Robert E. CookRobert E. Cook, the alumnus whose generous gift of over $10 million helped found the Honors College that bears his name, has a life story that is the American dream come true. Bob Cook grew up in the Western Pennsylvania town of Altoona, where his father, a postal worker, urged him to leave his welding job and go to IUP to better himself, to gain the degree his father never gained, and to do relatively better in life than his father had done.

IUP Mentor Helped Cook See His Potential

Once at IUP, Glen Olsen, a professor, took a personal interest in him and became his mentor, which was a turning point in Bob Cook's life. "I got to know him and his family," Bob said. "He encouraged me and made me believe in myself. Working class kids often tend to live up to other people's too-low expectations rather than living up to their own potential." Drawing from his personal experience, Bob Cook wanted to give something back to the region where he grew up that would give others the same opportunity to grow through their education as he had.

"The Honors College liberal arts curriculum has been proven, over hundreds of years, in the most renowned universities in the world," Bob Cook said. "It works. You will learn how to think, analyze, and understand. No matter what problem or job you encounter, if you learn to think clearly and write clearly, concisely, convincingly, whether in business or academics, you'll exceed everyone's expectations, including your own."

Faculty Challenge Students to Aim Higher, Extend Horizons

from Bob Cook:

"The faculty at IUP challenges the Honors College student, the students challenge the faculty, and a good time is had by all. In fact, learning that learning can be fun, stimulating, and, ultimately, supremely productive is an integral part of what we hope to bestow on our young scholars. One faculty member said to me, These kids learn at warp speed, and it is so much fun to teach them. It's also a lot of work.' I am grateful that they are willing to commit themselves to this effort. All of us know that it is more than worthwhile and that your reward will be to see these young people become more productive, more vital, and more involved in our society than would have been possible without this Honors College experience.

"One of the things the Honors College can do is help young people raise their sights, to aim higher, to achieve the very best that is in them. Our job is not to tell the student how to plan his or her life. Our job is to provide the tools to allow the students to transform the way they think, reason, and react to intellectual stimuli.

"Part of the Honors College learning experience is to extend your personal horizons beyond what you have known. We encourage our students to travel and study in other countries, and we try to arrange those opportunities for them. We arrange internship interviews for summer work in such challenging environments as interest-related companies, the NASDAQ stock market, and working in an inner-city learning environment to test what is possible to achieve and to learn the problems associated with educating inner-city children. There are opportunities to do analysis of different situations that require presentation skills to achieve a desired end."

From Building an International Corporation, to Starting a Winery with His Wife, to Writing a Book

Raising sights, aiming higher, and achieving the very best you can has been the story of Bob Cook's life. After graduating from IUP and serving a tour in Vietnam, Bob worked in the computer industry. Striking out on his own, Bob formed VM Software and built the company into a multimillion dollar international corporation. He sold his company in 1993, when he retired from the software industry.

Today, Bob Cook and his wife, Paula Brooks, live in St. Helena, California. They planted and actively managed the Dancing Hares Winery for years, which produced an estate-bottled wine that was blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot varieties of red wine grapes and was mentioned as "a cult wine to watch" by the San Francisco Chronicle.

Bob Cook has published the first in his series of national security, special operations thrillers, Cooch, short for Alex Cuchulain, his hero. Admiral James Loy, former commandant, US Coast Guard and deputy secretary, US Department of Homeland Security, says "Cooch is the new Jack Ryan! If you've ever worried about the intersection between the wealth of the drug cartels and the ambitions of the transnational terrorists, Bob Cook takes you directly to that place. Novel though it is, Cooch provides dramatic believability as a depiction of high-stakes operations in the post 9/11 security environment we're all still trying to understand."

Delighted at How the Cook Honors College Inspires Students

Even out of his busy schedule, Bob finds time to be active in supporting the Honors College. "I return to IUP in the fall of each year and participate in the learning experience at the Honors College and talk to the students. I am absolutely delighted with what I find. Smart kids are interacting with smart kids and learning almost as much from each other as from the faculty. Whitmyre Hall is alive with intellectual discourse—there is no idea too good to avoid analysis and no idea too wild to be discussed."

"I'd like to see students plan for a wonderful job at 26, not just a job at 21," Bob Cook said. "And that doesn't mean life is just a struggle and hard work either. The game is, ultimately, to be happy and not, as Thoreau said, to lead a life of quiet desperation. One day, the true test of this education, beyond jobs, careers, even happiness is that some who graduate will look back on their lives, as I have, and see what happened here was of fundamental and worthwhile value. Hopefully, IUP will have been a turning point in their lives as it was in mine.

A Candid Interview with Bob Cook

The Thinking and Investment That Went into Creating the Cook Honors College at IUP

What prompted you to invest in the Cook Honors College?

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.

You shaped the CHC curriculum? Can a donor do that? Should a donor do that?

We were a match, an amazing match. 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.

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

At many, perhaps most, top universities, teaching of undergraduates is left to graduate students called Teaching Assistants (TAs), who must teach as part of their quest for an advanced degree. Freshmen and sophomores at even very pricey universities will rarely encounter the faculty members their institutions are so proud of. 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. 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 IUPa teaching faculty.

How concerned should I be with accolades?

One thing that establishes the reputation and even defines a top university like Harvard or Stanford in the eyes of our society is the number of top academic scholarships that its graduates earn. There are Fulbright scholars, 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. 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 Sontag 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.

*This interview is a few years old, so more awards have been given to students in addition to those listed.

So, the curriculum is unique and faculty teach. Are there 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. We dazzle them with hard work. 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.