“A Happy Chronicle of Sound and Worthwhile Accomplishments”

Issue Date: 
November 17, 2008


Editor’s Note: For the Fall Board of Trustees meeting, Chancellor Nordenberg spoke about Pitt’s continued successes in a number of telling areas, including not only the recent recognition of a number of Pitt faculty members with prestigious national honors, but also Pitt’s ability to enroll and nurture students with ever-higher academic credentials, producing alumni who have made and continue to make important contributions throughout the world; to attract a steadily increasing amount of federal research dollars that places Pitt in the very top echelon of the nation’s premier research universities and funds Pitt researchers’ breakthrough discoveries that benefit humankind in myriad ways; and to drive the region’s economic growth and advance the quality of life in the University’s broader community.

Pitt as a Leader in Education

I’d like to begin today by noting that Robert C. Alberts, the author of Pitt’s bicentennial history, was able to close that work with the following observation:

[T]his is essentially a success story – a happy chronicle of a sound and worthwhile accomplishment. For almost two hundred years there has been an output of a good product: an annual harvest of young people admirably trained to earn a living, to make a contribution to their community, their profession, and their country.

In our time together, that record of success has been extended well beyond two centuries.

Anyone who has had the chance to contribute to the learning and growth of students has been privileged to engage in a very special experience. To my mind, that is particularly true at Pitt because I think our students are so special. And this year, as you already know, we enrolled the best-credentialed freshman class in our history, drawn from our largest applicant pool ever.

Once again, we opened the new “school year” by successfully meeting the challenges posed by the logistical nightmare of simultaneously moving thousands of students onto an urban campus cut by two major roadways and known for its challenging topography. We did that through the careful planning and hard work of our staff, along with the contributions of 550 volunteers who helped with the 2008 edition of our “Arrival Survival.”

Our new students arrived with high levels of enthusiasm and a desire to be engaged. For example, we had a record-breaking crowd of 4,400 at our Freshman Convocation. And we also enjoyed high levels of participation at such varied activities as our annual Lantern Night ceremony and the bonfire kicking off the football season.

Some students began the new year by moving into new facilities. The recently renovated Ruskin Hall traditionally had housed medical students—but it never made much sense to house medical students in the shadow of the Cathedral of Learning when Scaife Hall and all of the hospitals are “up the hill.” Last year, we built new apartments near the medical school, permitting us to convert this lower-campus facility into an undergraduate residence hall.

It is easy to lose track, because construction has been almost constant. But in the last several years, in addition to renovating Ruskin Hall, we built Panther Hall, Pennsylvania Hall, the Bouquet Gardens Apartments, and the Darragh Street Apartments. We also converted a sizeable apartment building into the Forbes-Craig residence hall. In rough terms, we have added about 2,000 additional on-campus beds—helping to meet a still-growing demand for more on-campus housing and also responding to what has been the top priority of those living in neighborhoods next to campus.

Our students also began an academic year marked, in its early weeks, by new initiatives. One important and innovative example is the Outside the Classroom Curriculum, which Dean Humphrey will describe in more detail later this morning. In addition, many months before the economy began its steep decline, we had committed to invest even more heavily in job-placement-related activities. Earlier this month, we had our largest job and internship fair ever—with more than 250 employers gathering at the Petersen Events Center to discuss career opportunities with our students. Our highest-level sponsors all have high-level trustee connections—American Eagle, PNC, and U.S. Steel—and we are very grateful for that help.

Pitt as a Pioneer in Research

Faculty members also opened the new year “with a bang.” Among especially noteworthy honors—

•  Five distinguished members of our faculty—William Cooley, James Greeno, Alan Lesgold, Lauren Resnick, and Janet Schofield—were named to the inaugural class of American Educational Research Association Fellows, reflecting their stature in the broad field of education-related research;

•  Barry London, the Harry S. Tack Professor of Medicine and chief of the Division of Cardiology in the Department of Medicine, was one of just 16 researchers nationally to receive an NIH Director’s Pioneer Award. These awards target early-career scientists engaged in novel investigator-initiated research. Professor London is the first Pitt faculty member to receive this special award;

•  David Perlmutter—the Vira I. Heinz Professor of Medicine, physician-in-chief at Children’s Hospital, and chair of our Department of Pediatrics—was elected to membership in the prestigious Institute of Medicine, one of the highest honors available to a physician-scientist; and

•   Professors Yuan Chang and Patrick Moore, whose first success in identifying a cancer-causing virus had led to their receipt of the Mott Cancer Prize (regarded as the highest honor for cancer researchers) and who more recently led efforts to identify a second such virus, both were selected to receive American Cancer Society Research Professor Awards. To put their selection into a context that really is remarkable, only three such awards are made each year, and Pitt Professors Chang and Moore claimed two of them.

