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On Aug. 1, The Pitt News spoke with Audrey Murrell, who was named the acting dean of Pitt’s Honors College in June following Brian Primack’s departure. She had previously served for six years as the associate dean at Pitt’s College of Business Administration. Murrell discussed changes made to the Honors College program as well as her goals for the next year and beyond. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
The Pitt News: Can you describe what some of your largest accomplishments were while you were still at CBA?
Audrey Murrell: So one of the things that I was able to do was to expand the academic portfolio in response to where potential opportunities were for students. So we added, actually, a business-specific honors program. We added a number of certificate programs, like a certificate in innovation and entrepreneurship, that we partnered together with the School of Engineering. We added a portfolio of accelerated programs, where you could do the undergraduate program in three years and complete a master’s degree, for example, in the business school, in an additional year, or the master’s of accounting in an additional year, for students who particularly came in with Advanced Placement credits that were able to do that. And that was a strong recruitment tool. One of the things that I’m most proud of is we expanded the international portfolio offering for business students, so we had 48% of the business students who, by the time I left, had some international experience. That is significantly higher than the national average. Twenty-five percent had done international internships, the national average is 1%. And we provided significant scholarship funding to make sure that people who needed gap funding to be able to do study abroad had it, so 100% of students who qualified received some funding from us. And then the other thing is we really expanded the portfolio of career and professional development opportunities for students. The undergraduate program has its own office of career development, so, we put in a partners program where students could engage with recruiters and corporate partners from day one. So our freshmen go to on-site visits on the first week on campus, so that they can really have the destination in mind and really work together to make sure they’re really getting a good fit with what they would like to do as their first destination after graduation. And this was all part of an overall strategy that I put in place, that we would tell students and our partners that we take our students from the classroom, to the city, to the world. And so that strategy helped to lift us to be a top 25 nationally ranked undergraduate business program, that for the past two years was rated number one in academic advising.
TPN: And then can you describe what some of the biggest challenges were while you were at CBA?
AM: I think that the challenges were that it’s very competitive, in terms of attracting the top and the most engaged students as an undergraduate business program — they have a lot of choices. And so one of the challenges was to make the undergraduate business program distinctive and to clearly communicate the value of what it means to come and study at Pitt Business. That was one of the clear challenges that we did well at addressing. In that national ranking, we did better than all of our competitors. So when we look at which schools students look at when they have a choice of Pitt versus who else, we, in the last ranking, out-ranked all of the ones in that decision set for students. So that was one of the big challenges. I think the other challenge was to make sure we offered value-added programming. We were very conscious of the cost of higher education, and so one of the things we made sure we did was to put in place robust academic advising, to make sure students think on-target for graduation. Because when you don’t graduate on time, every semester, every year adds additional cost, and so we had a very, very high freshmen retention rate last year — it was 97%. And if you originate within the business school, so taking out transfer students, but if you freshmen-originate, the standard, with six years, our graduation rate was 100%. It was about 85% if you look at four-year graduation rate. If you look at the national average, that’s extraordinary. And so those were two challenges. Making sure we provide a wide variety of opportunities to students, on-task to graduate on time, to help to make sure we’re not contributing unnecessarily to the cost burden. And the other challenge was just to make the undergraduate business program at Pitt stand out, so that it was clear to prospective students and their parents why Pitt Business.
TPN: That’s actually pretty crazy that the graduation rate is 100%.
AM: If you freshmen-originated. If you’re a transfer, it took longer because you transfer in and take such different courses and things like that. But that was our six-year graduation rate.
TPN: And then — starting to move more towards the Honors College stuff — are you going to be keeping certain jobs at CBA while you’re part of the Honors College? Can you go over how you’re going to balance your time?
AM: I’m 100% within the Honors College. [CBA] has an interim associate dean that is in place, his name is Anthony Rodi. He is terrific, he’s a business information management faculty member. And they have launched a national search to find the next associate dean, so I’m 100% full-time within this role as the dean of the Honors College.
TPN: Can you go over how you got from CBA to the Honors College? Were you approached for a position, or did you ask to move to the Honors College?
