Dean Keen's Scene

Welcome to Dean Keen's Scene!

Message to Students, Jan 2017

Dear Honors College Students,

Welcome to the start of a new semester! A warm welcome back to returning students, and a special welcome to new students joining us this semester—I hope you love it here!

Spring semester has always felt like a time of optimism. There’s the sense of progress that comes from the academic year being half over, then the expectation of spring, and the sense of satisfaction that comes from completing projects and making plans for the future. I wish you an abundance of the energy and optimism that comes from the combination of progress and newness that the start of spring semester represents.

It’s a great pleasure to welcome the newest member of the Honors College here in Burnham Hall. José Melendez (in 110 BH) joins us as the newest postdoctoral fellow in teaching and mentoring, who will help coordinate the Chicago Signature Honors Program as well as teaching and advising. Dr. Melendez is a new PhD in the learning sciences with a concentration in urban planning and policy, who brings a wealth of experience and new ideas, and we are very glad to have him on our team.

The Honors College is a special place. Friendly and filled with energy and talent, it’s people discovering new things to explore and doing worthwhile (and fun!) things together. It’s a place where people are mutually supportive, whether that’s forming study groups so that everyone does well in a course or coming together in solidarity after a disturbing event.

These terms obviously don’t describe courses and facilities: they’re about you, because you, the students, ARE the Honors College. The courses and facilities are UIC’s way of making sure you get the best education possible, with us on the staff as your guides and mentors. Representing the Honors College, you display UIC at its best. And you make all of us proud to work here.

As your dean, I have the easiest job on campus because there are just two parts to it. The first is recognizing how incredibly talented you all are—and you keep me aware of that every single day. The second is making sure you get the full benefit of being at UIC: and our dedicated faculty and staff work together to carry that out. Being able to see what you accomplish as Honors College students makes this also the most satisfying job on campus.

I hope you had an enjoyable break and are glad to be back. All of us here in Burnham Hall wish you a fantastic start to 2017 and to the new semester!


Ralph Keen

Convocation, Dec 2016

Honors College graduates: Congratulations! Your hard work has paid off, and you are ready to embark on the next stage of your lives fully prepared for what lies ahead and ready, I hope, for any challenge. Everyone on this platform shares my admiration for everything each of you has accomplished.

At this point, however, I want to thank you, thank you for being part of what we do here at UIC. This university, and the Honors College in particular, represent a radically bold project in American higher education, matching the most talented students with our most active researchers and converting you from recipients to producers of knowledge that benefits others. At some point, whether you were aware of it or not, at some point you began to do something that only you could do, and in doing it learned something that no one else in the world knew. Whether in lab, library or studio, you created something uniquely your own to add to the cumulative deposit of work that we call civilization.

Universities like ours, research universities, have a dual role in society. Like libraries and museums, we are custodians of all that has gone before; and, like curators, we preserve and interpret for this era what was produced in earlier ones. Nothing is excluded; and our job as custodians is to treat it fairly, whether our subject provides examples of the best that humanity has accomplished or includes episodes that serve as warnings to later generations. But in addition to the work of preserving and transmitting, which is the common task of all educational institutions, universities like UIC are involved in the production of new information, in the hope that it will help solve some of the world’s problems, whether that is disease, social injustice, or ignorance; and locally, nationally, or globally. The point at which you began to do your own original work was the point when you joined our enterprise as partners in the work that makes UIC a research university.

American public higher education is an audacious experiment in the long project that is our common democratic history. In the waves of Westward migration and European immigration, visionary educators recognized that our national ideals of equality and freedom would be endangered without the opportunities for talented men and women, whatever their background, to receive a college education. At public expense, because this education was a public good, the great state universities came into being at the same time that the American university generally became a place of advanced research for the benefit of humanity. We may be wearing garb that imitates that of medieval churchmen, but we practice the work ethic of the 19th century Age of Industry.

