Moving Ahead - "... a never-ending quest for excellence and impact"

Issue Date: 
March 17, 2014

This is the print version of Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg’s Winter 2014 Report to Pitt’s Board of Trustees, delivered on Feb. 28.

On February 28, 1787, the Pennsylvania legislature passed the act chartering the Pittsburgh Academy. Over time, that single-room, log-cabin, frontier academy would become the University of Pittsburgh. Today, then, marks the 227th anniversary of Pitt’s founding—a big day for our University.

Hugh Henry Brackenridge, our founder, made many other important contributions, but he always considered the creation of this school to be the centerpiece of his efforts to develop Western Pennsylvania. In advancing that cause, he declared that “the situation of the town of Pittsburgh is greatly to be chosen for a seat of learning.” He also expressed the view, presumably held less commonly on the frontier but widely accepted today, that “the strength of a state greatly consists in the superior mental powers of its inhabitants.” The preamble to our chartering act also advances that view, declaring that “the education of youth ought to be a primary object with every government.”

Moving forward more than 200 years, when I assumed this office, I still was in my mid-40s, with a full head of brown hair and what, by comparison, was an almost boyish appearance. Today, I stand before you not only more aged and battle-worn but as the group’s unofficial historian. With respect to those far earlier times, I have qualified for that role by reading. With respect to more current matters, my accounts are first-hand and were acquired by living nearly two decades of Pitt history with you. So, let me begin by focusing on some of that more recent history.

During the fall and winter weeks of the 1995-96 academic year, two Trustee-driven initiatives combined to shape the “path to progress” that would be traveled by the University of Pittsburgh as it built momentum over the course of the next 18 years.

First, the Board commissioned an external assessment of the institution. The product of that effort was titled “The University of Pittsburgh Review.” While generally acknowledging that 

“[b]y any meaningful standard, the University of Pittsburgh is an imposing, impressive institution of great quality,” the principal public impact of the report was driven by its long list of negative observations. Some examples, taken from its overview, include the following.

• “The world-wide reputations of many of the University’s programs are lost in the local spotlight on administrative gaffes, questionable Board decisions, vocal dissidents on the faculty, and self-inflicted wounds from the failure to communicate accurately and in a timely fashion with the several University publics.”

• “There is something missing when one walks around the campus. Call it pride, tradition or institutional loyalty.” 

• “University buildings and grounds are intermixed with private and public facilities. Instead of serving as a model for community renewal and revitalization, the campus has become part of a general state of disrepair characterized by the Oakland area.”

• “[T]he institution ‘has been drifting’ for approximately the past decade. Strong, vigorous, visionary leadership . . . has been lacking at the top echelons of the University . . .”.

The overview section of the report, also identified a range of external factors that loomed as large concerns for the future of Pitt. These included: the erosion of the industrial base in its home region; a marked decline in the number of high school graduates in Pennsylvania; dramatic declines in enrollment at Pitt itself (reportedly driven by “a steady stream of adverse publicity,” “declining cost competitiveness,” an unattractive and unappealing urban setting, and a perception that the institution was not “sufficiently concerned with undergraduates”); possible declines in federal research funding and changes to federal health policies; low campus morale and a “malaise” that is gripping the University; and a persistent feeling that the University is unable to change its ways of doing business.

The Board had promised that the report, when completed, would be released, and it was. Not surprisingly, the criticisms in it generated a spate of negative headlines.

At the same time, though, Trustees also were actively engaged in a series of weekend retreats. Those sessions were designed to help the Board develop not only a better sense of what Pitt already was but also of what Pitt might become, so that a path forward could be effectively charted. That path ultimately was framed by the five priority statements publicly adopted 18 years ago, in February of 1996. Those statements, which have become very familiar to most of you, committed the University of Pittsburgh to:

• Aggressively Pursue Excellence in Undergraduate Education;

• Maintain Excellence in Research;

• Partner in Community Development; 

• Ensure Operational Efficiency and Effectiveness; and 

• Secure an Adequate Resource Base.

Over the course of more than a year, this Board, at the direction of our chair, has been engaged in examining those statements in light of the dramatic progress that Pitt has made, the somewhat changed world in which we now function, and the aspirations that we share. That effort has produced a deeper appreciation of the fact that these priority statements have usefully charted a general course forward, while preserving the flexibility that has proved necessary, over the course of the many years that we have been working together. 

But that review also produced a sense that changes, both to Pitt and in our external environment, should be reflected in our statement of priorities as we move forward. What I have been charged to do this morning, then, is to discuss these 18-year-old statements and the ways in which they are proposed to be modified today, based largely on your suggestions and our earlier discussions.

