Continued Progress Amid Continuing Economic Challenges

Issue Date: 
November 11, 2009

The following is the print version of Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg's Oct. 30, 2009, report to the Pitt Board of Trustees.

Chancellor Mark A. NordenbergChancellor Mark A. Nordenberg

The beginning of every academic year is an exciting time. After the comparative calm of summer, we are jolted back to our own set of realities by the sudden, significant, and sustained surge of energy traveling with our students as they “repopulate” our campuses. In human terms, I doubt that there is anything quite like it in any other kind of institution.

Once again, I can report that we enrolled the best-qualified freshman class in our history here in Oakland. I hope that is a message I will be able to continue repeating and that you never will tire of hearing. But I also want to make the point that—though we tend to focus on Oakland undergraduate applications as one of our key institutional measures—applications, enrollment, and student credentials are up across most of our programs on all of our campuses.

At an Oct. 29 Health Sciences Committee meeting, for example, Dr. Arthur Levine, senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, reported that the credentials presented by this fall’s entering class in the School of Medicine are equal to those of Harvard’s entering class. And to single out one other important example, enrollment at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford passed the 1,500 mark this term. That has been a longtime goal—hard to achieve in a beautiful, but somewhat remote and sparsely populated, portion of our state. But President Livingston Alexander and his team, supported by Craig Hartburg and the Pitt-Bradford Advisory Board, met that milestone this year, so special congratulations are due to them.

And my specific mention of Pitt-Bradford also is a reminder that an important part of our undergraduate education is delivered on our four regional campuses—Bradford, Greensburg, Johnstown, and Titusville. We have invested in those campuses and also have tried to be sensitive to their markets in dealing with tuition issues—freezing tuition this year, for example. The people on those campuses, in return, are delivering high-quality programs to a substantial number of students.

Back on this campus, we assisted students with our relatively hassle-free Arrival Survival move-in program, supported by an army of nearly 500 volunteers. We greeted a group of 4,600 new students and family members at our Freshman Convocation and Chancellor’s Reception. These students were quickly engaged in a broad range of campus customs— from Lantern Night, which had Heinz Chapel overflowing; to the first-football-game bonfire, which attracted some 2,000 students to the Cathedral lawn; to all of the pageantry of the Oct. 23-25 Homecoming, which included the crowning of the queen and king, campus fireworks on Friday night, and game-time fireworks, with our big win over South Florida, at Heinz Field on Saturday afternoon.

I know that not all of you had the chance to be here for Homecoming, so let me tell you that Oakland was packed. Every available space seemed to have been claimed for one kind of Pitt event or another. On Friday evening, I moved from the African American Alumni Council’s dedication of a special exhibition in Hillman Library to the Varsity Letter Winners Dinner in Alumni Hall, to the School of Law’s reception in the University Club, to an open reception for alumni and friends held in the Commons Room of the Cathedral of Learning, to the fireworks show on Bigelow Boulevard. Everywhere you turned, there were people celebrating their connections to Pitt. It was a very human reaffirmation of the importance that our University continues to play in the lives of large numbers of people.

But our “basic business”—as you can tell from the well-publicized “party school rankings” where we never contend for top spot —is not celebrations. The academic life of the campus is more vibrant than it ever has been, and our students are avid consumers of it. Our Hillman University Library Director Rush Miller tells me that he has never seen so many students in the library, and the number of students studying in such public areas as the Common Room has grown dramatically.

We also are working hard to provide the right kind of transitions to the world of work for our students. One month ago today, for example, we hosted the largest career fair in our history, where some 3,000 students had the chance to meet with more than 200 employers. That event also is another reminder of the uses to which the Petersen Events Center is put, in addition to basketball.

At Pitt, of course, the “Petersen” name is synonymous with extraordinary generosity. And recent weeks have given us the chance to recognize private donors and their support—which have become increasingly important at a time when public support for higher education continues to wane, and the economy, more generally, is challenged.

One dimension of our stewardship has been large-group recognition of important supporters. Here, for example, you see [in a projected slide] scenes from this fall’s Chancellor’s Circle event, which honors donors of $1,000 or more. Appropriately enough, we attracted nearly 1,000 people to this event, held under the big tent at Heinz Field. That is a far cry from the first such event that I attended, as a Chancellor’s Circle donor, some 20 years ago. It probably is not true that we all could have been stuffed into a phone booth, but a small seminar room would have accommodated all of us.