It was during this period that the great city universities came into being. Built to accommodate the growing urban populations of the Northeast, these institutions raised the bold experiment to a higher level by educating Americans of every background, language, and culture: in the process providing the 20th century with intellectuals and scientists whose mark on our history is incalculable. As a successor of these universities, UIC is an active participant in the audacious project of putting today’s best scientific and scholarly minds in contact with those who will be leaders in their fields in the coming decades.

When thinking of the principles that shape this ideal for higher education, and of UIC, I often think of my grandfather, the son of a village blacksmith in rural Pennsylvania. He wanted to be a doctor at a time when most medical schools thought that a Pennsylvania Dutch blacksmith’s son should be, well, a blacksmith. But he persevered at a school that, like UIC, considered academic merit the only thing that counted, and went on to have a long and satisfying professional life in a humble role as an attending physician at a charity hospital in Philadelphia: a life of service to others.

The Honors College is a bold experiment within this national project of making sure that the ablest students receive the best educations. What we do can be described in terms similar to those you’re familiar with from the research projects you’ve recently completed. First, the question: What happens when you weave cutting-edge research into the undergraduate program? Then, the plan: recruit students carefully, prepare thoroughly, advise diligently, (feed occasionally!), and tell them to do the best they can do. (That part’s not necessary because it’s in your nature.) Remind the mentors from time to time that they’re teaching some of the best students in the country, as evidenced by their significant national awards. Monitor carefully for four years. The result: you. I can’t imagine a more successful experiment, or one that is more beneficial for our country.

Graduates, all of us in the Honors College are so proud of you! In all you do you go above and beyond, and we know that you will continue to do exactly that in the years ahead, no matter what career path lies ahead of you. You are joining an extended network of alumni, who now welcome you as friends. But I hope that, wherever you are, you’ll think of Burnham Hall as home. Once again, Congratulations!

New Student Reception, Aug 2016

What an extraordinary group! You are a credit to your families, your schools, your communities; and now you are part of what makes UIC the university that it is. As the newest members of the Honors College, you represent UIC at its best: academically serious, engaged, and committed. There is no question that you are up to the challenge of working at the high level for which Honors College students are known: you have been chosen because of your record, your involvement, and the honors you’ve received. All of us in the Honors College are proud of the fact that you, in turn, have chosen us. Making sure you get the best education possible is a responsibility we take seriously, because it’s a privilege to serve Honors College students.

As you reflect on your accomplishments and enjoy the good wishes of your families, realize that tomorrow it all re-sets to zero, and you begin to build your record of achievements as Honors College students at UIC. The habits you brought with you will help you to succeed, and your interests in activities will translate into involvement here. But your courses, classmates, instructors, buildings, and where you eat will all be new. As well-prepared as you are, you’re starting afresh here. Until the middle of December your official GPA is 0.0.

What doesn’t re-set is the drive you bring with you. There is something within each of you that pushes you to achieve—beyond the average, beyond the requirements, beyond expectations. You’re the students who visit faculty during office hours, who consider extra work a fun challenge rather than something to be avoided, who find out what your classmates are working on and think up projects to do together—like the electricity-free refrigerator that three Honors College students invented last year. Now medicine can be stored in regions where it previously couldn’t. And some Honors College students did something that others thought couldn’t be done.

This drive is your strongest asset, and during your four years here you will find ways to channel it, both for your own success and for the benefit of others. During this time you’ll find subjects that interest you, research that energizes you, and things that you’ll feel you were meant to do. During this time you’ll have opportunities to compete, not just against your peers here, but nationally, for some of the most distinguished awards and scholarships available. Honors College students receive 90% of UIC’s awards in these competitions, and we do so in numbers that match the total enrollments of larger universities. Fulbright, Truman, Goldwater and Gilman may just be names now, but over time you’ll become familiar with requirements and deadlines, and comfortable asking for recommendations, and able to put rejection, when it happens, in context.

