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February 7, 2008

Honors College invests in people, not programs, dean says

A number of years ago, University Honors College (UHC) Dean G. Alec Stewart had an epiphany of sorts.

Stewart was attending an on-campus recruiting event sponsored by Pitt’s Office of Admissions and Financial Aid for prospective students and their parents.

One mother was aggravated because she saw little difference between the recruiting materials and rah-rah spiels she’d heard at Pitt and other colleges she had visited, Stewart told Faculty Assembly Jan. 29. “She threw her hand up and said, ‘We’ve been on this grand tour, we’re visiting all these colleges — and everybody is saying the same thing. I’m just totally frustrated in knowing what we want to do. I want to know what you believe in.’”

“I suddenly realized that was one of the profoundest questions we’ve ever had asked, and that institutions, like people, have things that they believe in, and we ought to have a good answer for that question,” Stewart said in his Assembly report, “The Honors College: Where We Come From, What We Are and Where We Are Going.”

“I did my best on the spot — probably about a C-minus’s worth — and thought about it later and decided that what we believed in was that quality in all endeavors is measured by individual human attainment,” he said.

Thus, the idea behind the Honors College is to foster human attainment for undergraduate students who find that an attractive objective. “It’s particularly important that values precede policy,” Stewart added. “You can’t create policies to do anything unless you tell people what you believe in. What that means is that we’re in the business of investing in people, not programs.”

The purpose of any honors college is to help the larger university meet those academic and co-curricular needs of students who are particularly able intellectually, Stewart said. “But even more than able, we want students who are motivated, even ambitious; who are curious, inquisitive and intellectually engaged. For us, curiosity trumps intelligence.”

A physicist by training, Stewart has been UHC’s only dean in its 20-plus-year history, and directed Pitt’s honors program, the college’s precursor, from its inception in 1979. He credited Pitt’s faculty and the University’s shared governance structure with the establishment of the Honors College.

“The genesis of this was from the bottom up. This is one of those cases where faculty got together and created something that was good for the whole University,” Stewart said. “It was a creation of the [University] Senate and the faculty, who felt that the University had not put its best foot forward with regard to ‘meeting the needs of able and motivated students,’ which was the going phrase at the time of the college’s establishment.”

The emergent structure of UHC, Stewart said, was that it be open University-wide and report to the provost. “That means the Honors College meddles in other people’s business,” awarding bachelor’s of philosophy degrees in any number of disciplines, he said.

“It’s a non-membership organization, a very important fact. Nobody is ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the Honors College; we have participants, rather than members, and there are requirements to participate in certain kinds of our endeavors.”

Stewart said UHC’s activities fall into four categories: offering course work, research opportunities and field programs; advising; fostering an academic/intellectual community, and providing incentives and recognition for academic attainment.

“We do run some courses, which are not intended to be advanced or specialized, but are intended to be in-depth treatments where you throw out those things in the basic discipline that are not fundamental to it, and you go as far as you can with those things that are fundamental,” Stewart said. “We rely on faculty to know what that means in their discipline.”

Advising at UHC is not the stereotypical experience of deciding which courses to take, he said. “Advising is asking: ‘Who are you? What are you interested in? If you could be anything in the world, what would it be? Is there anything we can do at this University to help you get from where you are to where you’d like to be, and if it isn’t in this University, is there something we can do on your behalf, even if it involves resources from someplace else?’”

The upshot of that advising philosophy is that the Honors College, through its $12 million endowment, sends undergraduates to study, conduct research or do field work all over the world, Stewart said.

The third category, creating an intellectual community, is accomplished in a number of ways.

“An intellectual community is essentially where you go at 3 a.m. to fight about philosophy,” Steward said. “A faculty member needs an academic community. We all like to talk with our colleagues about what’s going on with our discipline. Able students are no different. They need some way to interact with other kindred spirits who are excited about the life of the mind — life above the neck, as our Honors College coffee mugs say.”

As a result, parts of UHC, which is located on floors 35 and 36 of the Cathedral of Learning, are open 24/7 for students to study or interact, he said. “An academic community does not take fancy equipment. It takes a place, a door that’s never locked, a bottomless coffee pot, a hang-out for the intellectual hedonist.”

Community also is fostered for the 800 or so undergraduate participants through various extracurricular activities, the Student Honors Activities Council, the Brackenridge scholars summer research program, four student-run publications and whatever programs the students themselves suggest, such as reading groups centered on themes or genres.

“Our deal is, if you get 10 students who want to get together to read a book that’s worth reading, we’ll buy the books and pizza for the discussions,” Stewart said. “Incidentally, it’s all on a volunteer basis. There is nobody who does anything on either side of the lectern in the Honors College because somebody told them to do it.”

Even faculty must volunteer to teach in the Honors College, he noted. “There are faculty members here who are associated with areas of the institution that do not even enroll undergraduate students but who have a very serious interest in undergraduate education. We’re always eager to take advantage of that, so we scarf up those faculty. We think of the University as a gigantic human resource for our students.”

UHC also offers separate housing — dubbed honors communities — for students who want it, Stewart noted. Upper-class Honors College students are housed in the Forbes Craig Apartments (across from the Carnegie Museum of Art), where a house master helps set the in-house social calendar of the residents.

“Freshmen are separated from the upper-class students, because the needs of freshmen are quite different: They don’t have friends, and everything is new,” Stewart noted. About 150 Honors College freshmen live on segregated floors in Forbes Hall (above the Health Book Center), with a resident director, a program coordinator and four resident assistants on staff.

The rewards for Honors College students, therefore, partly are peer-oriented, flowing from the interaction of students who share a love of intellectual exchange, he said. The B.Phil. degree also provides significant clout in academia, since requirements, regardless of discipline, include writing a senior thesis and defending it before a board of faculty examiners. Stewart also noted UHC students’ long-standing success in winning national and international scholarship competitions.

As for the future, Stewart said his primary concerns include integrating fundraising efforts with an educational vision.

“Good development efforts, I’m convinced, are about promoting a vision,” he said. “We earn our keep by selling the idea of high intellectual attainment at a state university, which keeps the mothers and fathers out of the poor house.”

Also on Stewart’s agenda are continuing to refine and increase opportunities for summer experiences, to expand the disciplines in which students are earning their degrees and to create certificate programs that will complement students’ academic needs.

“We also are involved in recruiting,” Stewart said. “Very candidly, the issue is not to get smart students into the University — We’re swimming in smart students in this place. What we’re not swimming in is curious and inquisitive students — no institution is — and the way you get those students is the same way you get a star quarterback: You send academic people out to talk to them, spend an hour with them and then they will come. That’s something we need to work more on.”

In other Faculty Assembly business:

• Senate President John Baker said discussion of the report of the ad hoc subcommittee on child care (part of the Senate ad hoc committee for the promotion of gender equity) has been postponed until the Feb. 26 Assembly meeting. The report includes benchmarking data from 10 peer institutions, best practices in child care benefits and recommendations on ways in which the University can expand its child care opportunities.

—Peter Hart

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