Frederick shares journey from University honors student to benefactor

David Frederick and family at Backyard Brawl


When it comes to Pitt alumni who’ve created illustrious legacies for their alma mater, it’s hard to find a more luminous example than David Frederick (A&S ‘83).

The University’s first Rhodes Scholar, Frederick evolved into a renowned attorney who’s argued dozens of appeals before the U.S. Supreme Court. Now coming full circle, Frederick is innovating in the world of academic donations through a multi-million-dollar gift that simultaneously supports Pitt’s Honors College and University College at Oxford in England.

During a recent campus event to celebrate the naming of the David C. Frederick Honors College, Frederick admitted his level of achievement was not borne of a flawless track record.

“We all have these moments where we’re not really that sure about what’s gonna happen, and this class … I got a C-plus on my mid-term,” he recalled of the “Ideas in America” history class taught by William Stanton. All right, he thought, “this is not a great way to get an introduction to an honors program and feel good about yourself. I said (to Stanton), ‘Look, you know, I never got a C-plus, except in trigonometry. What do I have to do?’ He would just say, ‘Well, keep working at it. Keep chipping away.’

“And I ended up making an A in the class because I just drilled so hard on the paper that he had us write that he really pushed and pushed,” Frederick said. “So, I learned a lot about hard work. I learned a lot about individual initiative. I learned a lot about other people.”

That was among the clearly crowd-pleasing anecdotes Frederick shared with dozens at a forum hosted by Honors College Dean Nicola Foote held in Alumni Hall’s seventh-floor auditorium on Sept. 1. Frederick and his wife Sophie Lynn visited to take part in a variety of campus events and the Pitt vs. WVU “Backyard Brawl” football game that evening. A video honoring Frederick’s achievements and goals was shown at the Alumni Hall event as well as for the full-house crowd at Acrisure Stadium.

High-impact learning 

The couple’s unusually structured gift starts with $35 million to help develop Univ North, part of Oxford’s University College, University Times reported in July (click here to read more). The new multi-generational community in North Oxford will house students, adults, senior citizens and kids.

As part of the deal, Oxford’s University College will have a 50-year commitment to distribute some income generated from the completed development to Pitt for the Honors College. The gift to Pitt, which also includes $5 million outright, is expected to create a permanent endowment valued at more than $65 million.

At the Honors College, the gift will focus on students and fund high-impact learning experiences, including study-abroad and study-away scholarships, stipends for internships and research experiences, and participation in academic and professional conferences. It also will support recruitment partnerships and mentorship programs for students from historically under-represented backgrounds including scholarships for honors students who graduate from Pennsylvania community colleges.

“The David C. Frederick Honors College at the University of Pittsburgh will be truly unique,” Nicola Foote said in the video documenting Frederick’s gifts. “Our college will look very different. We will be a national leader for a reimagined function of honors that is elite but inclusive, and that really is on the cutting edge of pedagogy and innovation.”

Frederick shared his feelings about how Pitt and its faculty shaped the direction of his life, career and all that led to making these gifts possible.

“I have had opportunities in my life to do things that I only dreamed of when I was young,” Frederick said in the video. “Because people at the University of Pittsburgh took a chance on me. They helped me, they cultivated my ability and channeled me in directions that I wasn’t entirely sure I was comfortable with but became comfortable with through their encouragement.

“The Honors College is a special place where students can explore topics of interdisciplinary focus,” he continued. “To create an environment in which those kinds of interests cannot only be cultivated (but) celebrated and nurtured, is an incredibly exciting opportunity for the University of Pittsburgh to become an even greater place than it already is.”

A matter of debate

Graduating in 1983 from Pitt’s School of Arts and Sciences, Frederick attended Oxford from 1983 to ‘86 as a Rhodes Scholar, earning a doctorate of philosophy degree in politics. He went on to earn a degree from the University of Texas School of Law, serve as clerk to Supreme Court Justice Byron White and become a prominent appellate attorney who has argued more than 50 cases before the nation’s highest court.

Frederick’s road to Pitt and Oxford started at the public school he attended in San Antonio, Texas. His speech-and-debate coach detected a burgeoning talent in Frederick he felt would be well nurtured at Pitt’s summer debate camp.

“It was here that I got exposed,” he said of his inaugural visit to the Pitt campus as a rising high school senior. “I got to know the debate coach. And the crucial factor for me was that I got a scholarship to be on the debate team. And that scholarship paid my tuition.”

Finding a sense of community “from the very get-go,” Frederick said within his first 48 hours on campus, his coach introduced him to Alec Stewart, director the Pitt’s fledgling Honors Program. Stewart suggested the Ideas in America class taught by William Stanton.

“And from the very first day I was here, I had a professor and mentor in the history department who taught me how to write better,” Frederick recalled.

Full-circle celebration

Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher reflected on the serendipitous events that led to Frederick giving back so generously to the college he, through Alec Stewart’s mentorship, helped put on the map.

“Often it’s the case when a university names one of its schools or programs for somebody, that person is no longer here,” Gallagher said. “What I love about this the most is not only David’s name and his family name being part of this program, but (his) involvement in this program. David was an Honors College student before there was an Honors College.

“You’ve gone on to do great things. And you’ve been a key part of this college all along,” Gallagher added of Frederick. “I think it’s actually fitting that this great college will carry your name, and so it’s delightful to be here to celebrate that with you.”

Shannon O. Wells is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at


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