G. Alec Stewart, Beloved Dean of Pitt Honors College, Dies

Issue Date: 
April 12, 2010
G. Alec StewartG. Alec Stewart

G. Alec Stewart, dean of the University of Pittsburgh’s University Honors College since its inception, Bernice L. and Morton S. Lerner Chair, and professor of physics at Pitt, died April 7 at UPMC Montefiore Hospital in Pittsburgh after a long illness. He was 69.

“Alec made enormous contributions to the progress of the University of Pittsburgh, most notably as the founding dean of our Honors College,” said Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg. “He was unrelenting in his efforts to use the power of education to maximize student growth. The extraordinary record of Pitt undergraduates in regularly winning the most competitive national awards is one clear product of his commitment to high achievement. Speaking even more broadly, he helped set an ambitious academic tone that has enhanced the learning environment for all Pitt students.  Alec and I were close colleagues and good friends for the last quarter century, and I mourn his passing, as does the entire University community.”

James V. Maher, Pitt provost and senior vice chancellor, said, “For the past 38 years, at first in the Department of Physics and Astronomy where we both spent our youth, then in the Honors Program which he more or less invented out of whole cloth, and more recently in the Honors College where he was the founding dean, Alec Stewart has delighted his colleagues with his wry wit, centered on his focus on the importance of ‘life above the neck,’ his passion for teaching young people to learn and to believe in themselves, and his insistence on not taking either himself or anyone else too seriously.”

Stewart was known for working tirelessly on behalf of his students’ achievements and equipping them with the intellectual firepower to win record numbers of national and international awards. To date, under his and his team’s guidance, Pitt students have won six Rhodes Scholarships, nine Marshall Scholarships, 42 Goldwater Scholarships, 11 Truman Scholarships, and five Udall Scholarships, as well as Churchill and Gates Cambridge scholarships.

Stewart was named in August 1977 to become the first head of the new University Honors Program (now the University Honors College), which opened in January 1978. An Aug. 10, 1977, news release announcing Stewart’s appointment stated that the “University Honors Program is intended to provide a series of challenging and stimulating opportunities for students with good scholarship records and high motivation to obtain an education with both breadth and depth.”

In announcing Stewart’s appointment in 1977, then-Pitt Provost Rhoten Smith said, “I believe the University Honors Program is one of the more significant initiatives we have taken in recent years, and I have great faith in Dr. Stewart’s ability to give structure to the concept and to obtain wide support for the Program.”

Stewart shaped the program to meet the needs of the University’s most able and motivated undergraduate students. Under his leadership, the program emerged with a distinctive educational emphasis on intellectual scope and a clear conception of academic quality rooted in student attainment.  “The capable and motivated undergraduate should learn to enjoy reading, writing, and thinking across the disciplines,” Stewart commented recently about his goals for Pitt honors students.

Creation of the University Honors College as the degree-granting extension of the Honors Program was the result of a suggestion by Stewart in 1984.  The Honors College was established as part of the University’s bicentennial celebration on Founder’s Day 1987 with the installation of Stewart as the dean. The introduction of the Honors College added a special degree option (Bachelor of Philosophy) as another element of the Honors Program.  The Honors College is Universitywide and, in Stewart’s words, “emphasizes a collaborative attainment-over-turf administrative structure.”  Within Pitt, it has emerged to be, again in Stewart’s words, “an inspiring” gathering place for “high levels of undergraduate achievement and fellowship.”

Pitt 2009 Honors College  graduate Eleanor Ott, a 2010 Rhodes Scholar and 2008 Truman Scholar, said Stewart’s passing was “a heavy loss for the University and the wider community. His belief in the life of the mind and his down-to-earth attitude were an inspiration to generations of students and were instrumental in my decision to attend the University of Pittsburgh. Doc’s commitment to student achievement, dialogue across intellectual disciplines, and following your passions—no matter how disparate they may appear to others—have been imbued in the Honors College he helped build and will continue to benefit students for years to come.”

In 2006, Wyoming rancher Allen Cook was moved by Stewart’s persuasive initiative and vision and gave to the University Honors College 4,700 acres of land in eastern Wyoming containing rich dinosaur fossil beds as a preserve for education, conservation, and research in geology, archaeology, and the life sciences.

Glenn Alexander Stewart was born on Jan. 14, 1941, in Ellensburg, Wash. In his own words, Stewart was “a physicist by training and an educator by inclination,” who “grew up at the timberline on the eastern slopes of the Cascade Mountains in Central Washington.” His family members were “ranchers and business people whose activities ranged from raising alfalfa and Shire draft horses to selling insurance and irrigation water.”

Upon completing high school in Ellensburg, he attended Amherst College, graduating in 1962 with a Bachelor of Arts degree, cum laude, in physics. He then went on to the University of Washington, where he earned the Master of Science degree in physics in 1963, the MSE degree in nuclear engineering in 1965, and the PhD in solid state physics in 1969. He was a research fellow in physics at Caltech from 1970 to 1972, writing published articles in low-temperature solid state surface physics and winning a teaching prize in the required Feynman Physics Course.

Stewart came to Pitt as an assistant professor of physics in 1972. In addition to teaching, he established a laboratory for the study of phase transitions in systems of lower dimensionality, notably quasi two-dimensional (flat) adsorbed noble gas monolayers.  This work was supported by NSF grants, resulted in invited talks here and abroad, and produced a number of graduates with PhDs.  Commenting on the research work, Stewart said, “Most people regard Flatland as science fiction. I took it more seriously.”

At Pitt’s Honors College, in addition to serving as dean, Stewart continued to teach regularly in the physics department. He lived in Pittsburgh with his wife, Carolyn, who teaches mathematics and computer science at Franklin Regional High School, east of Pittsburgh. His hobbies included backpacking, biking, hiking, and short-wave high-speed Morse telegraphy, where, as Stewart noted, “You have to think before you speak.”  He is survived by his wife, their two children—Kirsten Marie Stewart, a physician in San Francisco, Calif., and Colin Rutledge Stewart, an investment banker in New York City—and three grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held in Heinz Memorial Chapel on the Pitt campus at 2 p.m. today, with a reception immediately following the service in the foyer of Carnegie Music Hall, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. Memorial contributions may be made to Pitt’s University Honors College via Institutional Advancement (www.pitt.edu/giving.html) and to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (www.railstotrails.org).