In the Honors College, your success is the product of a partnership with our staff and faculty, with all the support necessary to help you stand out as a leader among your peers. This support takes the form of your advisors, your Honors Faculty Fellows, your research supervisors who’ll guide you and write recommendations, and an office on campus entirely dedicated to making sure you have strong applications for those Fulbright and Truman and Goldwater and Gilman scholarships I just mentioned. Some of this support will also come from your peers, who rejoice in each other’s success instead of grumbling over their own misses. The unquantifiable spirit that defines the Honors College is a sense of camaraderie, of being part of a team in which each member plays a special role for the sake of the common good. The only measure of the success of the Honors College is the record of its students’ achievements. Being part of a group of peers who want the best for each other brings out the best in each one.

UIC is special for a lot of reasons, but let me mention the sense of community. As a university we are inclusive by nature and dedicated to the greater good. You’ll see this in faculty serving in public agencies, researchers investigating social problems, students giving back. Last year an Honors College student started a bicycle club that wasn’t your typical cycling club: they delivered 500 pounds of food to shelters every semester. And then there was the group of Honors College biology majors who wanted to do after-school tutoring in math and science in CPS schools. This year, working out of the College of Education, there are going to be hundreds doing that. This is all evidence of a spirit of community in which people get together and plan something fun that also benefits others.

I hope you feel that you’re part of a remarkable institution, one of only a handful of urban-serving public research universities. UIC continues a tradition that goes back 150 years with the great city colleges and universities in New York, Philadelphia, and elsewhere, educating generations of Americans and making good on the promise that brought our families to these shores in the first place. It’s universities like UIC and its peers in the other great cities that keep that promise alive and preserve one of the values that have shaped this country: equality of access to the best education available. As an inclusive meritocracy, UIC embodies the values that define us and hold us together.

Be quietly proud of your abilities and accomplishments, but be aware also that you’re now part of an institution that stands out as a model university for the 21st century. This is a world that needs dedicated leaders, and professionals, and citizens. It’s a world that’s going to need you. Thank you for entrusting us with the task of preparing you for it. Families, thank you for supporting these students and sharing them with us. Colleagues, thank you for honoring our profession with your efforts. Honors College 2020: Welcome! Best wishes to all!

Freshman Retreat, Aug 2016

I’m delighted to welcome you to our city, our campus, and our college. You are by any measure one of the most qualified entering classes in recent memory. 47 of you have ACTs of 34-36, 30% of you have GPAs of 3.9 or higher (unweighted!), the vast majority of you have taken AP exams, demonstrating that you’ve already done college-level work. 37% of you ranked in the top 5% of your class, 66% in the top 10%. I could go on, but the bottom line is that you’re an extraordinary group, and any university in the country would love to have an entering class like you. All of us are thrilled that you’ve chosen us as your college, and we want YOU to be glad that you’re here.

UIC is different. You see this in the architecture, of course, and in the energy that comes from being smack-dab in the middle of an amazing city. You’ll see it in our attitude to work: we take it seriously because we consider it important. Being at a research university means being inside the factory, with nothing standing between you and those who are educating the world by generating new knowledge, creating new designs in art and engineering, advancing science and medicine. As members of the Honors College, you’ll have the chance to work one-on-one with these faculty, and have the satisfaction of adding something to the world’s deposit of knowledge and culture. You’re also going to have the chance to get involved: join a group, start a group, give back, pay forward. A community is defined by what it does. The Honors College is an active force for good, on campus and beyond.

I’m starting my 7th year as a faculty member here at UIC, and to say that I enjoy being part of this university is putting it mildly. This is a remarkable institution in its combination of academic strength, inclusiveness, and dedication to the betterment of the larger world. It’s a university that I’m proud to be a part of, and I want you to have that pride also. A lot of us think of UIC as a microcosm of the region, really of the nation: we’re governed by values like inclusiveness, equality of opportunity for success, the importance of service. The Honors College is a concentrated sample of that microcosm, the best ideals of American higher education in their fullest form.

Now, some advice: First, keep an open mind. The majority of you have goals and plans, and we’re here to help you achieve them. But don’t let them narrow your horizon so much that you don’t explore; and don’t rule out changing those plans if you find yourself drawn to something completely different. I started out as a pre-law, took ancient Greek because it might be fun, then became a classics major and eventually an academic. I haven’t once wondered what my life would have been like if I’d become a lawyer, but there isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not grateful to be doing a job that I love.