AM: Provost Cudd reached out to me. She’d been aware of a lot of the successes that we’ve had within the undergraduate business program. We sat down and had a conversation about some of the great work that Brian Primack had done before he accepted the offer to go to the University of Arkansas, and discussed the synergy between the direction and the vision that they had for Pitt Honors and what she thought that I could contribute. I talked to her about some of the reactions and thoughts that I had, and I think we really got on the same page about what we could do to support honors students at Pitt, and since the Honors College is just such an extraordinary unit within the University, it was hard to say no.
TPN: And then can you over what your first thoughts were on day one, [which direction] you wanted to start to take things?
AM: Well, I think on day one, and it’s true whenever you start a new position, you first have to adjust, start to be a really fast learner. The Pitt Honors staff have been really terrific and supportive of helping me to understand the details and what has been accomplished to date, especially as the Honors College moves into this new model. I’ve been trying to be a super-fast learner to really get up to speed on the things that they’ve accomplished, and then we’re working together to set some key priorities for this academic year, working out what the calendar of activities are going to be, the plans that we have for student engagement — both in terms of research, community service and global experience. And so I think that we have put together a really solid and very impressive set of opportunities for students coming in this academic year.
TPN: Are you able to go into more detail about some of those opportunities?
AM: So I think that one of the things we are looking at is really raising the visibility of the global opportunities that are the best fit for our honors students. That’ll be in some revised materials on the website that we are working on. There’s a really nice portfolio that we have in partnership with Pitt Study Abroad that is a really good fit for honors students. Programs such as TeamBridge and some of the really specialized intensive study. We’re also going to be working on some short-term programs that students can do right after the end of the academic year, so that if you want to have a global experience but you don’t want to stay and do a semester at, say, Pitt in London, for example, there will be some short-term opportunities for you to take advantage of. And so we’ll be working to plan what those are. The Honors College used to have a global research program that was very popular years ago, and so the staff and I are working to bring that back, so that the research opportunities — which honors students have really taken advantage of locally — can be extended globally. And then the last thing is that we are going to really strengthen what we are doing, not just in terms of community service, but in community-based research, and to ensure that students understand that there are a lot of different ways that scholarship can be expressed, and community-based research is one of those valuable outlets. I think that the opportunities that we’ve always been doing — the preparation for national scholarships, the different types of fellowships that are opportunities for students, like the Brackenridge experience — all of those are staying. But we’re going to be adding to that portfolio some global opportunities, some global research opportunities and some very specific ways that students can connect within the new Honors College model.
TPN: And, just to spend some time talking about the model. It is moving from this more open model to what [could be referred to as] a “card-carrying” type thing where you’re “in the Honors College.” Can we start off with the existing students — the rising sophomores, juniors and seniors — can you go over how the model change will affect them? Are they already grandfathered in?
AM: I want to correct one thing. I know there’s this perception out there that a membership model is an exclusionary sort of thing, that you’re “in” or “out” of the Honors College, and that’s a change from the history. I spent a lot of time — Alec Stewart was a dear mentor of mine — and I absolutely agree with his vision of the Honors College that it should be accessible widely across the Pitt student population. I want people to think of this as there are different ways to engage with the Honors College, and different levels of engagement, depending on what you would like. For example, the Bachelor of Philosophy, or the B-Phil, is still in place. If what you want is a research-focused experience, then at the higher level, you can do that and you don’t need to be admitted to the new Honors College program to do a B-Phil, that’s still in place. Unit- or major-specific honors programs, for example, the School of Nursing, the School of Business, a number of departments within the [Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences], have honors programs, and they have courses that are co-sponsored by the Honors College, where students can take those courses, that’s still going to be in place. What the new model does, is it makes it clearer to students that there is some destination, there is some logic and coherence to having a program in the Honors College, such that when they graduate, they actually have a tangible credential that shows that they completed a very specific and purposefully designed academic experience that enhances what they’re already doing within their primary affiliation of school, whether that be engineering, or Arts & Sciences, or business, or nursing, et cetera. And so what the new Honors College option does, like at so many other schools, to be admitted into a program. And that admission has two-fold, strong academic background and your response as prospective students to two essays which really talk about how you look at, not only your goals and aspirations academically, but what you want to do to have an impact on the public good. Because it’s a combination