Honoring a Legacy of Building Greatness, Transforming Lives, and Holding Fast to a Faith in Education

Issue Date: 
February 27, 2012
Chancellor Mark A. NordenbergChancellor Mark A. Nordenberg

The sainted Mother Teresa said this, among many other memorable teachings: “What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight. Build anyway.” Those words have particular significance for Pitt today—as we prepare to celebrate a long and proud 225-year history of building better lives; as we press forward with our own determined efforts to build further on an already impressive institutional legacy; and as we continue to contend with serious threats, through deep and disproportionate budgetary reductions, to a relationship with our home state that has been critical to much of what we have been able to contribute to its people.

On Feb. 28, 1787, the people of Pittsburgh—led by our founder, Hugh Henry Brackenridge, and supported by state government—began building something very special here. Authorized by an act that began with the simple declaration that “the education of youth ought to be a primary object with every government,” they built the wilderness academy that would become our world-class university. They did so when survival was defined in far more basic terms than balance-sheet entries. And they were driven by a clear commitment to future generations and by a belief in the power of education.

Those who succeeded our founders kept building as the Pittsburgh Academy became the Western University of Pennsylvania and, finally, the University of Pittsburgh. They kept building as our principal campus moved from downtown, to the North Side, and finally to Oakland and as the University expanded to include important regional campuses in Johnstown, Bradford, Greensburg, and Titusville.

They sustained their important work even when the country was at war. They coped with the ravages of economic disaster more serious than what we have just endured. In the face of damage by flood and fire, they rebuilt.  And what they built and rebuilt, by any measure, was very good.

In assessing two centuries of commitment to “the education of youth,” this is what our bicentennial historian concluded 25 years ago. The story of Pitt is “a happy chronicle of a sound and worthwhile accomplishment. For almost 200 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.”

But from early times, this University became something even greater than that—a place that changed the shape of lives through the transforming power of ideas.  Let me offer just a few telling examples that take us across an extended time line.

• In the 1890s, Pitt astronomy professor, Allegheny Observatory director, and aviation pioneer Samuel Langley launched the first power-driven, heavier-than-air flying machines, paving the way for human flight. Today, the Langley name adorns many important Air Force and NASA facilities, just as it adorns our own Langley Hall.

• In the early 1900s, Pitt engineering professor Reginald Fessenden proved that radio waves could be used to transmit the human voice. On Christmas Eve of 1906, he broadcast carols and a violin solo, by radio, across the Atlantic Ocean.

• In the 1920s, Pitt graduate Vladimir Zworykin invented a TV transmitting and receiving system employing cathode-ray tubes, an advance that was critical to the development of the television industry. It is said that Dr. Zworykin later identified his favorite part of a television set as “the switch, to turn the damn thing off.”

• In the 1930s, Pitt chemistry professor Charles King synthesized vitamin C, which prevents scurvy, one of humankind’s oldest diseases.

• In the 1950s, a Pitt team led by the late Jonas Salk and including current Pitt faculty member Julius Youngner developed the vaccine that won America’s long war against the dread disease of polio. This has been widely hailed as one of the greatest accomplishments of the 20th century.

• In the early 1960s, a Pitt team led by Panayotis Katsoyannis synthesized insulin. Until this time, insulin for human treatment was obtained from sheep and cows through a process that was messy, complicated, and expensive.

• Building on his Pitt graduate studies in the late 1950s and early 1960s and through work extending into the 1970s, alumnus Paul Lauterbur developed the science upon which magnetic resonance imaging was built. For this contribution, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine.

• Beginning in the 1960s and extending through the 1970s, Pitt professor (and double Pitt graduate) Bernie Fisher led studies concluding that breast cancer is a systemic and not a local disease, which resulted in dramatic and hugely beneficial changes in its treatment.  There are those who believe that Dr. Fisher has done more to advance women’s health than any other person in history.

• In the 1970s, the recombinant DNA, gene-splicing work done by Pitt graduate and former Trustee Herb Boyer opened up what had been unimaginable possibilities for dealing with disease.  That work was said by Time magazine to have “forever changed the course of civilization.” It also led to Herb’s founding of Genentech, marking the beginning of this country’s biotechnology industry.

• In the 1980s, Pitt professors Henry Bahnson and Thomas Starzl performed the world’s first double-organ transplant. During that same period, most of the surgical techniques and drug therapies that made human organ transplantation a widely available treatment option were developed here.

That essentially takes us up to the time of our 1987 bicentennial celebration.  And in the last 25 years, as you all know, Pitt has just exploded—as an educational institution-of-choice for ambitious, hardworking students across almost every discipline; as one of the world’s most respected centers for pioneering research; and as one of the institutional anchors that helped Southwestern Pennsylvania move successfully through one of the most wrenching economic transformations ever experienced by any region.