Second: Don’t just train for a career. (This follows from what I just said.) You’re going to change jobs, maybe careers, several times, and the most valuable skill is going to be adaptability and quickness of mind. Those won’t come if you mistake a college education for an apprenticeship in a single discipline. At UIC you can explore: and we want you to do exactly that. Music, Latin American studies, early-modern European religious history (that’s my field!)—all of this is yours, and we want you to partake of it. A complete education prepares you to be a well-rounded, productive member of society, and we will have failed as an institution if 10 years from now you’re a highly successful physician with no interest or involvement in the world around you.

Third: Get to know your professors. I’m saying this as one: we want to get to know you, because for many of us especially in the Honors College, it’s a privilege to be part of your education. But it’s no pleasure if you’re just a name on a list and a face in the class. Go to your instructors’ office hours! When I was in college I made a point of visiting every professor at least once, even if I wasn’t all that interested in the course. “I thought psych would be different, I don’t know why. Thanks for clarifying what this science does.” It was one of those random professors who asked me why I was a Greek major, which was the first time I realized that it’s important to have a good reason for studying something. That has stuck with me.

Finally, School should be fun, not work. Sure, there are things you won’t enjoy, and no one can promise that every class will be a mind-blowing experience. Some courses you just have to take. In the words of Roger Waters, the creative mind behind Pink Floyd, if you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding. But over the course of your four years here, we want you to be passionate about what you’re doing (that guarantees you’ll do your best), be surprised by the new things you learn, and enriched by being part of this community and feeling completely welcome and at home in Burnham Hall. The Honors College is not a means to an end, whether that’s a career goal or some other advantage, but someplace where you grow and feel that you belong to. We want Burnham Hall to be your home here on campus.

Your peers in the three classes ahead of you are eager for you to join them; the faculty are ready for classes to start; and all of us on the staff of the Honors College have been planning all summer for your arrival. We hope you had a fantastic summer and that you’re as excited as we are that you’re all now Honors College 2020!

Convocation Closing Remarks, May 2016

Congratulations, Class of 2016! The staff and faculty in the Honors College join me in congratulating every member of this remarkable group. Each of you has gone beyond the requirements of your degree program and taken extra courses, completed a significant research project, and presented your findings. Together you’ve attended presentations, met with your Fellows, and served your peers in various ways. You’ve met with deans and advisors, participated in committees, and organized events. You’ve put on a lunch for 500 every semester, produced five student publications (one of which we distribute widely to show the world what the Honors College is like), and put together an annual Ball, attended by hundreds. You’ve been involved in everything the Honors College does, and you’ve made it a special place for all of us who are connected to it.

You’ve done all this while winning awards: Three Fulbright awards, one Barry Goldwater scholarship, TEN Benjamin Gilman scholarships from the State Department, a Harry S. Truman scholarship, two Critical Language Scholarships, one scholarship from the National Science Foundation, and two Asian and Pacific Islander American and Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution Scholarships—as well as 96 of you who have been invited to join Phi Beta Kappa. All of this shows that you are every bit as accomplished as we thought you’d be back in 2012 when you applied to the Honors College and we said, Come! We are so proud of all of you, and so grateful to you and your families for entrusting us with your education.

To all the congratulations you’re going to hear this week, let me add a word of thanks. Thank you for being part of the Honors College, thank you for being the kind of students it is an honor to serve. Perhaps without knowing it, you’ve been part of a partnership with your faculty. They’ve shared some of their work in lecture courses, drawn interested students more deeply into their subjects in seminars, and worked one-on-one in capstone supervisions. In the process you became apprentices and researchers in your own right, practitioners in the vocation of learning. At some point during your time here you discovered something the rest of the world did not yet know, or created a work of art that no one else had seen or heard, and in sharing your work you gave it to others and thus added to the world’s deposit of knowledge and culture.

