Shift in ideology divides Honors College


Edward Stricker, the dean of the University Honors College, will step down before the fall semester of 2017. TPN File Photo

In early April of her senior year in high school, Naomi Latorraca came to interview at Pitt for the Chancellor’s Scholarship, one of Pitt’s most prestigious awards, which is offered through the University Honors College.

Pitt was her backup school. But a full ride through college is a powerful incentive, so she decided to start the interview process for the scholarship.

Latorraca said what drew her to the UHC was her initial interview.

“When I came to the interview, they started it off by asking the question of ‘Do you think that an honors college or any institution for that matter should offer merit scholarships?’”

It was an awkward question to answer for someone applying for a merit-based scholarship, so Latorraca was taken aback.

At the time, Mike Giazzoni and Nate Hilberg were the academic advisers for the UHC, and it was their job to interview potential Chancellor Scholars.

“They asked me then about an essay I had written, which was about a scientific paradigm shift, and we talked about that,” Latorraca said. “I had really never talked to people, like to adults about ideas and my own writing in an in-depth way, and that was something I did get to do with Mike and Nate.”

The advisers questioned Latorraca thoroughly, forcing her to defend her position and asking her to consider other perspectives. Soon Latorraca had forgotten she was there for an interview and became immersed in the conversation.

They spoke for an hour and a half, and at the end, Latorraca received a book, “The Two Cultures” by C.P. Snow.

“I felt that the point of the interview was to introduce me to this depth of collegiate learning that could happen,” Latorraca said. “I came to Pitt because of that interview.”

Latorraca soon found herself in a community of informal learning and interdisciplinary discussion among students. She grew to love the mess of newspapers, books, coffee and ideas that waited for her on the 35th and 36th floors of the Cathedral of Learning.

Now a senior at Pitt and a member of the UHC Advisory Board, a group of undergraduates responsible for representing student interest to the dean of the UHC, Latorraca said the community she discovered as a freshman was not created accidentally. Instead, the institution’s beloved founding dean, Alec “Doc” Stewart, created and emphasized programming that resulted in a forum for students to express ideas and explore intellectually together.

But Latorraca said she feels the space for unbound intellectual curiosity slipping away and worries it won’t be there for future students to enjoy.

Both Hilberg and Giazzoni no longer work in the UHC, and Latorraca said that with the decreasing number of students meeting for impromptu discussions, she has no problem finding a quiet place to study at the top of the Cathedral.

These changes worry Latorraca, and she’s not alone.

A little more than two and a half years after the unexpected passing of the UHC’s founding dean, an ideological rift exists between current Dean Edward Stricker, who maintains the UHC has not changed its purpose, and students active in the UHC, who believe Stricker’s policies have shifted UHC emphasis away from the intellectual curiosity that Stewart emphasized.

Vice Provost Juan Manfredi said he approves of Stricker’s initiatives and that the students’ passion is misplaced.

“[Intellectual curiosity] is a great thing, but that is something that Alec invented to motivate students,” Manfredi said. “He had a fantastic personality, a magnetic personality, and he would figure out ways to motivate students … but on the other hand, that is not a plan for the University.”

Building on an idea

In 1986 Pitt’s Board of Trustees established the University Honors College as it exists today. In a 1987 address, Stewart said the UHC was created as a place where students could pursue high academic attainment for its own sake.

In the more than 25 years since its founding, the UHC has sought to achieve this goal through many programs, including the Bachelors of Philosophy Degree, the Brackenridge program through which undergraduates defend their research to a group of their peers, honors housing and many other scholarships and awards.

Pitt’s UHC differs from other honors colleges across the country in that it has no membership — as organizers often explain it, no one is “in” the Honors College. Instead, the UHC, according to the website, exists to serve the “most able” Pitt students, but the decision of who is “most able” is left largely up to students. Studentscan apply to the majority of the UHC’s programs at any point in their college career.

Honors courses have a minimum GPA requirement for enrollment, but that prerequisite is often adjusted for students who display abilities in other areas. The UHC has its own programs council, the Student Honors Activities Council, which organizes lecture series, formals and even flag football.

