State of the University Honors College Address

Issue Date: 
January 28, 2013

Dean Stricker delivered this annual State of the University Honors College address in the Frick Fine Arts Auditorium on January 11, 2013.

Welcome to the second in an annual series of public presentations about the University Honors College. I gave the first of these talks a year ago, after my initial six months as dean. In retrospect, I view my comments then as preliminary in the sense that my ideas about several things have evolved during the past year. Thus, it occurs to me that I may have the same feeling next year about today’s talk. With that caveat in mind, I can state that my general goal is to describe my present vision of the UHC, and my specific goals are to explain some of what the UHC has been doing during the past year and what we aspire to do in the coming year.

First, I want to state the obvious: The UHC is committed to the proposition that undergraduate students at the University of Pittsburgh should receive a first-rate education. That is our primary mission, and everything we do can be viewed from that perspective. Inasmuch as the UHC has neither faculty members nor students of its own, we accomplish our goals by providing opportunities that enrich the academic environment of students and of the faculty who instruct and mentor them. Put another way, we try to encourage and sustain a culture in which the pursuit of an education is among the first priorities of the students at Pitt, and supporting that goal is among the first priorities of the faculty and staff at Pitt.

So how do we do it? One way is by encouraging faculty to teach honors courses and by encouraging students to take them. The honors course may be taught as a relatively small seminar or as a relatively large lecture class. The size of the class matters less than the primary goal of the course, which is to provide a greater understanding of the material. The students are expected to work harder in honors courses than in regular courses. They read more, they write more, they think more, they discuss more, and in consequence they understand more. That’s the deal: Students will work harder in order to learn more. This strong motivation to understand and to learn has been called “intellectual curiosity,” a term I first heard last year but a trait that I was very familiar with during my 40-plus years as a classroom instructor and as a research scientist. Intellectual curiosity is easy to detect both in students and in faculty. They act like they are on a mission to gain a deeper understanding of the things they want to understand, and it so preoccupies them that they pursue it for however long it takes, whether for days or weeks or months or years. This intense curiosity is central to the culture of the UHC.

Honors courses come in different varieties. They could be entire courses or one-credit supplements to regular classes in which greater depth is obtained by a series of readings and discussions. They could be introductory courses or more advanced courses, or even graduate courses in which selected undergraduate students enroll. A collection of courses, from introductory to advanced, constitutes the curriculum that students consider when they decide on their majors, and the most curious, able, and industrious students want the most informative and challenging sequence of courses. Thus, in addition to being good for students to have a series of honors courses in their major, it is good for the department that attracts students who want to take them.

I should mention that some honors courses are multidisciplinary in nature and do not fit into one departmental sequence or another. The UHC encourages those courses, as well. All together, the UHC now supports about 110 honors courses each year, with an average enrollment of 15-20 students. Because enrollment in the courses averages 75-80 percent of capacity, if more students take honors courses, then enrollment in the courses will soon be saturated. Thus, while I have been encouraging students to take honors courses, I also have been encouraging schools and departments to offer more of them.

In addition to offering honors courses, the UHC provides opportunities for advising, housing, research scholarships, and the Bachelor of Philosophy degree, among other things. I now want to mention what’s new in each of those areas before turning my attention to a few more general issues.

With regard to advising, I will again begin by stating the obvious: One of the major attractions of the University of Pittsburgh is its great strength in biomedical research and in its professional schools of medicine, dentistry, public health, and rehabilitation science. Consequently, a large percentage of undergraduate students come to Pitt with the intention of ultimately pursuing a career in a health-related profession. Although many students change their minds after they discover other fields of interest or after they take courses that are prerequisites to professional schools in the health sciences, a large number of them maintain their initial career goals. For more than a year now, the UHC has provided those students with academic advising to guide them as candidates for graduate training in a health-related profession. We have found that many preprofessional students are among the most academically gifted and successful students on campus and that they fit comfortably into an honors community, they profit from being part of it, and they contribute substantially to it. We find this to be true as well of students who pursue professional careers in fields other than medicine and dentistry such as law, engineering, and business. I want the UHC to assist all of these students to get the education they seek in order to fulfill their aspirations.

Note that the UHC offers academic advising to preprofessional students in addition to the academic advising we provide to students in the liberal arts, not instead of it. In other words, the present focus of UHC advising is not exclusively on the professions, and there is zero interest in having it become so. Last August, for example, we hired an advisor for students interested in community engagement. The goal here is to help Pitt students develop an awareness of pertinent issues in our community to which they can apply their academic skills and knowledge so they can use their education to positively impact society. Thus, we now have students who are creating community-based research projects, or working with nonprofit organizations, or tutoring students in local schools. These new UHC advisors add to a staff that already includes general academic advisors and advisors who help to prepare students when they compete for prestigious national scholarships to support study, research, internships, and other learning opportunities. In short, it should be evident that a major mission of the UHC is to provide advising to students with diverse interests who have in common a basic interest in learning, understanding, and ultimately being able to accomplish something.

