Q&A With Honors College Dean Edward M. Stricker/The Art of Education: Molding “Good Citizens, Good Adults”

Issue Date: 
August 23, 2011
University Honors College Dean Edward M. StrickerUniversity Honors College Dean Edward M. Stricker

Edward M. Stricker became dean of Pitt’s University Honors College (UHC) on July 1. A Distinguished University Professor of Neuroscience and a renowned neuroscience scholar, Stricker has been instrumental in developing the University’s nationally recognized neuroscience program. His friendly manner, thoughtful approach to teaching, and scholarly commitment to research are hallmarks of his success.

Stricker holds BS and MS degrees in chemistry from the University of Chicago and a PhD in psychology from Yale University. He also held postdoctoral fellowships at the University of Colorado and the University of Pennsylvania.

Stricker’s 40-year career at Pitt began in 1971 when he joined the University as an associate professor of psychology and biological sciences. He was promoted to full professor in 1976 and was named University Professor of Neuroscience in 1986. During his tenure, he served as director of the Behavioral Neuroscience Program and led efforts to establish the Department of Neuroscience in the School of Arts and Sciences, serving as its founding chair for 16 years. He also served as founding director of the Center for Neuroscience and Schizophrenia (now the Conti Center for Neuroscience of Mental Disorders) and was codirector of the University’s Center for Neuroscience.

Stricker’s commitment to education—particularly undergraduate education, both inside and outside the classroom—is apparent. He has challenged students to aspire to excellence and has provided the encouragement and tools necessary for achieving those aspirations.

A belief in promoting quality education for undergraduate students led to Stricker’s decision to apply for the UHC deanship. Stricker’s plans include interesting more students in the Honors College programs, providing more living and learning communities in which students can better share ideas, and offering more opportunities for students to conduct research, not just in the summer months, but throughout the academic year.

Now Stricker is bringing a thoughtful, deliberate approach to improving what he considers “an Honors College that is already first-rate.” In a recent conversation with the Pitt Chronicle’s Patricia Lomando White, Stricker talked about the many successful programs the Honors College offers, what the college does best, and his vision for where he would like to take it.

Q. Why did you want to become the Honors College dean?

I had three reasons for my candidacy. First, I have always been very interested in promoting high-quality education for undergraduate students, and I thought that as dean I would have a stronger platform for influence than as a professor in the classroom. Second, the University of Pittsburgh has been very supportive of me during the 40 years I have been here, and, consequently, I have been productive and happy. I recognize that I have done some good things over the years, but I knew I would be inclined to contribute more, especially if I was selected for the position. And third, I thought being dean of the Honors College would be interesting and fun. After two months in the position, I feel more strongly about all three reasons.

What are your early impressions of being dean?

As mentioned, I am pleased by the opportunities to influence undergraduate education, and I am pleased by the opportunity to make this contribution to the University. Thus far, my work has been continually interesting and often fun. And I am also very pleased to have met a group of interesting, good people with whom I now interact.

You are known for believing that undergraduate students bring unique benefits to research. Can you elaborate?

Undergraduate students usually bring an open mind to the laboratory, uncluttered by the local perspective and unfettered by the need to fit in. Graduate students quickly learn to adopt the perspective of the home laboratory, and to the extent that they succeed, they lose their ability to provide alternative viewpoints. Thus, undergraduate students may be freer to consider and offer alternative points of view.

Can you talk about your love of teaching—what is it that you find so rewarding?

To understand my answer, you have to know something about my background. All my grandparents were immigrants, and although my mother was born here, my father was not. They all believed in the democratic principles of this country, and they wanted to be good citizens. They believed that the way to be a good citizen was to work hard, be honest, and get a good education. My folks often quoted Thomas Jefferson, who said the foundation of the American democracy was an educated citizenry; thus, they valued education and educators. Not coincidentally, my mother taught high school math while my father, who was a civil servant by day, taught fourth-grade English to immigrants at night. No doubt for these reasons, I always wanted to be a teacher when I was growing up, and so did my brother and sister. And my goal as an academic has always been to educate, whether I was in the laboratory or in the chairman’s office, not just when I was in the classroom. I wanted to help students learn to analyze, to synthesize, to understand, and to make decisions based on evidence, so they could become good citizens and good adults. To the extent that I succeed, I am pleased to think that I am making a nice contribution to preserve our society.