In 2010, the Honors College met an unprecedented challenge when its founding dean unexpectedly passed away. Dean Steve Husted took over as interim dean until May 2011 when, after a process that lasted more than a year, the search committee found a new permanent dean in Stricker, a neuroscience professor known for his intelligence, successful teaching style and investment in students.

Stricker said his goal as dean of the UHC is to provide an education that is broad and deep, to encourage students to explore the curriculum and themselves, and to teach students to be generous. He said that his No. 1 concern since taking over leadership of the Honors College in July 2011 has been increasing student participation and expanding the honors community.

“Twenty-five years ago, when the UHC was founded, there were not nearly as large [a] number of accomplished undergraduate students on campus as there are today,” Stricker said in an email. “So in a sense, we are entering a second phase in the role of the UHC in the University, one that is characterized by an expanding role in providing an outstanding academic experience to an expanded number of undergraduate students who want it.”

According to Stricker, many students and faculty don’t know that UHC courses and activities are open to any undergraduate who applies. An aspect particular to Pitt’s honors college is students’ ability to choose their own level of involvement. Someone who participates in one book club is just as much a member as a Chancellor Scholar involved in three honors courses and the Brackenridge program.

“It is sad when I think that so many students at Pitt who might benefit greatly from participating in the UHC, and contribute greatly as well, do not do so because they believe they are not members of the UHC,” Stricker said.

Although his selection was at first met with the enthusiastic support of many students who had known him as a teacher, Stricker’s leadership of the Honors College has recently incited more criticism than praise. A considerable number of students are worried that with Stricker’s increased push for academic initiatives, the UHC’s founding values — those emphasized under Stewart’s leadership — are disappearing.

“Intellectual community is what has drawn people to Pitt in the past and allowed them to succeed,” Latorraca said. “My worry for the Honors College is that it will no longer be a place for creativity and informal achievement and instead, just become a place for your average overachiever.”

A commitment to curiosity

Around mid-September, eight students signed a letter to Stricker expressing similar concerns. They centered on a specific phrase that Stewart often mentioned, which has since become somewhat of a rallying cry for students frustrated with what they see as the current direction of the Honors College.

Senior Tom Visco was one board member who signed the letter. He explained this core value.

“I think the Honors College has one primary principle — that is intellectual curiosity,” he said. “That’s the vision that was sold to me when I was a younger student.”

In the letter to Stricker, the students stated, “For us, the promise of an institution that promotes intellectual curiosity as its core value is what made the choice to come to Pitt so easy … Nonetheless, we are deeply concerned that the value of intellectual curiosity is being de-emphasized at the service of achievement-oriented principles.”

The letter also cited limits on funding for book clubs, propositions to dissolve the Student Honors Activity Council, staff turnover, the addition of a health professions advising staff and the possibility of a pre-law advising staff to follow all as departures from the UHC’s focus on intellectual curiosity.

“[Health professions] advising represents something antithetical to what the Honors College has long espoused,” Latorraca said. “The Honors College exists to protect a minority of educational values, intellectual curiosity as a means for individual intellectual attainment. By bringing in status quo types of education, we really are, in a sense, polluting this special principle that brings so many students to Pitt in the first place.”

According to senior Alex Zimmerman, Stricker’s thinking emphasizes academic achievement for the sake of accomplishment, not growth.

“It treats the end goal as attaining merit badges,” Zimmerman said.

But Stricker said he doesn’t believe the UHC exists solely to promote intellectual curiosity.

“[Intellectual curiosity] is incidental but true,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it’s the only thing [the UHC] does or the most important.”

Academic attainment was another expression Stewart used often, and Stricker points to it as equally vital to the UHC’s mission.

“I interpret this phrase to mean students (and faculty) who strive to actually accomplish something, as opposed to idle thought, however deep and clever it may be,” Stricker said in an email.

He says health professions advising will help a large portion of the student population accomplish something and will make the UHC more inclusive.

