University Update: Seeking Closure And Moving Forward

Issue Date: 
September 17, 2012

Chancellor Mark A. NordenbergAs we moved through the past year, regularly contending with the stresses and strains that came from confronting its many challenges, it sometimes seemed that, for Pitt, 2011-2012 might become the year that never would end, and certain realities fueled that feeling. An unusual number of key issues remained unresolved, even as we moved through ceremonies traditionally marking the completion of the academic year and formally “closed the books” at the June 30 end of the fiscal year. Let me briefly discuss three different examples.


To a considerable extent, our budget for the 2011-2012 fiscal year was shaped by historically deep reductions, imposed sequentially during the year and totaling more than $67 million, to our state support. Even as we were contending with those reductions, the state budget proposal advanced in February, the same month that we launched the celebration of the 225th anniversary of our founding, would have subjected Pitt to a second straight year of deep and disproportionate cuts. That proposal triggered a broad-based advocacy effort that involved administration, alumni, faculty, friends, staff, students, and trustees. That work, combined with strong legislative support and a modest upturn in state revenue receipts, led to a state budget that provided flat funding for Pitt and for Pennsylvania’s other public research universities.

In virtually any other set of circumstances, flat funding, particularly in the immediate aftermath of a year that imposed significant cuts to state support, would not have been viewed as a “win.” However, these are not typical times. Though current levels of state support have left us with some substantial challenges, particularly as we work to discharge our public mission, we were able to shape a budget that constrained tuition increases, that provided for a reasonably sized salary increase pool and that, with hard work, should permit us to maintain our momentum.

Consideration of the future of public higher education in Pennsylvania has continued throughout the summer as one dimension of the work of the Governor's Advisory Commission on Post-Secondary Education. That commission, on which I serve, took no summer break and is scheduled to deliver its report in mid-November. Whatever final form its recommendations take, we already know that our own future efforts must include: continuing to advance the important work being done at Pitt and, in the process, adding to the richness of Pitt's proud 225-year history; being careful stewards of the resources that have been entrusted to us, which always has been a priority at Pitt but which has assumed even greater significance in these economically challenging times; and advocating not only for Pitt but for the broader cause of public higher education, which has long provided such an important part of the foundation for our democratic society and its generally vibrant economy.

Bomb Threats

We moved through the spring-semester exam period and into a uniquely uplifting University commencement ceremony and other graduation exercises without the bomb threats that had been a source of disruption, particularly on this campus, through much of the term. The apparent end of the bomb threats brought a measure of relief. However, people at Pitt, and in the broader community, maintained a keen interest in the ongoing criminal investigations.

On Aug. 15, a federal grand jury here in Pittsburgh returned indictments relating both to the weeks-long series of emailed bomb threats and to the subsequent threats posted on YouTube. Obviously, an indictment is not the equivalent of a criminal conviction, and no one has yet been charged for the earlier threats that were scrawled on restroom stall walls. Still, these indictments followed months of intense work by law enforcement professionals and pushed this chapter in the life of our University closer to closure.

Throughout this ordeal, I regularly expressed heartfelt appreciation to those who aided us as we faced this difficult test. Among those deserving of special thanks are members of the federal law enforcement team, led by U.S. Attorney David Hickton, who worked tirelessly on this investigation and did not slow down even after the threats had ceased, and members of local law enforcement, who regularly “answered the call” by providing assistance whenever new threats were received. It is particularly important to note that the City, led by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Police Chief Nate Harper, provided invaluable assistance and made clear that, in the face of such threats, the City of Pittsburgh and the University of Pittsburgh stand together.


At almost any other time, the work of the evaluation team representing the Middle States Commission on Higher Education would have received more widespread attention. However, their spring-term visit occurred while we were in the midst of the bomb-threat siege. In fact, their own schedule was altered three times—when their opening dinner was moved to a new location because of a threat that had been made to the Chancellor's residence the evening before their arrival; when, on their first full day of work and while they were meeting with our Steering Committee, a threat to the University Club forced us to relocate their “headquarters” to a previously prepared back-up site; and when the use of the William Pitt Union as an evacuation site for threatened residence halls caused us to move their reporting session to Posvar Hall.

For those not familiar with institution-wide accreditation, every college and university in this “accrediting region”—– which includes Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as Pennsylvania—is required to move through a Middle States re-accreditation process every ten years. In the two years leading up to campus visits by the chair and members of the team, several hundred Pitt administrators, faculty, staff, students and trustees participated in the process and helped develop our self-study report.