Recent weeks also have given us the chance to acknowledge individual giving on a truly spectacular scale. We celebrated the completion of the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation at a ribbon-cutting held in conjunction with a meeting of the Board of Visitors of the Swanson School of Engineering. And less than two weeks ago, we announced the most recent commitment of John and Gertrude Petersen—this gift to support what will be known as the Petersen Sports Complex—the future home to our baseball, softball,  and men’s and women’s soccer teams.

As the new term unfolded, we had the chance to welcome distinguished guests. Some came from considerable distances. The two most obvious examples in that category were José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, and Dimitry Medvedev, the president of the Russian Federation. I only wish that you all could have been here, because it was a truly memorable afternoon. And, as you would expect, the presence on our campus of these two world leaders brought very positive attention to Pitt all around the globe.

Other important outside guests ranged from the all-star lineup of speakers assembled for our ninth annual celebration of science to the winner of this year’s Drue Heinz Prize in Literature—the country’s most prominent award in short fiction, which we present annually. And throughout the fall, we have hosted a rich array of cultural activities.

Some of our distinguished guests came from within the “Pitt family.” For example, within a larger group of Homecoming Week honorees, just last week [Oct. 22], we inducted a new class of Legacy Laureates. That group included your Board colleague Lee Noble, as well as such other distinguished Pitt graduates as the President of the Taipei Medical University, the Dean of the Yale Nursing School, and the founding Chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, to give just a few examples.

We also recognized a stellar group of African American Alumni Council distinguished alumnus honorees. That group included your Board colleague Bill Strickland, as well as two of the first three African American women to enroll in our nursing school in the early 1940s. Their stories were inspiring not only because they broke that color barrier but because they went on to craft lives of such impact with their Pitt degrees in hand.

Important and well-deserved honors also were received by members of our Board from non-Pitt groups. Just in the last several days, to give two telling examples, Eva Blum was named a Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania, a very high honor, and Keith Schaefer was named the CEO of the Year by the Pittsburgh Technology Council for the outstanding work he has done in leading BPL Global, which is positioned to be one of this region’s great 21st-century commercial successes.

The presence of Keith and the work that he is doing here are telling examples of a type of largely unrecognized contribution that our University makes to regional economic development. In past presentations, I have reminded you that such contributions, though they are now getting more attention, actually are an important part of our regional history.

To repeat just two examples:

•  Jerry McGinnis, a young man from Illinois, came to Pitt for graduate school, stayed in the region, and founded Respironics, which has become a major regional employer and a force in its area of specialty around the world; and

•  John Swanson, a young man from Upstate New York, came to Pitt for graduate school, stayed in the region, and founded ANSYS, which has become a major regional employer and a force in its area of specialty around the world.

Keith Schaefer, of course, was born, raised, and educated in Pittsburgh. However, he was “long gone” for many years, with most of his career spent in California. It was not until he was honored as a Distinguished Alumni Fellow, became a leader of the Pitt Alumni Association, and was elected to this Board that he really began re-engaging in Pittsburgh. And that positioned him to assume the CEO’s position in this exciting new company.

Of course, the fact that the rebirth of this region’s economy is tied so directly to strong university research is a theme that was sounded in publications throughout the country during the past year. That theme received even greater attention, and in more distant locations, when President Obama selected Pittsburgh to host the G-20 Summit. In connection with that event, both the “eds and meds” sector generally and Pitt, more particularly, received well-placed coverage for their contributions.

As you all know, we also do connect, both to the broader society and to our home communities, in important ways that are not tied directly to research. For example:

•  Some 450 members of our staff and faculty participated in the United Way’s Day of Caring. The Day of Caring concept was pioneered here in Pittsburgh, and Pitt has been a leading participant right from the start. Among the many projects with which Pitt people assisted this year was the creation of a food pantry in Oakland. The fact that such a facility is even needed in our home neighborhood, plus the fact that it has been so heavily utilized since it was opened, are telling and troubling reminders about the condition of the economy;

•   We also have launched our traditional United Way campaign—where, again, we always have been a leader. Our goal this year is to collect more than $600,000 from within the campus community;

•  Earlier this month, in a striking display of community commitment, close to 3,000 Pitt students participated in their second annual Pitt Make A Difference Day. They tackled projects in more than 50 different Pittsburgh-area neighborhoods. In fact, we could have involved more students if there had been more projects; and

•  Even more recently, Pitt was the top-ranked public university in the 2009 edition of Saviors of Our Cities: A Survey of Best College and University Civic Partnerships. “Best neighbor universities,” as they are called in this assessment, are distinguished by their “long-standing efforts with community leaders to rehabilitate the cities around them, to influence community revitalization and cultural renewal, and to encourage economic expansion . . . urban development and community service.”

