By DONOVAN HARRELL
Since stepping into her new role as dean of the University Honors College, Nicola Foote has been meeting with Pitt stakeholders trying to understand the college’s strengths and areas for improvement.
Foote, who most recently served as vice dean of the honors college at Arizona State University, started on July 1, following a fluid leadership situation.
Brian Primack served from 2017 to 2019, before leaving to go to the University of Arkansas. Audrey Murrell, the former associate dean of the College of Business Administration, became the school’s acting dean until she stepped down in February.
Joseph McCarthy, vice provost for undergraduate studies, then served as interim dean until the national search for the position, which began in fall 2020, concluded.
The University Times spoke to Foote about her vision for the future of the college and her priorities for her first semester and year as dean. The conversation has been edited for conciseness.
What are some of your priorities for your first semester as dean?
For the first semester, my goal is just to continue meeting and listening. I think one of the things that truly drew me to UHC, and that makes me so excited about being part of this community, is that UHC has a rich and unique history. It is one of the oldest honors colleges in the nation, and it’s had a unique history in the way it’s developed since, in terms of how students have been admitted to the college and the types of ways they move through the honors experience.
My goal is really to meet, listen, learn. But already, some things are clear as immediate priorities. One is making sure that the honors students have a clear mechanism for sharing their input on what they’re looking for in the college and what the experience of being a UHC student is from a student perspective. We’re working on launching an Honors College Student Council, and we will open elections for that early in the fall with the goal of starting in the spring.
Another one is continuing to expand some of the unique elements of the Honors College programming. One of the things I love is the scholar communities. I want to see if we can add new ones or if there are other ways that we can add more courses that run alongside and connect to the scholar communities that we have.
And I’m also working on tweaking the honors Outside the Classroom Curriculum (OCC) a little. This is something signature to Pitt, and the fact that the Honors College has its own version is exciting because it takes the co-curricular foundations of honors and it allows students to get credit for participating in learning experiences outside of the traditional classroom. But I think there’s work that we can do to make sure that that OCC is smooth for students, and that we maximize the types of opportunities that are available within that.
What would you like to have accomplished by the end of your first year as dean?
Some of the big things are expanding the honors curriculum, creating some new team-based research projects, and incentivizing those so that students can work collaboratively on these OCCs. Maybe expanding our footprint here in the Cathedral. We have recently grown pretty significantly in student numbers and we’re looking at how do we add more space.
I’d like to create more opportunities for all the UHC students to come together. Throughout the first year, I want to find points where we can all come together because one of the things that makes honors education so transformative and important is the sense of community that it provides.
We’re instituting town halls, open office hours, and things like that, alongside the student council so we can make sure that we’re meeting students’ needs. My longer-term goals are to ensure that Pitt UHC gets recognition as one of the top-ranked honors colleges in the nation. I’m coming from Barrett, The Honors College which is typically ranked number one. It was labeled by the New York Times as the “gold standard of honors colleges,” and to me, Pitt has all the pieces to be even more special and to gain even more recognition.
What made you decide to take on this position in the first place?
I mean, what an incredible opportunity to come into this Honors College with such a long-standing and rich history. And one of the things that drew me is the commitment to inclusivity. My vision of the UHC is one that is elite, but not elitist, and I think some honors colleges seek to draw boundaries that are very tight. What I loved about Pitt is its long history of really making sure that the opportunities are available to as many students as can benefit from them and want those opportunities. That’s really what drew me — that opportunity to build on that foundation.
You mentioned that you wanted to make sure the Honors College is elite but not elitist. In your eyes, what’s the difference, and how will you make sure the college is elite but not elitist?
I think the big thing is making sure that it’s a place that intellectual aspiration can be fulfilled. And so that means we’re not creating hardline cut scores. “You need to achieve this SAT score or this GPA in high school.”
It’s not necessarily about what you achieve in high school. It’s about your intellectual interests and your desire to push boundaries, explore across disciplines, and achieve to your own maximum potential whatever that looks like.
And I think what makes me so passionate about honors education is I think it’s the best way for undergrads to be supportive in moving above and beyond majors. I think so often, undergraduate education can get reduced sometimes to checklists — you have to achieve a class which is a pre-req for this class so that you can get this credential and go on to get to this job.
And what we’re trying to create in the Honors College is a space where you’re encouraged to ask really important questions and push the boundaries of human knowledge. And we do that together in a community. It’s very important to me to think about who isn’t already part of our community and how do we find ways to bring those students in. For example, including more community college transfer students in the Honors College is a top priority. We do have a handful of those students already. They’re exceptional, and I think there’s lots of room for us to bring more transfer students in.
One of the provost’s main priorities is making Pitt a more inclusive and diverse institution. What are your plans for advancing this mission at the Honors College?
This is one of the things that’s unique at Pitt. I think it’s so admirable how those inclusivity goals have been embedded into the curriculum through the antiracism course that’s required for everyone. You know that there’s real attention to access.
Within the Honors College, some of that work will entail thinking about what are the on-ramps into honors. I also want to create branch programs with local high schools and make sure that the students who are currently underrepresented in the Honors College learn about what honors is and recognize that potential to become part of this community.
I also think we must embed diversity and equity throughout our curriculum and our co-curricular programming. One of the ways that I want to support that is by joining the new Justice and Equity Honors Network, which is a collaboration of major honors colleges where students come together to take courses across those institutions that center on justice, equity, and where they work together on research and service planning projects.
As we’re thinking about a new speaker series, I want to make sure that we center on those themes of equity and inclusion. Even though study abroad is on hiatus, more or less, it’s really important to me that we form partnerships with institutions in the global south, that we’re bringing students from Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa into the Honors College. We must create study abroad experiences that are not just in Europe and that we’re expanding to where students go. We want to help students think globally, to make sure that they’re understanding how processes of colonialism and those histories shaped the complexities of our current world.
Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-383-9905.
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