HONORS CONVOCATION: Building on a History of Success And Courage, University Forges Ahead Despite Challenges

Issue Date: 
March 5, 2012

(The is the print version of the keynote address that Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg delivered during the University’s 36th Annual Honors Convocation on Feb. 24.)

It is wonderful to be with you today—in this magnificent hall and on such a truly auspicious occasion. Our annual Honors Convocation gives us the special opportunity to recognize excellence in our midst. Today, we honor students, staff, faculty, and alumni whose records of accomplishment and impact stand as a source of pride within our University.

And this particular Convocation is special in another way because it marks the start of our celebration of the 225th anniversary of Pitt’s founding. Through the Act of February 28, 1787, the Pennsylvania legislature provided for the creation of the log cabin Pittsburgh Academy that would grow to become the University of Pittsburgh.

Humble Beginnings

Descriptions of the Pittsburgh of that time, an outpost of fewer than 400 inhabitants perched at the edge of the American wilderness, convey some sense of how far we have come in other ways. In his classic history of the city, Stefan Lorant said this: “The buildings were neither elaborate nor were they beautiful … The streets before them were unpaved, dirty, littered with refuse, with dogs and hogs roaming through the mire. On rainy days one waded through the mud, in dry weather the dust rose in clouds.”

A leading citizen described Pittsburgh as a place where “there was no morality or regular order.” Outsiders were even less impressed. One visitor concluded simply that the town was an “excellent [place] to do penance in.”

Our Founder’s Dream

Far more positive impressions were held by our University’s founder, Hugh Henry Brackenridge. Born in Scotland and moved to this country at the age of five, he was educated at Princeton. James Madison was a classmate. Brackenridge and another classmate are credited with writing the first American novel.

As a young man, Mr. Brackenridge taught, earned a graduate degree, studied divinity, served as a chaplain in George Washington’s army, and founded and edited a monthly magazine. He also “read the law” under Samuel Chase, who signed the Declaration of Independence and later served as a Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

When Mr. Brackenridge moved west from Philadelphia, Pittsburgh became a principal beneficiary. In time, he served both in the state legislature and as a justice of the state supreme court. Among many other achievements, he helped establish the region’s first newspaper, incorporated a nonsectarian church, served on the committee that drafted the bill creating Allegheny County and making Pittsburgh its county seat, and was an advocate for improved roadways to the western part of the state.

In all that he did, Mr. Brackenridge was driven by an extraordinary vision for this region. When he viewed the modest settlement that had become his home, he said, “This town must in future time become a place of great manufactory. Indeed, the greatest on the continent or perhaps in the world.” He further asserted that “[t]he situation of the town of Pittsburgh is greatly to be chosen for a seat of learning.”

Mr. Brackenridge also saw the link between education and regional prosperity that would emerge even more clearly over time.

“I do not know that the legislature could do a more acceptable service to the Commonwealth than by endowing a school at this place,” he said. “It will institute knowledge and ability … [and] we well know the strength of a state greatly consists in the superior mental powers of the inhabitants.”

Two-hundred-twenty-five years of history have taught us this about our founder: He was right about Pittsburgh becoming a center of manufacturing might. He was right about Pittsburgh becoming a center of higher learning. And he was right about educational excellence as a driver of economic prosperity.

The Brackenridge goal was “to see Pennsylvania at all times able to produce mathematicians, philosophers, historians, and statesmen equal to any in the confederacy.” That same goal sits at the heart of our modern academic mission. In fact, it is our achievement of that goal, through the work of our honorees, that we have gathered to celebrate today.

A Critical Transformation

Just as we honor Hugh Henry Brackenridge for leading the efforts to establish Pitt, so should we recognize K. Leroy Irvis for leading efforts to transform it. Like Mr. Brackenridge, Mr. Irvis was a man of wide-ranging talents—an orator, author, painter, poet, and wood sculptor. And like Mr. Brackenridge, he was a transplant. He attended high school and college in Upstate New York and began his teaching career in Baltimore. He came here to serve as public relations secretary for the Urban League.

Mr. Irvis graduated from our School of Law in 1954 and was a longtime Pitt Trustee. He launched his political career in 1958 as a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, representing this part of the city. Nineteen years later, he was unanimously elected Speaker of the House—not only the first African American Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, but the first Black speaker of any state’s House of Representatives since Reconstruction.

During more than three decades in the state capitol, Speaker Irvis sponsored some 1,600 pieces of legislation—campaigning to improve access to education, equality of opportunity, and integrity in public life. For us, the Speaker’s most critical legislative contribution was his sponsorship of the bill, enacted in 1966, that made Pitt a public, state-related university.

The resulting appropriation helped position us to become one of the country’s top research universities. It also made it possible for us to annually provide tens of thousands of students with access to the highest-quality higher education at a reasonable cost.

Advancing the concepts of access and affordability was extremely important to Speaker Irvis. He regularly argued that higher education opportunities should be tied to “ability and not how fortunate a child happens to have been in the choice of his parents.”

But Mr. Irvis and others also saw that broader social and economic advantages would flow from providing public support to our University. An editorial in the Pittsburgh Press advanced that view by stating that “the existence here of a big, quality university is necessary to the welfare of the area and our hopes for industrial development, no less than for the educational opportunity it offers to students.”