This impressive accumulation of good news and good deeds should not be misunderstood as a message that we have moved into this new academic year without any challenges, however. In fact, over the course of the last several weeks, our three biggest problems have been G-20, H1N1, and SB1036.

All of you are familiar with the G-20 protests and accompanying claims of excessive force and the H1N1 virus and fears of vaccine shortages. These matters have been widely covered in the popular press, and we have been reporting to you on them. Let me, then, focus on SB1036—which, in my judgment, has not received all of the attention it deserves.

SB1036 is the bill that has passed the Pennsylvania Senate and that provides funding for Pitt’s FY2010 appropriation. Even more to the point, SB1036 is one of several bills that have been “held hostage” in the House as wrangling over competing positions on gaming legislation continues.

It has been said that the Pitt, Penn State, Temple, and Lincoln appropriations all are being held up because we are “nonpreferred” institutions, and, in the legal sense, we are “nonpreferred.” However, being in that category generally means that a higher threshold of support is required when a vote is taken, not that bills will be kept from a vote of the members.

Think about our current situation. Legislation authorizing support for the universities that enroll the largest number of Pennsylvania students that attract research funding far in excess of their state appropriations and that are among the most powerful economic engines in the Commonwealth is being held up because competing caucuses cannot agree about the fees and taxes to be paid by the “table games industry.” When you think about the way that most Pennsylvanians would rank their own priorities, that “nonpreferred” term seems even more clearly to be misplaced in this context.

In fact, when you think about the plain meaning of the term, Pennsylvania’s state-related universities actually have become the preferred choice in higher education for many of Pennsylvania’s hardest-working and most-able students. And Pennsylvania’s state-related universities clearly have become preferred centers of research—within the community of government, corporate, and foundation sponsors. And because of that combination of strengths in research and education, the great weight of current commentary suggests that if you were looking for ways to sustain or revitalize a regional economy, Pennsylvania’s state-related universities would be viewed as preferred engines of growth.

Even one who was trained as a lawyer and spent much of his career training others in the law knows that sometimes one has to move beyond legalisms and ask what is really happening in a particular situation. In this case, that is pretty clear.

When anyone says that the funding of Pitt, Penn State, Temple, and Lincoln is on hold because we are not preferred, what they also are saying, in the most practical sense, is that our more than 161,000 students—including nearly 122,000 of Pennsylvania’s brightest and most accomplished students, students who have chosen to stay at home for college or even higher levels of education and who also are more likely, then, to stay here after college—are not preferred. And they are saying, at a time when job preservation is the most significant challenge to our economy, that our combined 50,000 employees are not preferred. And they are saying that the roughly one million alumni of our state-related universities—the biggest block of whom live here in Pennsylvania and do care deeply about their universities—are not preferred. And they are saying that the roughly 30 communities in which we have campuses or other key facilities that function as drivers of the economy are not preferred.

Otto von Bismarck, known as “The Iron Chancellor”—as opposed, I guess, to your much less imposing “Steel City Chancellor”—once said that “laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.” Four full months into the fiscal year without a completed budget, the real question in Pennsylvania is more basic—whether it should be seen or not, does Pennsylvania even have a functioning budget process? Certainly, the products that we might reasonably have expected have not been forthcoming.

Though the headlines of earlier this month broadly proclaimed that a state budget had been put in place, that simply was not the case. Instead, there is important work yet to be done. And in approaching that work, our 21st-century lawmakers might do well to heed the advice of Benjamin Franklin, perhaps the greatest Pennsylvanian and the former Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

Well over two centuries ago, Mr. Franklin said,  “An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.” That judgment, like much of Mr. Franklin’s wisdom, has stood the test of time and hopefully will guide the participants when work on the still-unfinished portions of the Commonwealth budget resumes in earnest.