Are there significant differences between the students you taught 30 years ago and the students you teach today?

The present students are much more sophisticated, generally, not just tech-savvy. More of them are interested in getting an education, and more of them have future plans. The most academically competent students today are not any more competent than the best of the former students, but now there are many more of them at Pitt.

Pitt’s Honors College has made a point of not being exclusive. Do you have plans to continue that inclusiveness, and how important do you think that quality is to an honors college or program?

Yes, I do intend to continue the policy of inclusiveness, and I do think that quality is very important. The UHC at Pitt caters to all students who come here to get an education. They are students who want to discover what they are interested in and what they are good at, and to learn how to think clearly and to develop good judgment, so they can use these insights and skills for the rest of their lives. They’re curious and inquisitive, and they like intellectual challenges. I recognize that all college students are not like that when they matriculate, but a good many students are, and even more of them become that way once they get here. They “turn the corner,” so to speak, and behave less like the high school students they were and more like the adult citizens they are becoming. The Honors College applauds and encourages that development in all undergraduate students, regardless of what stage of development they are in when they come to Pitt.

In your presentation to the selection committee for this job, you listed five successful aspects of the Honors College that should be maintained. Can you address those?

The five aspects I mentioned in my presentation last April were recruitment, advising, academic community, the Summer Brackenridge Research Program, and the B.Phil. degree. I also should have included honors courses, which was an obvious oversight. Briefly, throughout its 24-year history, the Honors College has successfully assisted the Office of Admissions in recruiting an increasingly large cadre of excellent students, has provided outstanding advising to those students once they arrive on campus, has promoted a strong sense of community through its residential living programs (we hope to have more such facilities by next year), has been running a unique summer research program in which participating students come from multiple and diverse disciplines on campus (a program that will be extended into the Fall and Spring terms beginning this academic year), has been giving a distinctive baccalaureate degree (the Bachelor of Philosophy, or B.Phil.) to students whose undergraduate education is characterized by unusual breadth and depth, and has sponsored a large and increasing number of honors courses that provide increased in-depth treatment of standard course material. Collectively, these activities enrich the educational experience of all qualified Pitt students who want to take advantage of them.

What would students and peers be surprised to learn about you?

I graduated from high school and entered college just after my 16th birthday. I graduated from college (University of Chicago) when I was 19, and I received my PhD (Yale) when I was 23. If that sounds wonderful, keep in mind that the guys I played ball with and against in college were always bigger and stronger than I was, the girls were always older than I was, and I never could legally drink alcohol while I was an undergraduate student. It was apparent to me then, and still is, that success in the classroom is only one dimension of a successful college experience. Thankfully, I received considerable support and encouragement from my fraternity brothers, from whom I learned the values of a nurturing community.

Can you name your three favorite books of all time?

My answer now, for two of them, is Middlemarch (George Eliot) and A Mass for the Dead (William Gibson). It is interesting to me that I got much more out of those books when I reread them recently than when I first read them years ago. I have found many other books very enjoyable, though not as meaningful to me as the two mentioned. Perhaps my favorite book for pure enjoyment (actually, the first two of three trilogies) is The Forsyte Chronicles by John Galsworthy, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1932. That is, the books weren’t just the literary source for the best production ever on PBS.

Do you find time to take vacations? What is your dream vacation?

I remember vacations. I once took them but certainly not this summer. In recent years, my wife and I have gone to Sanibel Island in Florida for a restful week during spring break, and I’m sure we will do the same next year. But next summer we hope to have what we think of as a “dream vacation”: We will go to Europe, and I’ll have a chance to show her around a few cities like Venice that I have visited and enjoyed in the past.