New CGS major focuses on importance of ethics in criminal justice


TPN File Photo

The College of General Studies in Posvar Hall.

By Alaina Goldberg, Staff Writer

Wes Hiers spent summer 2019 researching and analyzing hundreds of law, criminal justice and society programs across the country, in hopes of developing a new major at Pitt.

After looking through 670 programs, Hiers, a sociologist and administration of justice and legal studies professor, ultimately narrowed down the list to 36. After this research, he had enough information to complete his goal and create a new major at Pitt.

Pitt introduced the new College of General Studies major — law, criminal justice and society —  last fall as a combination of legal studies and the administrative justice majors. The University is no longer accepting people into either the legal studies or administrative justice major as of spring 2022, as the new LCJS major encom. The faculty directors for the LCJS major are Hiers and Poppi Ritacco.

Hiers moved into the position of program director for the administration of justice and legal studies program in fall 2018. He was tasked to look at the ADMJ program and see how it could be improved by adding a social science component.

Hiers said there are 72 students — 26 from CGS and 46 from the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences — majoring in LCJS as of the Jan. 14 add/drop deadline. He said there are 91 students who are ADMJ majors and 56 students who are legal studies majors.

Hiers said a weakness he saw in the hundreds of programs that he researched were that they didn’t require students to take diversity or ethics courses.

“Both a diversity and ethics course are required in LCJS,” Hiers said. “We are among 12% of programs in the country that require these courses, and among 8% within the strategic sample of 36 programs. We are particularly proud of that.”

Ritacco is a former practicing attorney hired as coordinator of the LCJS major. She said Pitt’s LCJS major stands out among similar programs at other institutions because of the required ethics in criminal justice courses.

“One of the driving forces behind the idea for the major was that we wanted to create a program that combined the student populations of the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences and the College of General Studies, since the major sits within both schools,” Ritacco said.

Ritacco said while the Dietrich School typically has students with more traditional academic paths of going from high school directly to college, CGS typically includes some students with more non-traditional routes to college that may include multiple gap years before enrolling.

“The students at CGS may have been in the military or have families and needed to take time off to work. They are coming back with a different lived experience on their academic track,” Ritacco said. “It seems particularly advantageous to have these two populations work together in the program. This creates a space for a more diverse student population learning together from each other as much as the instructors.”

Hiers said other requirements for the LCJS major are two writing classes, including an ethics writing intensive capstone, along with a criminology course.

“We wanted to create a major that was more rigorous but did not extend the time added to the degree. LCJS reduces the degree because by taking the required classes for the major, you get 18 courses that count towards the requirements needed to graduate ,” Hiers said. ”There are also a lot of law-oriented courses that the students can take.”

Another driving force for the coursework is incorporating issues of race, class, gender and other issues into the legal system, according to Ritacco.

“It is great to have crossover and people who think one way to think a little differently, this is where ideas come from. You could learn law and regurgitate information, but that is not what we are looking to do,” Ritacco said. “The goal is to create well-formulated thoughts about the intersections between race, class, gender and its importance in the legal system.”

Ritacco said the major is geared toward those with a considerable amount of coursework in law and criminal justice, so this component adds the final layer.

“There is a lot of flexibility in the major. Students can take all the courses required, and still with the elective coursework, they can align themselves with a line of study aimed towards a graduate program, law school, or they can take a more professional track. There is also an optional internship,” Ritacco said. “There are a bunch of different ways to configure your own studies within the major to get where you want to go.”

Abbi Nassivera, a first-year LCJS major, said a leading factor in choosing her major was the variety of classes offered.

“Unlike [administrative justice and legal studies], this new major is not solely focused on administration of justice and criminal justice. There are legal, social and criminal classes available to take, and I think having that option was why I chose it,” Nassivera said.

Nassivera said she wants to work for the FBI or become a criminal investigator. She said the major offers a lot of resources and connections for her future.

“My favorite class that I have had so far in my major was an elective called Criminalistics Lab,” Nassivera said. “We went Downtown to Point Park to solve a simulated crime in a crime house. It got me more interested in investigating and detective work.”

Ritacco said all of the CGS professors are adjuncts who work in the field and teach for the University, which offers a different perspective to bring to a course. The students are getting a mix of perspectives from someone who is out in the field working and teaching.

Nassivera said she thinks having adjunct professors that are in current jobs related to law, criminal justice and society is really important.

“This major has a lot of awesome opportunities for students to get hands-on experience in the criminal, law and social fields. If you are interested in any of those subjects as opposed to just criminal justice, then this would be a great major to explore,” Nassivera said. “Plus, being in Pittsburgh, there are a lot of job and internship opportunities for any of those subjects if you make connections.”

Hiers will teach a data analysis criminal justice course beginning spring 2023 based on the original proposal of the LCJS major to expand its course offerings.

Ritacco said she hopes that the major draws in students because it offers standard academic classes along with practical coursework. She said the students in this major, whether they plan to go to graduate school or not, are on the same path as anyone else is.

“I think that the combination of student populations, along with shared learning and an emphasis on legal, social, and moral issues is a big strength. That is hopefully what is a draw to people,” Ritacco said.