New Macaulay Honors Director Seeks Inclusive Environment

Dr. Stefano Ghirlanda, the new director of Macaulay Honors at Brooklyn College. / Photographer: Tatyana Bellamy-Walker

On August 29, 2017, psychology professor Dr. Stefano Ghirlanda assumed his new position as director of Macaulay Honors at Brooklyn College.

Ghirlanda previously held the Carol L. Zicklin Endowed Chair from 2010 to 2012, where he taught four honors courses; before coming to Brooklyn College, Ghirlanda was a tenured researcher of General Psychology at the University of Bologna. His research, which focuses on animal behavior and cultural evolution, has received international attention in both the academic and popular spheres.

Ghirlanda was born in Rome, Italy, where he graduated cum laude from the Sapienza University of Rome with a degree in mathematical physics in 1996. Ghirlanda went on to receive his Ph.D. in Zoology from Stockholm University in Sweden in 2001. He stayed onboard at Stockholm University for two more years as a researcher.

Ghirlanda works in the field of cultural evolution, a field of study which uses evolutionary theory to explain the spread of ideas and culture throughout society. Ghirlanda’s primary interest is what he calls the “stickiness” of ideas.

“Stop me if this is boring,” Ghirlanda told me before launching into a primer in memetics. In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins proposed that ideas and behaviors could spread how genes spread, through self-replication and from parent to child. He called these ideas “memes.” Ghirlanda’s work is an extension of Dawkins’, examining internal and external factors which allow some memes to spread faster than others.

He elaborated with a culinary example. “Once you taste a chocolate cake, most people stick with chocolate cake,” Ghirlanda explained. “People might try inferior cakes, but chocolate cake remains more popular, even though the means of acquisition [eating] is the same.” Thus, Ghirlanda argues, chocolate cake is “stickier.”

The same factors that account for relative popularity of cake flavors can be used to examine all sorts of fads and fashions. In a 2014 paper, Ghirlanda observed that dog breeds spiked in popularity after being featured in a popular movie; in a paper published this year, Ghirlanda suggested that Hillary Clinton’s 2016 electoral defeat was foreshadowed by an unprecedented drop in baby girls named Hillary circa 1993.

In early 2017, Ghirlanda was approached by Honors Academy director Lisa J. Schwebel and former Macaulay Honors College director Professor Tammy Lewis, who asked him to succeed Lewis as MHC director. He has a four-year term as director, a precedent set by his predecessor.

“The Macaulay Honors director has two main duties,” Ghirlanda explained. “The first is overseeing the missions of Macaulay Honors College; the second is to staff the Macaulay seminars. My goal is to diversify the seminars a little bit.”

Macaulay Honors students are required to take four “seminars” taught by a rotating group of professors, one per semester for their freshman and sophomore years. Ghirlanda’s focus is on updating the curriculum for the second seminar, which currently centers on immigration in New York City through a historical lens. In the past year, the course’s name has been changed from “The Peopling of New York City” to “The People of New York City;” accordingly, Ghirlanda’s aim is to realign the class to focus on modern-day immigration to New York City.

It’s an issue close to his heart, for obvious reasons: “I am myself an immigrant,” said Ghirlanda. He moved to the United States in 2010, when he took the Zicklin Chair.

“Of course, I was already a college professor. I realize most immigrants don’t have that.” Ghirlanda was quick to point out the advantages which he had and others lacked. During our interview, I noticed the Black Lives Matter button pinned to his collar. “I think it’s very unfortunate, that the lingering effects of what formally ended 150 years ago is still affecting African Americans today.” He stressed Macaulay Honors’ open admissions. “One of the lessons of New York City is diversity is a strength.”

There is some irony in the new Macaulay director’s words. In May 2017, The Excelsior published an editorial titled “A Seat in the Honors Academy” which framed the Honors Academy as “a hostile and exclusionary environment,” and accused Macaulay students and advisors of making disparaging and discriminatory comments towards students of racial and sexual minorities in Boylan Hall’s Honors Lounge.

“Tammy [Lewis] before me and I felt this was a serious matter,” said Ghirlanda. On the first day of the fall semester, he e-mailed Honors Academy students asking them to fill out a confidential survey on their experiences in the Honors Lounge. “We want to get an idea of how widespread this perception is. We feel this should be a space for everyone.”

“It’s important to be as welcoming as possible,” Ghirlanda stressed. “I think Macaulay has had a good track record on this, but we need to be vigilant.”

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