of those two things that we’re looking for well-rounded students. And then you’re accepted into the Honors College program. And so I wouldn’t say it’s a membership card, it’s a defined program that you get accepted into, where there’ll be 24 credits you have to complete — and there’s a range of different courses that someone can pick to complete them. As well as some required hands-on elements, which could be fulfilled by study abroad, or an independent study, or a co-op, or a targeted internship — it really depends on what the student is doing primarily. And, at the end, you will receive a credential to the degree — so, you will receive the regular diploma, but it will be “with honors.” And, so, what it does, the new option for engagement, is it doesn’t replace the other ways that students can engage with the Honors College — you can still apply for one of our community-based fellowships, one of the Brackenridge research fellowships, the whole portfolio of opportunities — and not be in the Honors College program. You can do the B-Phil and not be part of the Honors College program. You can attend events and engage with the Honors College and not be part of the program. But if you want an enhanced experience — where there is a clear pathway and a destination to graduate from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree with honors distinction — we now have a program, a deliberate and intentional program for students who want that, because other schools that they’re looking at have that, and Pitt doesn’t. So it honestly makes us more competitive, not more exclusive. […] I don’t want people to think that if you’re not in the program, you can’t engage with the Honors College. That’s absolutely not true. We have a whole portfolio of ways for students to imagine themselves as part of the UHC, at a course level, at a project level, at a global experience level. The other thing that we say in the Honors College is that, “we cross boundaries,” be they disciplinary boundaries, or geographic boundaries, or thought boundaries. And if we don’t have it, and it’s a good idea, we’ll help you create it.
TPN: Yeah, that makes sense. [We] had done an interview with the provost a few weeks ago, and we had talked briefly about the membership model, and what that changes and what that doesn’t change. And that was one thing [we] wanted to clear up with you today, how that affects students and stuff. And are current students at Pitt — the rising sophomores, juniors and seniors — are they able to apply to that program for the 24 credits to get the credential? Or is that only for new freshman?
AM: We have in place criteria for internal and external transfers into the Honors College program. That’s how I want people to talk about it — that there’s an actual program, because, from my perspective, if you engage with us in a project or a community service activity or a course, you are a member of the Honors College. But in addition to that, you can be part of the Honors College program.
TPN: Ok, got it. It seems like there are these tiers of engagement, where you can do the B-Phil and stuff, and that’s on the lower end, and then on the highest end is being part of the Honors College program with the 24 credits.
AM: Right. And some people see the B-Phil as very intensive. It takes a lot of work to get that Bachelor’s of Philosophy degree. And I would see them not as a hierarchy, but as a menu of options, and the value is based on what is the best fit for what you want as your destination. I wouldn’t put them as a hierarchy, I would put them as a whole bunch of options. You have option A for engagement, could be to do a Brackenridge and to engage in that way. Option number two could be for you to work with us to help you prepare to compete for one of the national scholarships — which you don’t have to be in the Honors College program to be able to do. Option C could be the program. Option D could be a B-Phil. I want people to see them as a whole array of options, not as one is higher than the other. That’s not how we look at it.
TPN: This new model and the new program and stuff is still new. So that’s one of the points of this, is to try and explain to students the way that this changes, or keeps things the same. Like the fact that the B-Phil is still open to everyone, you don’t have to be part of this program, that kind of stuff, to be able to do that. That’s important stuff for people to know.
AM: Absolutely. And part of the reason for doing this is feedback from students — that they felt this when they were looking at different options, that it wasn’t clear what they were seeing, as a function of engaging and taking a lot of courses. There was no credential that was given to them upon graduation that demonstrated they had taken a program of courses and experiences within the Honors College. It’s important to note in your article that the reason for doing this was the response from students, particular prospective students, some of which didn’t choose Pitt because they wanted a more defined Honors College experience, that they could walk away and say they received a degree with honors.
TPN: Well, for why the change was made, one thing that I had also heard from the provost was that now, because Pitt is changing the model to include this program, that means that the Honors College is now rankable with other honors colleges. That was also one reason that I heard for why this change was made.
AM: That’s actually a benefit. But I want to be clear that this is something that the provost and I are on the same page about — it makes Pitt more competitive. If you’re a student and you’re being recruited by five other schools that have an honors college program, and Pitt does not, it puts us at a competitive disadvantage for students who are looking for that type of focused, organized experience. An additional tremendous benefit is the fact that it now allows us to be evaluated against those programs. So there’s a clear way that people can look at what is the value of an amazing Pitt Honors experience, relative to our peers. And right now we don’t have that.
