Pitt's Honors College dean at the top of his class
Edward Stricker, dean of the Honors College at the University of Pittsburgh, gives the "state of the honors college" address to students and faculty today.
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Edward Stricker's mother wanted to be a doctor. She graduated first in her high school class and, majoring in math, first in her class at Hunter College as well.
But it was 1934 and she was poor, Jewish and female. Her college degree instead helped her land a job as a cashier at Macy's. And despite a long career that followed as a high school math teacher, she never forgot it.
"My mother died when she was 97," said Mr. Stricker. "When she was 91, she stopped complaining about not being able to go to medical school."
As the new dean of the Honors College at the University of Pittsburgh, Mr. Stricker, 70, works with bright, driven students of the sort that his mother once was. And he can help them realize the dreams that she never could.
Mr. Stricker, who officially became dean in July, will deliver his inaugural "State of the Honors College" address today at 1:30 p.m. in the auditorium of the Frick Fine Arts Building, during which he will present his vision for the Honors College.
His goal is to provide an elite education at a state university, accessible to all students who choose to benefit from it. Pitt's Honors College classes have been open to all students since it was founded 25 years ago by G. Alec Stewart, who died in April 2010. Those with a grade-point average above 3.25 qualify automatically, and others can apply for individual classes.
"I went to the University of Chicago and did my graduate work at Yale," he said. "I have a pretty good idea of what people mean by a first-rate education, and I don't think it should be restricted to half a dozen places."
Any given year, 15 percent to 20 percent of Pitt students take Honors College courses. Pitt's Honors College also has a couple features unique even among Honors Colleges. It confers a Bachelor of Philosophy degree to the 50 or 60 students each year that meet stringent requirements, including an undergraduate thesis defended before a committee.
It also sponsors the Brackenridge Summer Research Fellowships, in which students receive a stipend to conduct research and present their progress to other students on a weekly basis.
Mr. Stricker was the founding dean of Pitt's Department of Neuroscience. He is a leading international expert on homeostatic systems and ran a research laboratory for 41 years continuously funded by federal grants. He also conducted groundbreaking research into how people know that they are thirsty and how neurons repair themselves in a situation similar to Parkinson's disease.
But unlike most neuroscientists, Mr. Stricker didn't enter the field to solve the mysteries of the human brain.
"I always knew that I wanted to be a teacher," said Mr. Stricker, who graduated from college at 19 and received his Ph.D. at 23.
His immigrant grandparents stressed education as the path to good American citizenship. In addition to his mother, his father taught English at night to immigrants after working as a civil servant by day.
Alan Sved, now chairman of the Department of Neuroscience, was Mr. Stricker's first hire after he became chair. He still remembers a question during his job interview: Mr. Stricker asked him whether, if a gun were held to his head and he could only choose teaching or research, which he would choose.
"It was so foreign to me," said Mr. Sved, of the idea that teaching would be just as important as research. "Most neuroscientists are exactly the opposite."
As a professor, Mr. Stricker received the Chancellor's Distinguished Teaching Award and the Bellet Teaching Excellence Award at Pitt.
RatemyProfessors.com, often a dumping ground for petty gripes about professors, is a virtual shrine to Mr. Stricker and his Introduction to Neuroscience class. A sampling of comments over nearly a decade: "Best teacher I have ever had"; "I loved him!!!"; "People come to this school just to take this class."
Junior Matthew Schaff chose to attend Pitt from his home near Philadelphia, in large part based on the strength of its neuroscience department. Though he wanted to be a doctor, he is now a teaching assistant in Mr. Stricker's class, hoping to eventually pursue a Ph.D. in neuroscience.
"Taking his class is a great way to understand what it takes to really know something, to have a complete understanding," he said. "His class made me a better student, a better person, a better critical thinker."
In his new role as dean of the Honors College, he plans to mainly continue on the path set forth by Mr. Stewart, with some new additions. He has already expanded the Brackenridge Summer Research Program to run year-round and planned for 200 additional Honors Dorms beds to be added for upperclassmen. He hopes to implement an awards program to recognize Pitt students that have demonstrated superlative character and leadership.
Three years ago, Mr. Stricker closed his research lab, no longer content to "devote all my waking hours" thinking about his research work.
He didn't plan to embark on a new job, but it when he was encouraged to apply, he said, it wasn't something that he could turn down.
"What I thought I could do as the dean is influence more than what happens in my classroom, what happens in my department," he said. "It's a hell of a platform."
First Published January 11, 2012 12:00 am