Collectively, we received very good news when recently released rankings from the National Science Foundation placed Pitt among the top 10 American research universities in terms of federal science and engineering research and development grants won by members of our faculty. This is a very impressive group—consisting of Johns Hopkins, the University of Washington, Michigan, Penn, UCLA, Duke, Columbia, Stanford, UCSF, and Pitt. In fact, the second 10 also is a collection of exceptionally strong universities—Harvard, Washington University in St. Louis, MIT, UCSD, Wisconsin, Yale, North Carolina, Colorado, Minnesota, and Vanderbilt.

This listing closely followed the somewhat earlier release of National Institutes of Health funding data showing that Pitt had passed UCLA to climb into the sixth position nationally in terms of the NIH grants won by members of our faculty. That top 10 consists of Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Penn, UCSF, the University of Washington, Pitt, UCLA, Duke, Michigan, and Washington University in St. Louis. To return to an ongoing theme, Pitt continues to move forward in very good company.

Obviously, within the community of research universities, these rankings, tied to competitive funding levels, are a clear, objective measure of institutional stature. And, of course, the funds also support pioneering work. In my annual report to you, I highlighted the recognition that had been won by Pitt faculty members for such accomplishments as developing a system for the early detection of Alzheimer’s disease, developing a vaccine for diabetes, and developing the technology by which monkeys can control prosthetic devices solely through the power of their own thoughts.

Just a sampling of major grants awarded in recent weeks includes:

•  $10 million from the National Institute of Mental Health for the development of new treatments for schizophrenia;

• $8.4 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to create a Preparedness and Emergency Response Research Center;

•  $6.4 million from the NIH to study the role of obesity in preeclampsia, a common condition of pregnancy that can be life-threatening to both mother and child;

• $4 million from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases to create one of just eight national kidney research centers; and

• $3.6 million from the NIH to conduct tests on the effectiveness of a vaccine designed by our Center for Vaccine Research to protect against the most common and deadly strain of avian flu.

Pitt as a Partner in Community Development

The research dollars that we annually import and spend also are a major driver of the local economy. As a general matter, health and education constitute this region’s top employment sector and the only sector of the regional economy that has added jobs in every year since 1995. More specifically, a policy paper just released by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, relying on “methodologies developed by the Bureau of Economic Analysis of the U.S. Department of Commerce,” concluded that “every $1 million in R&D spending generates 36 jobs.” Using that formula, our $641.6 million in research expenditures during the last fiscal year supported more than 23,000 local jobs.

But our positive community impact is far broader than that. I particularly enjoyed reading a column published in last Sunday’s New York Times. Its basic thrust is political, which I will avoid, but in characterizing cities, this is what it said:

“Two years ago, a list of the nation’s brainiest cities was put together from Census Bureau reports—that is, cities with the highest percentage of college graduates . . .

“Brainy cities have low divorce rates, low crime, high job creation, ethnic diversity, and creative capitalism. They’re places like Pittsburgh, with its top-notch universities . . .”

Not feeling very comfortable about directly claiming credit for stable marriages and safe streets myself, let me, instead, just give a small number of recent examples of Pitt’s contributions to the strength and vibrancy of this community:

• As the school year began for the Pittsburgh Public Schools, we “cut the ribbon” for this city’s first “university partnership” school. University Prep, located very close to our upper campus, will benefit from a close partnership with our School of Education’s Center for Urban Education. That effort will be led by Professor Louis Gomez, our new Faison Professor, recently recruited from Northwestern. Appropriately, Sito Narcisse, the University Prep principal, is a Pitt graduate;

• Our School of Dental Medicine opened its new Center for Patients with Special Needs. Its goal is to provide the most modern levels of care to both children and adults with special needs—including physical limitations owing to birth defects, injury, or disease; intellectual disabilities; neurological and behavioral disorders; and developmental disabilities. It expects to serve close to 2,500 patients per year—from Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and New York.

• We launched our traditional United Way campaign, which has long been recognized as a model of charitable giving in higher education. In addition, more than 300 Pitt employees did work at 14 different sites as a part of the United Way Day of Caring;

• That level of community commitment recently was outdone when nearly 2,000 Pitt students devoted a Saturday to participate in 47 service projects throughout the region as part of our first “Pitt Make a Difference Day”; and

• Last Friday brought a community contribution of a different kind when the pathbreaking exhibition Free At Last?, produced by our Office of Public Affairs and focusing on slavery in Pittsburgh in the 1700s and 1800s, began a nearly six-month run at the Heinz History Center. The exhibition is built around 55 slavery-related records discovered in 2007 by the staff of Pitt graduate Valerie McDonald Roberts, who then was serving as Allegheny County’s Recorder of Deeds. It presents, in a compelling and thought-provoking way, a long-neglected part of our region’s history.