Our opportunities to shape the composition of the team itself were largely limited to my request that its chair be someone of real stature. The Commission certainly met that request by recruiting New York University President John Sexton to serve in that role. The institution to be examined also has an opportunity to shape the nature of the review. As you would expect, there always must be an assessment of performance measured against all of the relevant accrediting standards of the Commission. However, an institution also can request a “special topics” review— which leads to an enhanced focus on a selected aspect of its work.

Pitt traditionally has opted for special topics reviews, believing that this maximizes the benefits of having a distinguished team of peer reviewers examine work that is important to us. Twenty years ago, our selected topic was research; ten years ago, our selected topic was the student experience; and this year, our selected topic was the development of a “culture of assessment.” We chose that focus because of the national interest in accountability in higher education, because we wanted to deal directly with the standards that have presented the most serious difficulties for very fine institutions in recent years, and because building effective systems of assessment has been a priority at Pitt.

The report of the evaluation team was very gratifying. It is posted on the University’s website so that you can read the entire document, but let me quickly share some highlights. On a general level, the report praises Pitt’s “unwavering commitment to excellence” and reaffirms our position as “a world class research university.”

Over the past 15 years, the University of Pittsburgh’s reputation as a world class research university has been advancing steadily. By any measure, this reputational advance reflects reality. From the undergraduate education it provides to the research it produces to the external awards and honors its faculty and students earn, the University can be proud of where it stands.

The report also describes, more specifically and in very positive terms, our efforts to develop an effective system of assessment. It states explicitly that the greatest threat to our ongoing progress is an “alarming” reduction in state support but offers the conclusion that “though it is certain that the University of Pittsburgh will face challenges in the years ahead, there is every reason to believe that the University, if given the chance, is positioned well to maintain and advance its special place in American higher education.”


Throughout its history, Pitt has occupied a special place in American higher education. It might be said that, in its earliest years, Pitt could claim a special place almost by default, since the people of Pittsburgh were pioneers not only in crossing the mountains to settle in a frontier outpost but also in recognizing the importance of education and assigning a high priority to the founding of this school. Because of their efforts, Pitt is one of the country's oldest institutions of higher learning and, in the years following its founding, would have been special for that reason alone. Today, in contrast, we have earned a special place within a higher education community that is heavily populated, intensely competitive and increasingly global.

Consistent with our “culture of assessment,” we do calculate, chart, and compare as many aspects of our performance as we can. However, in recent years we also have taken to employing the shorter, easily understood, and universally accepted maxim that “we all are judged by the company we keep.”

Measured against that standard, last year was another year of exceptional academic progress for Pitt. For example, Cory Rodgers became our fourth Rhodes Scholar since 2005, a record equaled by only one other public research university, the University of North Carolina. Three of our distinguished faculty members—Yuan Chang, Patrick Moore, and Peter Strick – were elected to the membership in the National Academy of Sciences. Only ten universities had three or more faculty members elected to the Academy. Stanford led the way with six; Berkeley and Princeton had four; and Pitt joined Columbia, Johns Hopkins, MIT, Penn, UC-San Diego and the University of Washington in claiming three. And according to the most recent National Science Foundation (NSF) rankings, we moved into the top five American universities in terms of the total federal science and engineering research and development support attracted by members of our faculty—joining Johns Hopkins, Washington, Michigan, and Penn in that top five and ranking just ahead of Stanford, UC-San Diego, Columbia, North Carolina, and Wisconsin, the other outstanding universities in that NSF top ten.

But there is another dimension of “keeping good company” that I also want to emphasize as we begin moving through another year together—the good company that we each enjoy within the University of Pittsburgh community itself. I firmly believe that we benefit from a “regional personality” that is defined by people who take their responsibilities seriously without taking themselves too seriously and who are selflessly committed to the greater good. That wonderful combination of qualities was described by our Middle States team in the following way.

[T]here is a justified (though given our cynical times, still remarkable) sense of pride in these achievements in every sector of the University community, from faculty (even faculty in units that have not been favored with major investments of resources) to students (many of whom have done both undergraduate and graduate studies at the University because, as many stated, of their "love" for the school). There seems to be an ethos of appreciation which evokes humility in those of us who come to observe it.

It sometimes is said that “adversity does not build character, it reveals it.” I understand that perspective but do not completely agree with it, believing that experience with adversity results both in building and in revealing. That view was captured in a letter sent to me by the mother of one of our freshman students in late April. What she had to say is well worth sharing.

