Chancellor Decries the "Stunningly Deep Cuts" in Proposed State Budget’s Appropriation Funding

Issue Date: 
March 14, 2011

(This is the printed version of Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg’s response to appropriation cuts in the proposed state budget that was announced on March 8. The chancellor delivered his response to the media and members of the University community during a news conference at 3 p.m. March 8 in the Lower Lounge of the William Pitt Union.)

Chancellor-speakingJust last week, the University of Pittsburgh celebrated the 224th anniversary of its founding. It was a time to recognize the accomplishments of students, faculty, staff, and alumni. It also was a time to gratefully reflect on the wisdom of our pioneering predecessors—who, well over two centuries ago, saw that education was a key to building the future whose promise had brought them to what then was the very edge of the American wilderness.

We sometimes think that we have big problems in 2011, but compare, just for a moment, the world of 1787. Today, we complain about potholes; but they did not even have roads. Today, we mourn the loss of airport connections, while their fastest means of transportation was canoe. We bridle at the inefficiencies of modern government, while they were working hard to build the basic structures of American democracy.

But even in the midst of those tough—some might even say “primitive”—times, our determined predecessors, who had nothing material by today’s standards, did have something that really mattered and that is missing from the budget proposal that has brought us together today–a commitment to invest in the next generation. In the Act of Feb. 28, 1787, establishing the frontier academy that would become the University of Pittsburgh, the Pennsylvania legislature unambiguously declared that “the education of youth ought to be a primary object with every government.”

Those earlier lawmakers took that position both because they wanted to do right by the young people of the Commonwealth and also from a sense of enlightened self-interest. As our founder, who also played a role in launching this region’s first newspaper, put it, “We well know that the strength of a state greatly consists in the superior mental powers of its inhabitants.”

Fast-forward 224 years, one week, and one day. Today, March 8, 2011, is another date that may long be remembered in the history of higher education in Pennsylvania. However, it will be remembered in a far less positive way, because earlier today our Governor released a proposed budget that contains stunningly deep cuts to the support that has long been provided to public higher education.

From what we have been able to tell, after a quick first look at that proposal, the cuts proposed for Pitt include:

• a 50 percent, or $80 million, reduction to our general educational appropriation, funds that are used mainly to support the education of the next generation of Pennsylvanians;

• the complete elimination of nearly $17 million of support for programs in the health sciences, including our top-ranked School of Medicine, the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, our Dental Clinic, and our Center for Public Health Practice;

• the apparent loss of annual biomedical research support, competitively awarded, of more than $9 million from the tobacco settlement fund; and

• the anticipated loss of more than $7.5 million in stimulus funding.

Sparing you the need to do the math and recognizing that we might find even more bad news when we have the chance to really study the proposal, Pitt has been targeted for cuts in excess of $110 million.

Similar reductions have been proposed for Penn State and Temple, Pennsylvania’s two other public research universities, and Lincoln, the nation’s oldest historically black college. The fiscal assault on this group of ­four, collectively known as the state-related universities, also extends to the universities of the State System of Higher Education and can be viewed in many ways.

In practical terms, the proposed cuts are a renunciation of the commitment made by the Commonwealth to Pennsylvania families with college-age children in the mid-1960’s, when Pitt and Temple, followed later by Lincoln, joined Penn State as state-related universities. That earlier action was driven by the belief that creating larger numbers of reasonably priced, but high-quality, university opportunities was not only critical to the individual aspirations of the daughters and sons of Pennsylvania but was a key to our collective, long-term well-being. In fact, this drive to keep bright young Pennsylvanians in Pennsylvania might be viewed as an early, preemptive strike against what we now call the “brain drain.”

The proposed cuts also visibly reinforce an all-too-common, and ultimately self-defeating, characteristic of state spending—that excellence and impact seldom are rewarded. The universities that are so heavily penalized under this proposal not only make unique and significant contributions at the local, regional, and statewide levels, but stand out for the national and international recognition they have earned for the quality of their programs. They provide undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs in areas of particular need—including science, math, and engineering. One measure of the success of the state-related universities is that we now enroll in excess of 150,000 Pennsylvania students, more than any other sector of higher education. Obviously, this success is not being rewarded.

The proposed cuts also represent a puzzling retreat from the Governor’s own economic agenda, which had emphasized the development of competitive advantages in the emerging innovation economy and placed a high priority on nurturing a business climate that fosters job creation. In fact, in his address today, he described that agenda in three words— jobs, jobs, jobs. Research universities, of course, are centers of innovation, major employers in their own right, a frequent source of support for large numbers of other regional jobs, and generators of the ideas that spawn new companies and create even more jobs.

Chancellor Nordenberg addresses the media and members of the Pitt community during his March 8 news conference in the Lower Lounge of the William Pitt Union.Chancellor Nordenberg addresses the media and members of the Pitt community during his March 8 news conference in the Lower Lounge of the William Pitt Union.