Aggressively Pursue Excellence in Undergraduate Education 

The first of our 1996 priority statements committed us to the aggressive pursuit of excellence in undergraduate education. That focus on undergraduate education reflected a belief that—even though our undergraduate programs are our largest programs and even though those programs had a long and strong record of producing outstanding alumni—the University had come to be better known for its graduate and professional programs. Or, to phrase it somewhat less positively, as had been stated in The University of Pittsburgh Review, there was a need to deal with the perception that Pitt was not sufficiently concerned with its undergraduates. To advance this priority, we took a number of actions, including the following.

• We reviewed curricula to ensure that all undergraduate students, whatever their course of study, were acquiring the skills necessary to succeed in our “modern, global society.”

• We implemented the Pitt Pathways program, combining academic and career planning from the beginning of the freshman year and devoted new resources to placement activities.

• We developed the “Outside the Classroom Curriculum” and became the first major university to guarantee its students an internship experience.

• We made a determined effort to ensure that faculty were skilled in the use of new instructional technologies.

• We dramatically increased our inventory of on-campus residence hall rooms—in the process meeting what had been the highest priority of both city leaders and our neighbors. We also added recreational facilities, created a new center of student life by adding to the cluster of residence halls near the Petersen Events center, and more generally beautified each of our five campuses.

• We adopted, as one of our student life themes, “The City is Our Campus” and gave that slogan meaning through such varied initiatives as our fare-free rides agreement with the Port Authority and the Pitt Arts program. 

In the end, these and other steps helped transform Pitt from an institution that was struggling to attract adequate numbers of comparatively less qualified students in the mid-1990s to an institution that has become a university-of-choice for hard-working, high-achieving students today. For example,

• In 1995, we attracted fewer than 8,000 applications to the undergraduate programs on this campus, and the class enrolled had an average test score of just over 1100. For next fall’s entering class, we are on pace to attract more than 30,000 applications and enroll a class with an average test score of over 1300. 

• Since this priority statement was adopted, our students have consistently demonstrated that they can compete effectively with the best students from the country’s finest universities for the highest forms of national and international recognition.

• Perhaps most important, we also have good-hearted students who are committed to giving back, and we are blessed with more than our fair share of happy students and satisfied parents, grateful for the opportunities that they have found here.

Having effectively advanced our more focused goal of pursuing excellence in undergraduate education, there was widespread agreement that we now should broaden that statement of priority. Therefore, the priorities to be formally considered today include a commitment to “Consistently Deliver Excellence in Education.” That commitment is further explained by the statement that we will “Further strengthen our position as a university-of-choice for committed and accomplished students by continuing to provide the highest-quality opportunities for learning and growth, inside and outside the classroom, though our impressive undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs.”

Maintaining Excellence in Research

Our second 1996 priority statement committed us to maintain excellence in research. At that point in time, as the use of the verb “maintain” suggests, we already were a well-respected center for research. And in the years that have followed, we have done far more than maintain our position. To repeat one measure with which you already are familiar, in 1995, we ranked 24th among the nation’s universities in terms of the federal research support attracted by members of our faculty. But by 2010, we had risen as high as fifth nationally, passing the following fine universities as a part of that climb: Arizona, Berkeley, Colorado, Columbia, Cornell, Duke, Harvard, Minnesota, MIT, North Carolina, Penn State, Stanford, UCLA, UC-San Diego, UC-San Francisco, USC, Washington University in St. Louis, Wisconsin, and Yale. Clearly, we were not just in a maintenance mode.

Our total research expenditures rose from $240 million in 1995 to more than $800 million in 2012, during the stimulus period, to about $760 million last year. And between 1995 and last year, we imported more than $9 billion of research support into the local economy. 

But as our recent grants so clearly reflect, this is not just about the dollars but about the good that can come from the work that these research awards support. Looking just at some of the large grants that have come in since the beginning of this academic year, the goals include advances in regenerative medicine that will aid wounded warriors; the development of products to reduce the spread of AIDS; the quest to find better treatments for skin cancer and ovarian cancer and the deadly bleeding syndrome called coagulopathy, which occurs without warning in some trauma patients; and the search for advances in quantum computing. Very recently, we announced the launch of our university-wide Brain Institute, which should position us to be a leader in exploring what some have called the last frontier. 

