AUSTIN, Texas—After 20 years as director of the Dean’s Scholars Honors program in the College of Natural Sciences, computer scientist Alan Cline is stepping down. At the end of the semester he’ll be handing over the reins of the program to biologist David Hillis, the Alfred W. Roark Centennial Professor in Natural Sciences.
Cline, the David Bruton, Jr. Centennial Professor in Computer Sciences, was the third director of the program when he took over in 1991. Under Cline’s stewardship the program has doubled in size, evolved to grant honors degrees in all of the majors in the College of Natural Sciences, and become so competitive that last year 67 high school valedictorians were among those rejected for admission to the first-year class. It’s also the model for the new Health Science Honors program, which was launched in the fall of 2010.
“When Dean’s Scholars started in 1983 it was a very different thing,” says Cline. “It was more about creating a space for students who had a special interest in research to take some seminars together and get together once a week or so. Nobody had the idea that it would become what it is now, with honors degrees, so many special classes, and such an intensive focus on research.”
The Dean’s Scholars Honors Program is a 4-year degree program that enrolls roughly 50 students per class. Over the past 28 years Dean’s Scholars have won some of the most prestigious and competitive graduate fellowships in the nation, including Marshall Scholarships, Gates Foundation Scholarships, National Science Foundation Fellowships and a Rhodes Scholarship.
What makes Dean’s Scholars unique, says Cline, isn’t just its academic rigor but how the academics are amplified by a rich social experience. Students take classes together, attend special dinners hosted by faculty members, participate in lunchtime discussions, take weekend field trips to places like the McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis, Texas, and have evolved a body of lore and tradition that binds together Dean’s Scholars past, present and future.
“There’s a spirit to the program” says Cline, “a feeling of belonging, of being with folks who have similar talents and similar interests. What we’ve tried to do is create a small community of like-minded, very talented science students amidst a very large university.”
Cline’s role in fostering this sense of community was honored at the Dean’s Scholars alumni reunion this spring with the establishment of the Dean’s Scholars Endowment. More than 75 alumni contributed to the $26,000 endowment, which will award scholarships every year in Cline’s name. Alumni also honored Cline with their words, with many of them taking to the stage to recount memories of how he’d changed their lives for the better. It was, says Cline, one of the more meaningful moments in a career as director that has been rewarding beyond what he’d ever expected.
“These students are achieving so many wonderful things,” he says. “Suppose I have just one tenth of the joy in their achievements that they do, just one tenth of it. Now multiply that times one thousand of them, and it makes for an extremely satisfying life. And that’s not going to stop. I’m stepping down as director, but I’ll still be around. I’ll still be teaching. And my door will still be open.”