UHC faculty fellows for their dedication to the honors college mission.

He also recommended that UHC recruit from Pitt programs that aid first-generation college students, and use current UHC students as ambassadors to talk to potential UHC students.

“I am very much interested not just in the academic lives of these young people but in their social and emotional well-being,” Primack said of current UHC students. “We want to show that we are really giving them a family, and that we are really supporting them.”

—Marty Levine

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