TPN: Ok, got it. And then for the new students, in order to be part of the program, you have to live within the honors housing? Is that correct?
AM: In the first run of this, we asked students to be part of the Sutherland community. And some students opted into that, other students didn’t, for a variety of reasons, and so starting this next time, we’re going to make it a priority for students to be in honors housing. But if students would like to live, for example, in the first-year engineering residence or freshman business residence, the Honors College program will allow that moving forward. That still has to be finalized, but I think what we want to do is … we are actually going to maintain the priority for honors students to live together in a community. That will continue.
TPN: Ok. [We’ve] heard from some RAs that are going to be in Sutherland [is] that it’ smoving to the eight-floor wing, the honors housing. Can you go over what there was [that led to] that downsizing where you lose two floors?
AM: One of the things you always want to do when you’re doing something new is you want to test it out and make sure all of your assumptions are correct. We set the target for a slightly smaller group, instead of 400 or 500, the new incoming class is a little over 300. And so that meant we could move to a smaller footprint within the Sutherland complex for this year, to be able to make sure we kept the same close honors programming and community available. So that was really just a logistic thing, there was no other main reason. But moving forward, we’ll start to gradually increase the number of students that are getting accommodated in the new model, but since it’s a new model, we set the target to be reasonable, but we wanted to make sure we executed well during this first year. There was no other reason, there isn’t any advantage or disadvantage, it was just a matter of size and capacity.
TPN: OK, so that was kind of the program, membership model type stuff. I also want to talk a little bit about the thought model of the Honors College. Because it’s varied over the years between “honors” in terms of the debate you have, in terms of, more of the arts type of debate, that the Honors College was founded upon. And then there’s also “honors” in the sense of hardcore, STEM, “we’re focused on the technical side of things.” Can you go over where you think the Honors College is now and where’d you like to move to?
AM: Let me just say this one thing — the Honors College is the University Honors College — and so all disciplines, all majors, all perspectives, all areas of scholarship, are both welcomed and valued within the University Honors College. And I want to say that absolutely it’s true, in terms of my priority as dean, and I am absolutely on the same page with Provost Cudd in that regard. All aspects of scholarship are valued here, be they scholarship that would occur in the humanities, or within health sciences, lab research, field research, community research. It is a value here on scholarship, and particularly a value on scholarship that is interdisciplinary in nature. Over the past two years, particularly, I think that Dean Primack did a really good job at raising the visibility of programs and opportunities that exist in the Honors College, but that may not have been as prominent, in terms of their visibility, in the past. We have a full-time staff member that’s devoted to community engagement and we have fellowship opportunities for students to engage in community-based research. That’s not new, that’s been there, but the visibility of it has been raised. Our publications and other fellowships for students who are on the creative side. There are those in the health sciences side. There really is a broad portfolio of opportunities. One of things that the person in charge of marketing and I are working a lot together on is raising the visibility of other opportunities. Because I think part of it is that they were already there, but there wasn’t the level of awareness, because you’ve seen people who won national awards and other things tied to their ability, and there’s just this function that there isn’t support for students who are interested in global research, or interested in doing things in a study away or anthropology or sustainability or environmental issues. And I can point to students who have done Brackenridge, who have done B-Phil, across the years — and we cover the campus. And so we’re going to do better at telling that story so that students know that if you want to do research, if you have a project in mind, if you want to look at things from an interdisciplinary perspective — that those are welcome, and they’re valued, and they’ll be supported in the University Honors College. Am I answering your question?
TPN: Like most of the way there. For an example, one thing people that used to say used to happen in the Honors College going back several years ago [based on this 2012 Pitt News article], during the [Edward] Stricker era — so this is pre-Primack, this is during Stricker’s time — was that people would have these pop-up conversations about all sorts of different topics in the Honors College, and that that was something they wanted to have happen there, that the deans would advance, and say, hey, come here and talk about all of these different topics, and think about all of these different problems in lots of different ways, come up and have conversations in our space. And those have kind of tapered off over the years, that’s just an example of something where you’re not focused in so much as of the nuts and bolts, but just having these debates, just talking openly. Is that something you’d like to see come back?