Despite the many hours of solitary work involved, knowledge and culture are produced not in isolation, but in conversation, in partnership. It’s a conversation that occurs across disciplines, across ethnicities, across generations. It’s one specialist leaving a body of work that needs to be scrutinized and corrected in the light of new findings or insights. It’s a problem that needs to be solved, a question to be answered. Your engagement in the academic life of UIC has been your participation in an enterprise originating in the distant past and carried forward by your instructors here. A great university like ours is a custodian of civilization: preserving, interpreting, guiding, adding; and preparing the next generation to carry on its work. And you are impressively prepared for this task.

You are the next generation of leaders in our common work in the arts and engineering and healthcare and so much else, and each of you will in some way make a difference in the world by putting what you’ve learned here to use. What you’ve learned is more than the history and music and bio that you took, more than all the requirements, more than what you did in labs. You learned inclusiveness from being part of the most diverse honors community at a major American university; you gained compassion from being in groups made up of persons from every point in the dappled matrix of our society; you practiced generosity by giving back, on campus and off. The barriers that the rest of the world uses to separate us one from the other do not exist here. What UIC does is what America at its best has always done. And you are UIC at its best.

Imagine a series of concentric circles, with Burnham Hall at the center. That’s been your home as members of the Honors College, where the quality of the community depended on your involvement. Beyond is the rest of the campus: lecture rooms, library, labs, where you’ve shown peers and professors what kind of students—and persons—you are. Right now we’re perched on the edge of campus, blending with the city. You are leaving our campus with the very best wishes of everyone here, but your life and that of the Honors College will always be intertwined. You are joining the extended community of UIC and Honors College alumni, who welcome you as friends; and we want you to stay connected and help us in the work that has made the Honors College a special place. Once again, Congratulations; and once again, thank you for your partnership in our work!

Convocation Closing Remarks, Dec 2015

As you prepare to leave this campus, and you do so with the very best wishes of everyone in the Honors College, please be aware that your time here means that you’re now a permanent part of this university in countless ways. Your accomplishments, the prizes you have won, the supervised work that you did, are now part of the cumulative record of one of this country’s great universities. You’ve left your work in the publications you contributed to, the organizations you were part of, the research projects to which you contributed. Your papers and exams will sit in faculty offices all over campus, and your professors will remember you: the contribution you made in class that changed someone’s view of an issue, your visit during a professor’s office hours when you shared something about yourself. You may not know why they said “I’m glad you came by,” but you left an impression.

You made your mark here, even without knowing it, because you’ve been part of an ongoing conversation, one that cuts across cultural and generational boundaries, one that is focused on the hard work of civilization: trying to make the world a better place. What we’ve all been engaged in hasn’t all been experienced as a conversation, of course: most of the time it’s taken the form of work. As part of this work, you’ve investigated perpetrators of domestic violence, microbial cells in the Chicago River, negotiating strategies in geopolitical conflict, glucose metabolism, and the Orthodox Church in Bulgaria. These topics and the dozens of others that you’ve researched have been items on society’s list of questions to be answered and problems to be solved. The unspoken conversation that went on alongside this work ran somewhat along the lines of someone indicating that “This needs doing.” Your response may have been “I’m not sure I can do it.” “We think you can.” “Okay I’ll try.” “You’re doing everything right.” Then toward the end: “This was what I could do.” And now, at convocation, we can say: “You did it, and you did it splendidly!”

This conversation, and this work, will continue as you go on to tackle other problems and deal with other questions. How will you be an engaged productive citizen? How can you support things that matter to you? How will you find that thing that only you can do? Here at UIC we’ve tried to prepare you for those challenges by drawing you into discussions of the messy problems of our world and introducing you to some of the monuments of human achievement, cultural products that ennoble the human spirit. One of the benefits of an education here is that it exposes you to some of civilization’s peaks as well as to some of its most pressing problems. Universities are custodians of what earlier eras have done, and guides in what remains to be done.