Switching my focus to honors housing, two years ago we doubled the number of freshmen in honors housing to about 400 students by occupying Sutherland West in the upper campus, and this year we added some 200 sophomore students in Brackenridge Hall to complement 100 sophomore and junior students in Forbes-Craig Hall. These three residence halls tend to attract serious students, by which I mean students who have come to college primarily in order to get an education and who take seriously their plans for themselves after graduating from Pitt. They want to interact with like-minded students while they are here, and students in those residence halls participate in such a community. A strong sense of community also is present in the summer Brackenridge research program, which is one of the signature programs of the UHC. Each year we give research fellowship awards to about 50 undergraduate students who work with faculty mentors on research projects during the summer. What is distinctive about the program is that fellowships are given to students in the natural sciences, the humanities, the social sciences, and the preprofessional schools, unlike conventional summer research programs that are discipline-specific. (For example, last summer 51 students represented 41 majors.)  Thus, when the Brackenridge Fellows assemble each week to present their research to one another, they face the significant problem of communicating effectively to peers who lack background knowledge in their work. If you have ever tried to communicate what you do and why you do it to others outside your field of interest you know how difficult it is to do so effectively. Yet, the Brackenridge Fellows learn to communicate effectively without using jargon or otherwise speaking in shorthand phrases. And, of course, they learn about the great variety of research areas that are being pursued at the University. It’s a wonderful experience. Last year we extended the Brackenridge program into the Fall and Spring Terms, and we are doing it again this year. We have other research scholarships that collectively contribute to the general goal of enabling students to pursue a greater understanding of the things they want to understand, under faculty mentorship.

With regard to the Bachelor of Philosophy degree, I will first note that the word “philosophy” does not refer to the discipline of philosophy but is used in accordance with its original Greek meaning, which is “love of wisdom.” The BPhil degree at Pitt is awarded to students who have satisfied the University requirements for a baccalaureate degree and who additionally show unusual depth of knowledge by completing a thesis based on original research, presenting it publicly, and defending the thesis before a committee of faculty members that includes an outside examiner. The degree is administered through the UHC, and Pitt is one of the few schools in the world that award it. This year we anticipate that the number of undergraduate students who earn a BPhil degree will represent approximately

2 percent of the graduating class, the largest number by far in the 25-year history of the UHC. In addition, this Spring Term we will be proposing a new Certificate of Research in which the demands will be similar to, but somewhat less rigorous than, those of the BPhil degree. For example, the written document may be a lengthy research report rather than a thesis, and the committee of faculty would not include an outside examiner. Students who satisfy those requirements will qualify for this new certificate. Along with the students who graduate with a BPhil degree, they will then be designated as “UHC Scholars.” The general goal here is to encourage students to pursue independent faculty-mentored research as part of their undergraduate education and to recognize those students who do so.

I will now turn my attention to three more general issues, which I will divide into comments about students, about faculty, and about alumni.

Although many students come to Pitt in pursuit of an education and are attracted to the UHC for that reason, other students adopt that goal after spending some time in college, during which they discover their capabilities and take their studies more seriously. They “turn the corner,” so to speak, and in doing so they begin to behave less like the high-school students they used to be and more like the adults they will become. More specifically, we generally think of honors students as having certain traits of intellect and character, an idea that has been refined during the past few months while we were discussing the new award that the UHC created in order to honor Alec Stewart, the founding dean of the UHC. Beginning this year, the Alec Stewart Student Achievement Award will annually recognize four junior students who are judged to best represent the values of the UHC. Two aspects of each applicant’s credentials will be given primary consideration in this evaluation. One is high academic attainment, by which we mean more than a high grade-point average. The Stewart Award intends to recognize students whose academic pursuits at Pitt also reflect unusual breadth and depth and are characterized by an impassioned determination to learn. The second variable is an awareness of, and concern for, those around them. In a narrow sense, this could mean interacting with a group of other students who are interested in the same subject matter, or it might be described more broadly as a generosity of spirit, which is to say a willingness to help others succeed whether on campus, in the city, or elsewhere. To put it another way, we want students to become adult citizens who are smart enough to figure out what has to be done and responsible enough to do it.

Turning my attention now to the faculty, I would like more faculty members at the University of Pittsburgh to participate actively in the UHC along with undergraduate students. After all, whether faculty members are researchers or scholars or creative artists, they additionally may be seen broadly as educators who first teach themselves what they want most to learn and then teach what they have learned to others. Speaking now from personal experience, I grew up with the Jeffersonian belief that an informed and responsible citizenry is the foundation of American democracy. So I see education as fundamental in preserving and strengthening our democratic principles and practices, and I see the educational mission of the UHC from that perspective. Thus, I invite faculty members, who are among society’s educators, to contribute to that civic mission while also serving their home departments and the University. They can do so by teaching  honors courses that stimulate thinking and promote understanding. They also can serve as mentors to students pursuing research and scholarship. And they can serve as advisors who provide firsthand information about career choices in their fields. Just as premedical students are encouraged to shadow physicians in order to gain insight into what it is like to be a physician, other students might shadow faculty members to see what it is like to be an academic scientist or scholar or educator.

Finally, there are the alumni. I continue to be impressed by the fact that some Pitt alumni consider themselves to be alumni of the UHC. These alumni must feel that a significant portion of their education at Pitt was obtained in association with some program of the UHC. Consequently, they want to remain connected with the UHC, and, more importantly, they want the UHC to have the same positive influence on the education of other students as it had on theirs. Such strong attachment and concern are wonderful sentiments. I hope the alumni of the UHC continue to stay connected with the UHC, and I hope that many of the future alumni, by which I mean present students, do the same and for the same reasons. I hope they feel pleased with what is happening in the UHC and what is planned, and I hope they communicate their thoughts and feelings while providing constructive feedback. In that regard, I intend to form a Board of Visitors to the UHC composed mainly of Pitt alumni who wish to stay connected with the UHC in such an advisory role.

In closing, I am pleased to say that I believe the UHC is doing quite well as it continues to evolve. I believe the traditional principles and practices of the UHC remain intact, although I will point out that certain things are changing. Speaking generally, it is my experience that change often is invigorating, but I recognize that change sometimes can be unsettling, as well. I also recognize that uncomfortable feelings may subside with an understanding of what changes are happening and why, and what is being planned. In part for that reason, I am glad that you are interested to know more about the UHC. I hope that I have provided answers to some of those questions, and I encourage you to ask if you have residual questions.