“If you bring people who are interested in performing academically and answer their questions, but also say ‘here [are some other opportunities],’ our hope and expectation is that some of these students will take advantage of some of those opportunities,” Stricker said. “What I want to do is open up the Honors College, and if there is a sense that I am letting in new people, that is correct.”

Continued opposition

In mid-September senior James Simkins founded the Pitt Honors College in Exile Facebook group as a way of promoting student activism in response to the changes happening in the UHC. He said that reducing book club funding and hiring two new health professions advisers shows a clear emphasis on traditional student achievement rather than intellectual exploration.

“Book clubs are important because they are one [of the] main ways in which individuals who are active in the Honors College come together into a community,” he said.

Simkins was on good terms with Stricker throughout the beginning of Stricker’s position as dean. Stricker spoke with

Simkins about specific UHC policy, and the two voiced their differing visions for the UHC.

But in November of 2011, Simkins decided Stricker did not understand his concerns.

“We had a substantial talk about differences,” Simkins said of that last meeting. “I came out of that conversation convinced that there were not going to be changes.”

Simkins told WPTS radio in late September that he would not recommend Pitt to his younger brother because of the trend he sees.

Stricker has since said that the new SAT requirement will drop back to 1450 for incoming Chancellor’s Scholars next year and has expressed his support for the dissolvement of the SHAC.

Simpkins points to these missteps as examples of Stricker’s lack of vision.

“I don’t think [Stricker] has a broad philosophical plan … I think he never really learned what the old [Honors] College was,” Simkins said.

Simkins started his Facebook page around the same time that the group of students sent their letter. In his group notes section, he raises many of the same concerns described in the letter.

“I started the UHC in Exile because students who believed in Doc’s values needed a way to respond to the changes in the Honors College and mourn the loss of the old Honors College,” Simkins said.

As of publication, his group has online support from more than 27 people.

Visco said that he thinks Simkins’ views are somewhat extreme. However, he also said that while he and others maintain hope, further dialogue might prevent some unwanted change — they are just unclear about how much of an impact they have.

“It’s unclear how our opinions and our advice translate into policy decisions,” Visco said.

According to Visco, Stricker often expresses understanding for the Advisory Board’s concerns but does not act on them.

“I think there is a difference between coming to us rhetorically and coming to us substantively. We haven’t seen any evidence that the rhetorical shift has led to a policy shift.”

Late last month, Zimmerman announced his resignation from the Advisory Board after promotional material for the new G. Alec Stewart Student Achievement Award, an award given annually to four students who take advantage of UHC opportunities, failed to mention intellectual curiosity as a “primary value.”

“As far as I can tell,” Zimmerman said in his resignation letter, “we all agreed that intellectual curiosity ought to be of paramount importance when selecting awardees … Yet, intellectual curiosity goes unmentioned as a primary value in any of the promotional literature about the award. Instead, it is labeled ‘a favorite phrase of Dean Stewart’s.’”

According to Zimmerman, the UHC’s website has since been updated. While he is glad his resignation prompted some action, he said he worries what will happen when there are students who no longer care enough to mention changes they disagree with.

“There is a certain amount of institutional memory that is being lost at a rapid rate,” Zimmerman said. “Two important people are gone [Hilberg and Giazzoni], and soon no one will be left who knew what the old Honors College was.”

But according to Stricker, Pitt is changing, and the UHC must keep pace.

Dr. Lewis Jacobson attended Amherst College in Massachusetts with Stewart and has worked at Pitt since 1967. He said

Stewart based the UHC on the community they had as undergraduates.

“At some level, Alec had a mental model that was built on his own undergraduate experience that was built on his time at a small liberal arts college,” Jacobson said.

Jacobson said that the model was necessary for Pitt when many of its students were commuters and student achievement was lower. But times are different and things change, Jacobson said, and Stewart knew that.

“He was a humble man,” Jacobson said of Stewart. “I don’t think he would ever have left a last will and testament to the UHC. ‘You guys will figure it out,’ that was his attitude.”

Editor’s note: Tom Visco is an Impulse writer for The Pitt News, and his involvement with the story was done before his employment at the paper.