In today’s Pitt, our principal responsibility can be seen as doing honor to the legacy of those who came before us by advancing their work through our own efforts to effectively build upon it.  In that pursuit, we have continued to build momentum on all fronts. Let me rely on just a few examples which have arisen just since our fall meeting.

Cory Rodgers, the first university student in a four-generation family of bricklayers from Somerset was one of 32 students nationally to be named a 2012 Rhodes Scholar. Cory will graduate with a triple major—in Africana studies, the biological sciences, and the history and philosophy of science—and with a minor in chemistry.  He also studied Swahili.  In addition to pursuing his academic work, he tutored a Somali-Bantu refugee family; served as a hospice volunteer; and worked in UPMC’s patient transport division.  He did an alternative spring break with Habitat for Humanity and spent summers studying in Mongolia and Tanzania.

Cory is the fourth Pitt undergraduate in the past seven years to be named a Rhodes Scholar, a record equaled by only one other public university, the University of North Carolina. He also represents the large number of Pitt students who compete successfully each year with the very best students from the country’s strongest universities for the highest national honors. Since we last met, Pitt also was again recognized as one of the country’s top producers of student Fulbright award-winners.

In terms of alumni achievement, let me again offer just a single example.  And in this case, I look right into the heart of this group at Trustee Bill Strickland, who recently traveled to Japan to receive the Goi Peace Award.  Past recipients have included Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates; former Costa Rican President and Nobel Peace Laureate Oscar Arias; social entrepreneur Bill Drayton; and Indian physician and author Deepak Chopra.

Bill was recognized for his visionary work in helping “the underserved transform their lives” and in “inspiring others to dream bigger.” The selection committee stated, “By offering innovative educational and cultural opportunities with emphasis on the arts, beauty, and respect, Mr. Strickland has empowered thousands of youth and adults to restore hope and dignity and become creative contributors to their communities.”  Bill, we proudly claim you—as graduate, Trustee, and friend.

And today, Bill really stands as one among many inspiring examples of all the good that can be done with a Pitt education. As you all know, just since the dawn of this new century, our graduates have captured such high honors as the Nobel Peace Prize, the Nobel Prize in Medicine, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Book Award for Poetry, the National Medal of Science, the Fritz Medal for Engineering, and the Shaw and Albany Prizes in Medicine. That record would be the envy of virtually any university.

Within the faculty, it is hard to know where to begin and end, because so many important forms of recognition have been earned just in the past few weeks.  Let me, then, rely on a group example.

As you know, Pitt faculty members are expected to impart knowledge about their fields, as all teachers do.  But they also are expected to be at the forefront of expanding the base of human knowledge by building their fields. Our faculty members continue to build an enviable record of doing just that, across wide-ranging disciplines.

Often, in fact, we dominate key fields.  But I am not sure that I ever have seen such a stark example as the one I am about to share. At its annual meeting in Houston earlier this month, the Society of Critical Care Medicine selected 20 world-renowned intensivists to be the first to receive its highest honor—  designation as a Master in Critical Care Medicine. Seven of the 20 members of that inaugural class of honorees came from Pitt, which is just extraordinary.

Three of the seven no longer are in active service with us—the late Peter Safar, the father of CPR, a great human being, and a person who belongs on any list of legendary Pitt faculty members; Professor Emeritus Ake Grenvik, also a giant in his field, a beloved member of this community and, along with John Swanson and John Petersen, surely among the most important Scandinavians in the Pitt family; and Mitchell Fink, the founding chair of our critical care medicine department, who left academia to start a company based on technology that he had developed.

Four of the 20, which still is one-fifth of the entire group, continue to work among us. They are Derek Angus, the current department chair; Pat Kochanek, the director of the Safar Center for Resuscitation Research; Ann Thompson, the associate dean for faculty affairs in the School of Medicine; and Michael Pinsky, who also serves as the president of the University Senate.

Much of our faculty research, particularly in the sciences and health sciences, is supported by outside funding. We continue to rank among the top American universities, both in funding from the National Institutes of Health and in overall federal science and engineering research and development support. Our research expenditures last year exceeded $800 million—an amount that is a widely accepted measure of institutional strength, that advances pioneering work, and that supports, directly and indirectly, some 28,000 local jobs. This is one reason that the education and health services supersector has been this area’s most consistent source of job growth and now accounts for more than one in five jobs in this region.

It also is important to note that federal agencies are not the only organizations  investing in Pitt’s education and research enterprise as an effective means of supporting economic growth. Earlier this month, it was announced that the Richard King Mellon Foundation had awarded a $22 million grant to Pitt’s Center for Energy. Scott Izzo, the executive director of the foundation, said at the time, “The center has tremendous potential to make an impact in Pittsburgh, as energy will be the major driver of our regional economy for years to come.”