AM: I can’t speak to exactly what you’re giving because I’m not familiar with it. So I don’t want to weigh in on that because I wasn’t here, and I was at the University. And, actually, what’s interesting about it is that there’s that perception of Dean Stricker. But the business program didn’t have a business-specific honors program, and I came aboard as associate dean at the same that Dean Stricker came onboard as the Honors College dean, and it was actually his support, and, together, he helped us put in place a business-specific honors program. It’s ironic that sometimes perceptions are real, but they don’t give you the whole story. And so that’s very interesting. I don’t want to use the word debate, because I’m not exactly sure how you mean that, but the Honors College has always been, and it will continue to be, a place where ideas and dialogue and collaboration are welcome. I think we have had those — we have a community cafe where students can come and they can engage with community leaders around the interface between research and scholarship and what is really impacting the community. There are movie nights which are more informal conversation, for people to talk and to relate. There will be regular conversations with me as dean, where you can come and sit and engage and chat about topics. We’ll be bringing in some visiting experts where you can come and have a conversation. I think there will be a lot of opportunities. I don’t know the specific issue that you’re talking about, all I can say is that from my experience, it’s always been a place where ideas and collaboration and crossing boundaries and dialogue are welcome. Dialogue is welcome here.
TPN: Ok, gotcha. The open dialogue is what I was trying to hit on.
AM: Oh, yes, absolutely. That is absolutely going to be the case.
TPN: Just to zoom out, you haven’t been at the Honors College for a super long time yet, but looking at longer-term priorities, where do you want to take the Honors College?
AM: Well I think the first priority this year is to fully implement the new option for students to be part of an Honors College program. We’re going to fully implement that with all of the details and execution the staff and I have been working very hard on over the summer, to make sure that all of the opportunities and the calendar of opportunities of the new program are in place. The second priority is to expand the global portfolio of opportunities for honors programs, and to make some signature and specific offerings for honors students available and to pull some resources together for students who want to engage globally. That’s a huge priority for me. The third one is for people to provide opportunities and resources for students to engage in different types of research, particularly those which cross disciplinary boundaries. To try to create some interdisciplinary teams of students and faculty who share a common interest, but might come from different disciplinary perspectives, to be able to work together in that space. I have been personally doing a lot of work and research in the area of sustainable food systems and what that means for economic, community development, health and wellbeing of individuals and communities. One of my first things that I’m going to do is to take that work and invite some students and some of our faculty fellows and some local expertise to come and have some conversations with me about some what projects and research and collaborations around that space could be created. We’re going to be starting those conversations in the fall around sustainable food systems and what that looks like. There are a lot of people — we have a lot of expertise at the University of Pittsburgh — in a number of disciplines, in that regard. I think it would be very exciting to have an interdisciplinary conversation about the power of food, both from a food standpoint, from an economic development standpoint, a community development standpoint, from a social justice standpoint. I want to invite some people to come and have a conversation with me and start this interdisciplinary dialogue, and build these cross-disciplinary communities. Those are the priorities.
TPN: To change gears, do you want to permanently move to the Honors College? When I talked to the provost a few months ago, she said the acting dean would only last two years.
AM: Let me get through year one. I’m not going to answer that — it’s not my call. The provost and I agreed that we wanted to keep momentum going in the Honors College, and Dean Primack did a really great job at looking at what was going on in the space of Honors College programs and making some additions to the program that would make the University of Pittsburgh more competitive. Right now, I’m really just focused on having a successful first year with this additional program option. I don’t want to look too far down the road, I want to make sure I keep all of us focused so that we deliver an impactful experience for this group of students who are joining the Pitt campus in the fall.
TPN: So those were all of the things I had to ask about. I’m not sure if there’s anything else that you wanted to throw in here, while I’ve got you here.
AM: I think one of the key things that I really would like the students to know is that the Honors College is a place that values all different types of scholarship, and dialogue around ideas, particularly ideas that can be put into action and have impact. And so if there’s some way that you’d like to engage with the Honors College, we have something in the portfolio for you. Whether or not it’s the full program, or getting the research B-Phil degree, or doing a Brackenridge experience, or engaging with us on the various projects we’ll do, there is a space, there’s an opportunity for you within the Honors College. Come by and see us.
TPN: Perfect, thank you so much.