A Candid Interview with Robert Cook

  • What prompted you to invest in the Cook Honors College? You even let them put your name on it.

    In 1994, I invested in the Honors College because I became convinced that the elite colleges (Ivies, et al.) were no longer teaching, to the detriment of our society, with the methods that caused them to become great. Specifically, the teaching of critical thinking skills; superior communications skills, both oral and written; and the workings of the great minds of Western Civilization as a model for discourse were no longer offered to our brightest youngsters. Both of my children had private college educations. Neither got the quality of education they could have had at the Honors College, at one-tenth the price. Of course, both of my children got the network of contacts that arise from being educated with the nation’s elite and will use that network for the rest of their lives. But one must ask whether the intellectual tools they bring to society as a result of their respective educations are the best that society should demand in an environment of great future influence resulting from that network. I decided that they are not, and that there were bright young people with fewer financial assets who could test whether better educational tools are evident from history.

    It seemed to me that middle-class children no longer were given exposure to good teaching, but rather fed politically correct ideas in a machine that rewarded conformity and rote, rather than thinking and analysis skills. This is even truer at most public universities in the U.S.

    Bob Cook in his home office

    So, you shaped the CHC curriculum? Can a donor do that? Should a donor do that?

    We were a match, an amazing match. I didn’t expect it to happen, and I certainly never told a faculty curriculum committee what I had in mind. The faculty at IUP came up with the philosophy that drives the Honors College on their own. If there hadn’t been such a great fit with mine, I’m not sure I would have supported CHC to the degree that I have. I bought into their model, which seemed an execution of what I hoped for in theory. And it works, provably now. I also became involved in how to effectively teach the inner-city poor, but was far less successful there.

    Would you have fit into the Honors College as a student?

    Hard to say. I didn’t see myself that way back then. I got out of IUP with a 2.2 GPA and had a wonderful time enjoying all of the fabled extras in college life. I certainly had no academic ambitions nor did I want my studies to get in the way of other college experiences that were easier and a lot more fun. But people taught me: IUP’s faculty taught me whether I liked it or not, and they are good. At most top universities, undergraduate students are taught by graduate students who must teach as part of their quest for an advanced degree. At many, perhaps most, top universities, teaching of undergraduates is left to graduate students called Teaching Assistants (TAs). Freshmen and sophomores at even very pricey universities will rarely encounter the faculty members their institutions are so proud of.

    Is it that important that faculty teach 95 percent of undergraduate classes at IUP?

    Advanced education and a dedication to the art, science, and skill of teaching are key to developing the undergraduate mind. Graduate students know little about teaching—yesterday they were students! At IUP you are taught by professionals who teach for a living with no other agenda, and they love to do it; that is why they came to IUP with their advanced degrees already completed. That is a huge deal. You will enjoy that benefit for the rest of your life—I did.

    Look at the numbers. By the measures by which the top universities judge their performance, IUP’s professors are doing just fine in producing students who can compete for top honors. But we are doing even better at producing thinking adults who can contribute greatly to society, whether in the arts, in science, in the humanities, or elsewhere. Our graduates get offers to study with the top graduate programs in the world, often without cost to them; but of course they have to teach undergraduates. It is only then that they will appreciate the secret sauce of IUP—a teaching faculty.

    How concerned should we be with this sort of accolade?

    One thing that establishes the reputation and even defines a top university like Harvard or Stanford, or even Penn State and Virginia, in the eyes of our society is the number of top academic scholarships that its graduates earn. That number has proven a broadly reliable measure of how well graduates contribute to society later in life. At the top of that academic scholarship prestige list is the Rhodes scholarship: President Clinton was a Rhodes Scholar, as is Bill Bradley, the former Senator. A little down the prestige list are Fulbright Scholars: Dr. Janet Goebel, the Director of IUP’s Honors College is a Fulbright Scholar, and a superstar. There are Marshalls, Goldwaters, and so on. In the past ten years we have earned thirty-eight top scholarships, including a Rhodes finalist, a Marshall finalist, two Truman finalists, a Pickering fellow, a Goldwater for five out of seven years, and eight Fulbright scholarships, among others. For such a small program that only graduated its first class in 2000, this is an extraordinary record.

    As an example of just how good IUP looks to others right now, consider the Goldwater award. The Goldwater is broadly viewed as the most prestigious scholarship in science awarded to an undergraduate. Each year, a Goldwater scholarship is awarded to 200 undergraduates in the United States, out of 7 million students enrolled in four-year university programs. The award of a Goldwater is made to fewer than one-hundredth of one percent of one percent of that 7 million student population. IUP students have been awarded a Goldwater four out of five years.

    Our science majors spend four semesters being taught to be critical thinkers and superior oral and written communicators. They are forced to argue morality with St. Thomas Aquinas and feminism with Susan Sonntag and are told which side of the argument to take, then later told to argue the other side in yet another paper. After four semesters of a curriculum like that, designed and taught by an IUP faculty that lives to teach, they go to work on their major as well prepared as any in the country. It is no surprise that they continue to excel at math, biology, chemistry, and other sciences. But top 200, four of five years? That is a big deal.

    So the curriculum is unique and faculty teach. Any other features that you find critical?

    Boldly stated, the Cook Honors College at IUP is the finest academic institution in the country for teaching students who can’t afford $50,000+ per year or who don’t want to spend the rest of their lives paying off student loans. There are no Ferraris in our student parking lot.

    People at IUP know how to work, and work hard. Our students routinely have summer jobs, part-time jobs, tutoring jobs, whatever it takes to keep going. That is so intimidating for so many rich kids. If we can’t baffle them with BS, we dazzle them with hard work, or maybe a wee bit of both. We can work others to a frazzle as they try to keep up, because we know how. That is the second part of IUP’s secret sauce. We are workers. Bosses value hard work. And, in my experience, the harder one works, the luckier he or she becomes.

    No other school in the country does what CHC does, as well as it does, for so little money. We do it very well. That is helping our reputation as a source of smart workers and thinkers, across the board. That reputation will make it easier for our alumni to get a job, and then a better one. Having CHC stamped on your class ring is becoming a big asset, and it will become bigger.