Those actively engaged in the energy sector agreed.  Steve Tritch—who was not our Board Chair when he served as CEO of Westinghouse—reminded everyone that a key factor in that major employer’s decision to build its new corporate headquarters in Southwestern Pennsylvania was the presence of Pitt, as a principal educator of its professional workforce and as a partner in energy research. Anthony Cugini, director of the National Energy Technology Laboratory, said that his lab “is charged with advancing energy options to fuel our economy, strengthen our security, and improve our environment” and “Pitt and the Center for Energy are among our most active collaborative partners in this effort.”  Dennis Yablonsky, CEO of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, added that “Pittsburgh is the new center of innovation in American energy.  . . .  Pitt’s Center for Energy has played a key role in these efforts, and we applaud the Richard King Mellon Foundation’s investment in enhancing the University’s capabilities.”

With a such a strong record of impact—in education, in research, and in public service through economic development—and with testimonials like these, one might expect that the Commonwealth, too, would be stepping forward to say: “We really helped create something special when Pitt became a state-related university in 1966; there is no place that we are getting a higher rate of return on our appropriations; so, let us do the sensible thing and increase our investments in Pitt.”

That approach would be particularly consistent with a belief in “a future that embraces innovation in emerging frontiers of energy, life sciences, and biotechnology,” as described in the Governor’s inaugural address.  It also would be consistent with the “certainty” expressed in that same document “that the best way to embrace innovation—the best way to make us competitive—is to make us competitive in education.”

It would be difficult to find many institutions with greater strengths in energy, life sciences, and biotechnology than the University of Pittsburgh. And in Pitt, Pennsylvania can claim, as one of its own public universities, an institution that already has established itself as a respected global competitor in both education and research.

Still, for the second successive year, Pitt, along with Pennsylvania’s other public research universities and public higher education more generally, is being asked to bear far more than its fair share of the reductions required to balance the Commonwealth’s budget for the next fiscal year.  The largest of the proposed cuts has been rather widely publicized—a 30 percent cut to our education and general appropriation, on top of the 19 percent cut already imposed last year. In addition, the proposed budget would reduce our academic medical center lines by 10 percent, on top of the 50 percent cut already imposed last year.

This would reduce our appropriation, in absolute dollars, to levels that we have not seen since 1987, more than a quarter century ago. And today’s overall state budget is three times larger than it was then. Put another way, it would reduce our state support, if adjusted for inflation, to the lowest level since Pitt became a state-related university.

Even that is not the complete story, though. In late fall, our annual capital projects support was cut in half, from $40 million to $20 million. And in January, we were subjected to a midyear cut of 5 percent, or $7 million.

Finally, though little public attention has been paid to it, this budget proposal would quietly, but completely, eliminate the Commonwealth Universal Research Enhancement program—which was established more than a decade ago, during the administration of Governor Ridge and with the strong support of both houses of the Legislature. The CURE program, as it is known, was created by the Tobacco Settlement Act of 2001, which committed a portion of the funds recovered from tobacco companies to health-related research with the goal of improving the lives of current and future citizens of Pennsylvania.

CURE funding has supported thousands of good-paying, knowledge-based Pennsylvania jobs focused on the goal of improving future health. Using CURE funds, as the budget proposal envisions, to plug a short-term hole in senior care instead of investing them in research infrastructure and scientific innovation will simply maintain the unsustainable status quo in health care.

To return to language already cited from last year’s inaugural address, it seems almost impossible to reconcile such a budgetary action with a vision for our collective future that has been tied to “innovation in emerging frontiers of energy, life sciences, and biotechnology.”

And it is every bit as hard to reconcile the more general budgetary approach being employed with what was the most inspiring passage from this year’s budget address—the declaration that “[w]e cannot allow the debts of today to crowd out the dreams of tomorrow.”

Building the best possible future, of course, depends directly upon two of our principal products—education and innovation.  An approach to budget balancing built on record-setting cuts for public research universities, then, inevitably does sacrifice tomorrow’s dreams.

In 1831, during his American travels, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote this to a friend in Europe: “The effort made in this country to spread instruction is truly prodigious.  The universal and sincere faith that they profess here in the efficaciousness of education seems to me one of the most remarkable features of America.”

Faith in education has been one of the distinguishing features of this country, and it is one of the forces that has helped drive America’s unparalleled record of sustained success. Certainly, the products of that faith have helped not only to shape our home region since the days of Hugh Henry Brackenridge but to positively reshape that region in the face of the challenges of the more recent past.

How tragically ironic it would be to see that long-term faith undermined by budget builders held prisoner to short-term fiscal pressures in the year that brings the 225th birthday of both the structuring of our national government and the chartering of our University. But what better way to celebrate those historic anniversaries than by acting on that faith and working together to restore appropriate levels of support for public higher education—not mainly for our own good, but for the good of all who will follow . . . in the spirit of 1787.

Happy Birthday, to Pitt and to all who care about Pitt . . . including, of course, all of you.