The Honors College is housed in a building named for a visionary: Daniel Burnham, creator of the great 1909 Plan for Chicago and architect of landmarks like the Monadnock and Rookery buildings in the Loop. Best known for saying “Make no little plans,” Burnham went on to say “Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.” Work done well, Burnham said, “once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and our grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us.”

We are now well beyond the generation of Burnham’s grandchildren. And new plans have expanded on his. Our campus occupies space that in Burnham’s time was a neighborhood with street names like Good, and Better, and Hope. (We are right now exactly above the point at which Hope Street began.) In our busy lives we’re no more aware of Burnham’s legacy than we are of what this area was like a century ago; and that’s alright. You’ve learned on your own what it means to make big plans and to aim high in hope and work. You’ve learned what it means to do what you might have feared you couldn’t, and you know the satisfaction that comes from doing something as well as you could.

Finally, be aware that you are now part of an extended Honors College community, people doing remarkable things in every possible field in every part of the world. We who work in Burnham Hall are as proud of them in their careers as we are of you right now at the completion of your programs. We want you to stay in touch with us, with the friends you’ve made here, and with the alumni you will inevitably meet in the years ahead. Having been part of a cohort of students, you are now part of a network of friends; and they welcome you.

Racial tension and campus unrest at US universities, Nov 2015

(Fall 2015 email to Honors College community in the wake of campus uprisings elsewhere)

Dear Honors College Students, Decades ago, in the wake of Dr. King’s assassination and at the height of the Civil Rights movement, my beloved grandfather assured me that racial tension in this country would be a thing of the past by the time I reached his age. I’m almost as old now as he was when he said it, and it grieves me that his prediction has come nowhere close to becoming true. This past week we have seen students on campuses from Connecticut to California bringing clearly into public view the problem of racism and insensitivity to cultural difference in American higher education. This educational system is one in which I’ve spent my entire adult life, and I acknowledge that intolerance exists. I lament that it exists. I hate that it exists. And I am committed to doing whatever I can to keep it as far as possible from the diverse, multiracial, inclusive community that is UIC.

Our institution is a proving ground for this country’s ideals: a place where persons from every background—every language, every race, every religion, every point in the variegated matrix of the American populace—can receive an education as good as can be found anywhere, and learn to be productive citizens in a rapidly changing world. Being a part of this community and having a small part in the education of UIC’s students is a great honor; and I know that this view is shared among the faculty generally. The diversity of this university is exactly what makes it special to many of us. That being the case, harmonious coexistence is the necessary condition for the life of this institution. In my years here no student has spoken to me about intolerance or sensitivity of any kind. This is indeed a special place.

In order to preserve what we have, every student needs to feel comfortable and know that people on campus are committed to ensuring that we all coexist harmoniously. That means openness, and here is my pledge: my door will always be open for any student on this campus who feels unwelcome or threatened at UIC because of any form of intolerance. I will listen, and I will do more than listen if it’s within my capacity to do so. Think of me not as your dean but as a professor, mentor, advisor: those have been my roles for 25 years. “Inaccessible” comes close to “insensitive” in my lexicon.

I might not be able to see things as others do, and I recognize that I may not recognize subtle forms of insensitivity. “Privilege” is a word that has changed in meaning and application just recently to represent a position of dominance grounded in freedom from marginalization and oppression. I’m quite sure I’m not an oppressor, but I do plead guilty to privilege. I’m a middle-aged, college-educated white male, which has been the default setting for dominant roles in this country for most of its history. One of the great benefits of a community as diverse as ours is that we learn from each other’s experiences. I need you to keep me from being unaware of how you experience UIC.

Every faculty member and college official who’s read the recent stories has probably been tempted to respond with some form of “it can’t happen here” denial. It was my response as well: racism—here? Impossible! It feels like living in the America that my grandfather told me we’d have by now. If he knew how far from such a world we are, he’d want to know what I’m doing to make it better. If I encounter him in the afterlife I want to be able to tell him that I listened to those who were in pain due to others’ intolerance, and tried to do what I could to alleviate it. Count on me as an ally.

Wishing you all the best,

Ralph Keen