Institutional Advancement and Impact

In the 45 years that have passed since the bill sponsored by Speaker Irvis became law, Pitt has far exceeded any reasonable expectations that might have existed in the mid-1960s.

In education, our University has awarded nearly 290,000 degrees and has maintained tuition levels that are a fraction of those charged by comparable private universities. Pitt students regularly compete for top national awards with the very best students from the country’s top universities. And Pitt alumni continue to receive the highest honors for their achievements. Particularly at an honors convocation, it seems appropriate to note that just since the dawn of the new century, Pitt graduates have received such awards as the Nobel Peace Prize, the Nobel Prize in Medicine, the National Medal of Science, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Book Award for Poetry, the Fritz Medal in Engineering, and the Albany and Shaw Prizes in Medicine.

Over that same period, Pitt also has become an internationally respected center of pioneering research. We 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 faculty continue to claim the highest honors across a broad range of disciplines. And since we became a state-related university, we have imported more than $10.5 billion of research support into the local economy, an amount that is almost unimaginable.

We sit at the heart of the education and health services “supersector,” which now accounts for one-fifth of the region’s employment and has been the most steady and significant source of regional job growth for the past 15 years. In that role, we have helped shield this region from the harshest results of both the Great Recession and the jobless recovert.

Meeting Challenges and Maintaining Hope

With the record that Pitt has built, from distant years to present days, it is hard to imagine that we again find ourselves facing budget cuts—totaling well in excess of $100 million and affecting everything from general support to educational support to research support to capital projects support. Such cuts have the potential for particular damage to the greater good as we move deeper into the highly competitive, innovation-based global economy of the 21st century by slashing investments in the very institutions that are a primary source of our most modern innovation. In fact, a report released by the National Science Foundation just last month noted that universities now perform more than half of the nation’s basic research.

Earlier generations of our faculty and alumni made contributions that were both life-changing and lifesaving. Here are just a few examples of Pitt’s impact:

• the launch of the first heavier-than-air flying machines;

• the first transmission of voice by radio waves;

• the invention of the cathode-ray television systems essential to the launch of that industry;

• the development of the vaccine that won this country’s long war against polio, hailed by some as one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century;

• the development of CPR and the founding of the discipline of critical care medicine;

• the discovery of quasars;

• the synthesis of insulin;

• the development of the science of magnetic resonance imaging;

• the determination that breast cancer is a systemic, not a local, disease—one of the most significant advances in the history of women’s health;

• the development of the science of recombinant DNA, the foundation for countless medical advances and for much of this country’s biotechnology industry; and

•  the development of most of the surgical techniques and drug therapies that have made organ transplantation a widely available treatment option.

And, as is a major point of this convocation, we are not done. Instead, current faculty members, as well as current alumni and alumni-to-be, are advancing their own exciting work and are poised to make future contributions to our shared progress.

The state budget address delivered last week included the following inspirational admonition: “We cannot allow the debts of today to crowd out the dreams of tomorrow.” But building the best possible future depends directly on two of our principal products—education and innovation. An approach to budget balancing built on deep and disproportionate cuts to public support for public research universities, then, does inevitably sacrifice the dreams of tomorrow.

And, as a matter of history, such an approach can fairly be viewed as undermining much of what Brackenridge and Irvis and all who embraced their visions built.

Particularly in such challenging times, we are fortunate to be a part of an institution with such a noble mission. Everyone connected to this University is contributing to the development of human potential, to the enhancement of human knowledge, to the deepening of human understanding, and, in a broad range of ways, to the advancement of the greater good.

We also are fortunate that we have each other. This is a community of exceptional people, whether measured by the power of their brains, the strength of their character, or the size of their hearts.

And we can take comfort from the inspiring successes crafted by our predecessors, even as they met their own challenges over the past 225 years. Those challenges included the Civil War and two World Wars, devastating floods and fires, a number of recessions, and the Great Depression.

In fact, it was during the Great Depression that the Cathedral of Learning—our signature structure and the symbol of our aspirations—was built. Who possibly could have foreseen, back in the Brackenridge days, that our Cathedral would spring from the Pittsburgh muck and mire about which his contemporaries complained—or that it would emerge in the midst of the world’s greatest economic calamity?

Harry W. Scheuch, who attended Pitt following World War II, painted scenes of the Cathedral of Learning during its construction. In writing about those paintings, the Smithsonian American Art Museum noted: “Like the Empire State Building and the Golden Gate Bridge, the Cathedral of Learning demonstrated that the Great Depression could not stop Americans from accomplishing great things.”

Being grouped with the Empire State Building and the Golden Gate Bridge puts our Cathedral in very good company.

In that sense, it is much like the company in this hall today. We have come together for this Founder’s Day Honors Convocation not only to gratefully acknowledge what our predecessors left us, but to salute the great things currently being accomplished by those in our midst. We enthusiastically applaud today’s honorees. By converting your own dreams into something good and real, you have given the highest form of thanks to those who preceded you; you have brought honor to yourselves; and you have helped advance the noble and never-ending cause of a University that has been building better lives for 225 years.

Congratulations, Happy 225th Birthday, and Hail to Pitt!