Connecting With Our Constituents

The opening of this exhibition attracted a very large, and enthusiastic, crowd to the History Center. Both large numbers and high levels of enthusiasm have been characteristic of the outreach events of recent weeks.

For example, we attracted a record-setting crowd to our Chancellor’s Circle pregame event at Heinz Field, and those in attendance literally shared in a piece of Pitt sports history. Richard Bott, a 1958 graduate of our engineering school, traveled to that event from his home in Texas, carrying with him a piece of the goalpost that had been torn down after our big win over Penn State in 1957. He brought that trophy, which he had been safeguarding for more than 50 years, back to Pitt so that others might enjoy it.

During that game itself, Jim Tafel, another Pitt alum and a Chancellor’s Weekend guest, was featured in a Heinz Field presentation. Jim’s horse Street Sense won the 2007 Kentucky Derby. After our football crowd was treated to a replay of the race on the big screen, Jim was asked why his horses race in the colors blue and gold. When he answered by saying that “he was a Pitt man and a Pitt fan,” that stadium full of football fans responded with wild applause

Homecoming itself brought a wide range of wonderful events. One of them was the Legacy Laureate dinner, which included Trustees Mike Bryson and Brian Generalovich among the honorees. Another was Frank Ning—the chairman of a Chinese conglomerate with annual revenues of more than $20 billion, who has been recognized five times as one of the 25 most influential business leaders by Chinese Entrepreneur magazine. He traveled from Beijing, with his wife and daughter, to reconnect with his alma mater. In accepting my invitation to return and be honored, Mr. Ning sent a moving letter, which reads, in part:

“It has been 22 years since my graduation from [the] Katz Graduate School of Business. As an alumnus benefitting tremendously from the University’s outstanding teaching and studies, I always have been grateful to the University and [am] looking forward to meeting my professors in the Katz Graduate School of Business and University Center for International Studies . . .

“Twenty-two years ago when I returned to China from the University as an MBA, I was questioned many a time what on earth an MBA was. Yet in the past two decades in my career life, what I learned as an MBA candidate in the University has given me invaluable treasure. If I ever achieved anything in my career since my graduation from the University, I’d say that it is only because I got strength from my school life there.”

The words of that accomplished and grateful graduate, sent from the other side of the world, are moving. And as was noted earlier, this University has been a source of strength and learning and growth for its students for more than 200 years. The collective contributions that have been made by Pitt through education, then, truly are immeasurable.

In more recent times, our institutional impact has taken additional forms. Through our research, we have, quite literally, saved lives and elevated the quality, in wide-ranging ways, of countless others. We are a powerful engine of economic growth and also contribute in noneconomic ways to the vibrancy of our home communities.

Meeting Current Challenges

We have spent the last 13 years pursuing the priorities publicly adopted by this board in February of 1996, and we have enjoyed great success in that quest. Our strength and stature are at all-time highs, and our momentum continues to build.

None of what we have achieved has come easily. Much of our progress has been the product of doing more with less. Suddenly, our economic challenges have become far more daunting. The weeks and months and (possibly) years ahead almost certainly will be an even more difficult time.

Still, I feel quite confident in saying that most of us would prefer to deal with our current situation than to tackle the problems of our predecessors. Consider this entry from the journal of John May, dated May 7, 1787, and reprinted on the first page of Pitt’s history:

“Pittsburgh is in plain sight, at half a mile distance. It is an irregular, poorly built place. The number of houses, mostly built of logs, about one hundred and fifty. The inhabitants (perhaps because they lead too easy a life) incline to be extravagant and lazy. They are subject, however, to frequent alarms from the savages of the wilderness.”

After offering that description, in his very next sentence, Mr. May, somewhat astonishingly, concludes his journal entry by stating: “The situation is agreeable, and the soil is good.”

If John May could characterize his circumstances as agreeable, our situation must, at least, be manageable. As I said to a somewhat broader audience at the close of my recent “University Update,”

“[O]ur momentum is strong, our mission is noble, and our case is compelling. Put in somewhat more human terms, both the broader community and countless individuals within that community are depending on us to continue our advances as a leader in education, a pioneer in research, and a partner in community development. If we remain committed to the goal of fueling further progress at Pitt, there is no reason to believe that this year—though it clearly will not be an easy year—cannot be another good year for our University. And despite the struggles that appear to await us, I do look forward to building and sharing another year of progress with you.”