In this region, in fact, the education and health care sector not only is the largest employment supersector (to use a term of art employed by the U.S. Department of Labor) but is the only sector to have consistently added jobs over the course of the past 15 years. UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh already are the region’s two largest employers, and both have demonstrated their further capacity for growth. Pitt now attracts nearly $800 million annually in support for research projects—well in excess of $4 of outside research support for every $1 of state appropriation. It is unlikely that any other Commonwealth investment comes close to matching that rate of return. And to return to the jobs theme, using standard national conventions, $800 million in research spending supports, directly and indirectly, more than 28,000 local jobs.

Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama are not known to have agreed on many things, but both were so impressed with the transformation of Western Pennsylvania’s economy that they wanted to share that good news with others. During a visit to Pitt in 2002, President Bush declared that “[w]hile Pittsburgh used to be called Steel Town, they now need to call it Knowledge Town.” And in choosing Pittsburgh as the site for the 2009 G-20 summit, President Obama said, “Pittsburgh stands as a bold example of how to create new jobs and industries while transitioning to a 21st-century economy. As a city that has transformed itself from a city of steel to a center for high-tech innovation—including green technology, education and training, and research and development—Pittsburgh will provide both a beautiful backdrop and a powerful example for our work.”

In his inaugural address, Governor Corbett sounded similar themes—praising “industry rooted in innovation”; foreseeing a future for Pennsylvania “that embraces innovation in emerging frontiers of energy, life sciences, and biotechnology”; and expressing his own belief that “the best way to embrace innovation—the best way to make us competitive—is to make us competitive in education.” Today’s budget proposal, on the other hand, targets the very institutions that are exemplars in innovation, acknowledged leaders in such areas as energy, life sciences, and biotechnology, and internationally respected providers of the highest-quality higher education.

In his inaugural address, the Governor also praised, as an example of “Pennsylvania’s tradition of character and courage . . . the single mother who works an extra job so that she can send her children to a better school.”

Under today’s budget-reduction proposal, though, the Commonwealth essentially abandons that single mother and countless other Pennsylvania parents—leaving them to deal with the large tuition increases that inevitably will result from these massive reductions in support for public higher education. And if we celebrate the sacrifices made by that single mother to advance her next generation, how can we be so comfortable adding to her burdens in that collective expression of values known as government?

Let me make clear that I have known, liked, and respected Governor Corbett for many years. Not only do I wish him great success in his new office but am eager, as he knows, to support him in forging new forms of progress for Pennsylvania. And to state the obvious, developing a plan to close a multibillion dollar budget gap is a difficult responsibility.

Still, I can hardly stand before you today without respectfully—but clearly and forcefully—questioning the choices upon which this budget proposal has been built. These are choices that will make it far harder for the young people of Pennsylvania to use the power of education to build better lives; choices that will put a real financial squeeze on Pennsylvania families, often still reeling from the effects of the Great Recession; choices that will impede this region’s economic recovery; and choices that make it less likely that Pennsylvania as a state will compete and thrive in the 21st century.

It may be true that there are few good choices available when one is faced with the task of closing such a sizeable budget gap. However, in times of crisis, it is especially important that the best possible choices be made. And in the forward-looking traditions that made this country what it is, the very highest priority should be given to securing the future for generations yet to come.

To be absolutely clear, the University of Pittsburgh stands ready, as it always has, to accept its fair share of the sacrifice that will be required to rein in the deficit. Evidence of that fact can be found in the existing record. Certainly, Pitt is no stranger to budget reductions, or even to disproportionate treatment, with its appropriation having been cut in six of the past 10 years.

And we have made operational efficiency a long-term priority, which is reflected in staged actions like budget cuts, the redesign of benefits plans, cost-reduction initiatives, and successful efforts to increase productivity. It also is reflected in necessary responses to unwelcome economic realities, like the salary freezes that were imposed not too long ago.

Pitt also knows something about positively shaping the future. In that same 10-year period, its faculty attracted a staggering $5.33 billion in research support and earned national and international recognition for their achievements in such wide-ranging areas as organ transplantation, research into the causes of cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, rehabilitation science, mathematics, philosophy, history, and poetry. Pitt alumni were recognized with such prestigious awards as the Nobel Peace Prize, the Nobel Prize in Medicine, the National Medal of Science, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the Fritz Medal in Engineering, and the Albany Prize in Medicine.

Most important perhaps, in that same decade, 76,000 new Pitt degrees were awarded to students in Pittsburgh, Bradford, Greensburg, Johnstown, and Titusville—students using the power of a Pitt education to elevate their own lives and to prepare themselves to contribute to their communities. It is those now following in their footsteps, or hoping to do so, that stand to suffer the greatest personal disadvantage from the deep budget cuts that have been proposed. In a very real sense, though, we all will be losers.

Customarily, the public release of today’s proposal would mark the beginning of a rather extended process through which its recommendations could be considered, discussed, and, at least in some cases, improved. Hopefully, that will remain the case through this year’s budget cycle. Certainly, we will welcome any opportunity to work with the Governor’s team and with legislative leaders as that process moves forward. In doing so, we will do our best to represent the interests of our students and of their families and of the many communities that we serve. We also will work to maintain our momentum as an engine of economic development and as an important source of the people, ideas, and programs that make Pennsylvania stronger today and will help shape a better future for those who follow.