“When parents send their first child to college, they have so many concerns: is that college right for him, will he be safe, what kind of people will he meet? I have to say, after all the events that have transpired, my concerns have vanished. You and your university have made a very bad situation into a tolerable one. The students and community stepped up to the plate, showing pride, empathy and gratitude. Seniors adopting freshmen, apartment dwellers opening their homes and students respectfully thanking police for their safety.

“Even though no one wants the situation that Pitt endured, I know my son has witnessed how a university and its community can stand together and prosper. In some strange way, I am glad my son was a part of this experience. He has witnessed the good in people and the bad. I commend you and your university in all your efforts and thank you for the safety of my child. I am proud to be a Pitt parent.”

Reading a message like that one is both humbling and deeply satisfying. Almost certainly, there were some things that the University—and, more particularly, its leaders—could have handled better in charting a course through last year’s challenging times, and we did occasionally receive messages that were critical. Most often, they related to the bomb threats and took one of the two most extreme positions—either that Pitt should just close down or that Pitt should never evacuate any building because any such reaction was just a concession to terrorism. But particularly given the difficult circumstances and the concerns naturally triggered by them, messages of that type were quite rare. Instead, the main messages that emerged from students and their parents were expressions of understanding and support for the University, coupled with expressions of anger toward the perpetrators of the disruptive threats.

By our count, we received 52 total threats, targeting 160 buildings and leading to 136 evacuations. Those threats came in the middle of the work day and in the middle of the night. They targeted academic buildings, residence halls, and other facilities. They were disruptive of student life, produced understandable levels of parental anxiety, and interfered with the work of faculty and staff. They took a toll on Pitt resources, as well as the resources of supportive friends. But through it all, we moved forward together, maintaining Pitt's momentum and refusing to abandon important individual agendas.

Most of these threats came in the wake of the senseless shootings at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic (WPIC) on March 8. Our entire community mourned the loss of Michael Schaab, a 25-year-old WPIC employee who had earned his undergraduate degree at Pitt, who had plans in place to begin graduate work here and who was in the early stages of building a wonderful life. Our thoughts and prayers also were with the other innocent victims who were wounded in this attack.

As I noted, during a ceremony honoring the involved Pitt police officers at last June's Board of Trustees meeting:

On that horrifying day, all the good that normally comes from a neighborhood dedicated to education and healing was shattered by the actions of one single person. Were it not for the swift and effective actions of the first responder—our Pitt police—the list of casualties might have increased to an unimaginable level. . . .

When our officers entered the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, they brought hope to the innocent bystanders under siege. They risked their own lives by moving to deal with a dangerous situation. Their actions were a product of their courage, skill, and training and are a testament to the professionalism of the entire Pitt police force, which we see so vividly every day.

Certain groups within the University, including the Pitt Police, also shouldered particularly heavy loads as we responded to the bomb threats. Those groups included our student affairs professionals, and the members of our information technology team. But expressions of praise and thanks should not be limited to them. Instead, as was recognized then and as is well worth repeating now, the strength, selflessness and resiliency of the entire University community really stood out.

According to the late Robert Alberts, Pitt's bicentennial biographer, Hugh Henry Brackenridge, our founder, argued for the chartering of an academy in Pittsburgh in a lengthy article published in the Pittsburgh Gazette on Sept. 2, 1786. This, in part, is what he said.

The situation of the town of Pittsburgh is greatly to be chosen for a seat of learning . . . I do not know that the legislature could do a more acceptable service to the commonwealth than by endowing a school at this place . . . We well know that the strength of a state greatly consists in the superior mental powers of the inhabitants. . . .

I should rejoice to see Pennsylvania at all times able to produce mathematicians, philosophers, historians and statesmen equal to any in the confederacy. . . .

That charter was approved by the Legislature some six months later, on Feb. 28, 1787.

When we developed plans to celebrate this big University birthday, we were not thinking about shootings or bomb threats or budget cuts. And though we knew that our re-accreditation exam would conclude in 2012, that was not a central part of our planning for the celebration either. Instead, we were focused on a range of other initiatives, highlighting the achievements and impact of Pitt and its people. Those inspiring activities still are underway and will continue as we move through homecoming and toward the end of this special anniversary year.

But those efforts also now are framed by what we have endured and accomplished in the past half-year. We have contended directly with harmful and disruptive external forces. We have effectively advocated for the noble cause of higher education within the very legislature in which our founder once served and pressed his own arguments. And we have earned the praise of distinguished professional colleagues for the progress we have forged.

What better way could there be to celebrate our 225th birthday than by building, with determination, on the legacy of our predecessors? Mr. Brackenridge, no doubt, would be very pleased.