By Samip Delhiwala
Published: September 27th, 2017
After spending seven years as a faculty member at Brooklyn College, psychology professor Dr. Stefano Ghirlanda was appointed the new director of the Macaulay Honors College (MHC) at Brooklyn College for the Fall 2017 semester, replacing sociology professor Tammy Lewis after her four-year tenure.
Just like his predecessor, Ghirlanda will serve a four-year term as well. Although they both come from different backgrounds, Lewis has extended a helping hand to Ghirlanda, should he need it.
“Tammy has been invaluable in the transition,” he said. “She has briefed me extensively on what it means to be Macaulay director, and compiled a list of the director’s duties throughout the academic year, which is invaluable to me. She is still available to consult with me in case I have doubts on the best course of action, which I sometimes have.”
Ghirlanda was first approached by the BC Honors Academy (HA) back in January 2017 and asked to succeed Lewis. He was specifically chosen because of his experience with the HA; when he first came to BC in 2010, he served as the Carol L. Zicklin Chair as a visiting professor of Interdisciplinary Studies before being appointed a professor in the BC Department of Psychology in 2012.
“I have accepted [the position] because I have had a very rewarding time in the Honors Academy,” Ghirlanda said. “I want to contribute to the success of its programs and all of its students.”
Many HA students are psychology majors, and Ghirlanda cites this as another reason for accepting the position.
“I have been acquainted with many of the HA students in my classes and lab,” he explained.
Ghirlanda, who was born in Rome, Italy, graduated from the University of Rome with a degree in mathematical physics in 1996. He then went on to receive his Ph.D. in zoology with a concentration in ethology from Stockholm University in Sweden in 2001.
His research focuses on topics surrounding the evolution of intelligence in animals, such as how animals adapt and learn from new experiences and how they incorporate newly learned information with innate knowledge. On June 21, Ghirlanda, along with colleagues Johan Lind and Magnus Enquist, published a study in the Royal Society Open Science titled “Memory for stimulus sequences: a divide between humans and other animals?” He also presented a poster, titled “Effect of stimulus similarity on external inhibition in humans,” at the 2017 Brooklyn College Science Day with a few of his students from his lab on May 5.
Ghirlanda has been revered by both his students and colleagues throughout his years at BC.
Justin Varughese, an HA student who has performed undergraduate research in Ghirlanda’s lab the past two years, discussed the new director’s amicable nature. “He is very open-minded and easy to have a conversation with, which is a significant trait to have for an educator and lab mentor,” Varughese said.
When asked about his goals as the new director, Ghirlanda discussed having both short-term and long-term aspects to his tenure. He explained that the Macaulay director performs various day-to-day tasks that mainly consist of coordinating events with the Macaulay advisors and with other Macaulay campuses.
“I also attend a monthly directors’ meeting whose role is to coordinate with other Macaulay directors to make sure that the program runs at its best,” he said.
However, Ghirlanda believes that the long-term aspects are where the director is most important.
“The main tasks are finding faculty to teach the Macaulay seminars and overseeing admissions,” he said. “My predecessor has maintained a detailed list of faculty who has taught seminars in the past, and had sought to strengthen the relationship between Macaulay and many departments of the college so as to give continuity to the program.”
The seminars that Ghirlanda is referring to are a series of four three-credit classes that Macaulay students are required to take, each in their first four semesters of college. According to the MHC website, the courses “feature primary research, classroom learning, and hands-on experiences that use New York City as a teaching tool. Students acquire a rich understanding of the natural, social, economic, and cultural forces that move our world.” Professors in various departments of the college rotate each semester to teach the seminars. For example, science professors are more likely to teach the “Science Forward” seminar that students take in their third semester.
The new director specifically discussed changes to Seminar 2, “People of New York City,” formerly named “The Peopling of New York City.” Students generally research the roles that immigration and migration play in the city’s identity, but according to Ghirlanda, an immigrant himself, the name change “warrants a change in focus from the past to the present and future of New York’s inhabitants.”
“I am trying to broaden the array of faculty that teaches this seminar consequently,” he further elaborated. “I am also trying to expand the range of topics covered in Seminar 4, ‘Shaping the Future of New York City,’ to reflect the wide array of factors that, indeed, influence our future.”
Ghirlanda also believes that admissions are vital to Macaulay, as they “literally build the program.” His priorities dictate that the admission process remains fair and open to all prospective students. Although he is still working to understand the various intricacies of the admissions process and how it operates, he still believes that there is room for improvement.
One of his major concerns for the HA is its status as a welcoming place for all students. The Excelsior published an opinions piece titled “A Seat in the Honors Academy,” in which a few students voiced their concerns about the academy being a “hostile and exclusionary environment.” This was one of the reasons Ghirlanda sent out a survey to all HA students, asking them to voice their concerns and give advice and suggestions on how the HA can become a more suitable environment for all.
“The survey, which was planned when Tammy Lewis was director, is a first step to probe how widespread that students’ concerns are,” he said. “Even if just a few felt unwelcome, however, it would be enough cause for concern and action.”
Ghirlanda also announced that the HA is instituting an advisory student council, which will be “diverse as possible” and give equal representation to all the BC honors programs.
His stance against discrimination of any kind is further represented by the “Black Lives Matter” pin he wears every day on his shirt.
“Discrimination saddens and angers me,” he firmly stated. “The pin is a way of reminding
myself and others that a dark part of this country’s history, which should have ended over 150 years ago, still burdens the lives of many. The discrimination of African Americans is also, for me, a symbol of
all oppression and reminds me that inequality has deep historical roots for many groups.”