In our revised research priority, then, we underscore the fact that we are committed to doing work of impact here at Pitt. That is expressed as a commitment to “Make Contributions of Impact through Pioneering Research.” That commitment is further explained as follows: We will “build on our existing foundation of internationally respected research and scholarly strengths to enhance human understanding, improve health, spur innovation, and stimulate economic growth.”

Partner in Community Development

Our third 1996 priority statement committed us to partnering in community development. At the time of that statement, there was a lot of community developing to do. Remember that the bottom had fallen out of this region’s economy in 1983, when the steel industry collapsed and unemployment topped 18 percent. Things were better in 1996, but we still had a long path to travel, which made this priority so important, particularly with respect to job growth. 

Today, the so-called education and health services “super-sector” accounts for more than 20 percent of the region’s employment and is the only sector that has added jobs each and every year since 1995. The more than $9 billion in research support that we have brought into the region since then has supported tens of thousands of jobs, directly and indirectly. That research also has provided the foundation for the creation of a large number of technology-based economic development initiatives that have strengthened the economy. And our own strengths in this area have been leveraged, for the good of the community, through our unique and highly effective partnerships with UPMC and Carnegie Mellon. 

The revised priority statement in this area commits us to continue to “Build Community Strength.” It takes note of the contributions already made and the positive recognition that has been received —from Presidents Bush and Obama on down—by stating that we will “continue making significant contributions to what is viewed as a model of 21st century regional economic transformation and add, in a broad range of other ways, to the vitality of our home communities.”

Ensuring Operational Efficiency and Effectiveness

Our 1996 priority statements also committed us to ensuring operational efficiency and effectiveness, and this really has become an ingrained part of our culture. When needed, we have undertaken such difficult initiatives as our recent voluntary early retirement program, which eliminated some 350 positions. More often, we have found ways to enhance the productivity of employees, within what might be described as our growing “lines of business.” 

Let me give two examples that are instructive. Since 1995, we have added 3.6 million gross square feet of new space. We managed the projects that produced that expansion and now maintain that additional space with essentially the same- sized facilities group that we had in 1995. Similarly, our research accounting group has not grown since 1995, even though our research expenditures now are more than three times what they were back then.

Three recent ratings also are directly relevant to this priority. We have received a long-term rating upgrade—from AA/stable to AA/positive—from Standard & Poor’s, which gives us a higher rating than our home state, which is unusual. Among the factors cited by that rating agency were fundamental credit strengths; a strong and proactive management team; the successful completion of a facilities plan; stable enrollment, strong student demand and student quality; good revenue diversity; and impressive fundraising success.

In the last few weeks, we also were named, for the ninth year in a row, one of just 100 “best value” public universities by Kiplinger’s. Its editor reported that its top 100 schools “have made admirable strides to maintain academic integrity and standards while meeting the financial needs of their students.” We also were named one of just 75 “best value” public universities, for the fourth year in a row, by The Princeton Review and USA Today.

We were the top Pennsylvania public university on the Kiplinger’s list, and we were the only Pennsylvania public university on The Princeton Review / USA Today list. And when you think about it, that is not surprising because it has been hard to maintain affordabilty with the cuts to state support that have been imposed in Pennsylvania. In fact, to underscore a basic point, we clearly are not on that list because we are the lowest cost provider but, instead, because we are a “best value” provider, and that is a concept that has been embedded in the revised priority statement.

That statement commits us to “provide top value.” It, then, goes on to state that we will “sustain our cultural commitment to operational efficiency and effectiveness through careful planning, regular assessment and effective partnering, further securing our position as a top national provider of best-value programs and services.”

Securing an Adequate Resource Base

The last of our 1996 priorities committed us to securing an adequate resource base. Our success with that goal has been mixed.

The successful completion of our $500 million campaign, which became a $1 billion campaign, which became a $2 billion campaign, is one of the great triumphs in the history of Pitt. The experts said that it could not be done when our goal was $500 million, but together we reached four times that total. Everyone who participated in the campaign—as a donor or volunteer or fundraising professional ought to take great satisfaction from that achievement. 

Our rapid rise within the ranks of this country’s very best universities in terms of the federal research dollars attracted already has been noted. In fact, I do not know of any other university that has climbed so far so fast within that group.

Of course, the story has been quite different when it comes to state support. There we have been cut all the way back to 1995 levels, in absolute dollars not adjusted for inflation. If inflationary adjustments are made, our state funding now is lower than it has been at any time since we became public, in the mid-1960s. 

There are those, I know, who say that there just is not enough money. And there are others who say that today’s students have just got to do it on their own. Many advancing that opinion, of course, got plenty of help themselves, a fact that is conveniently forgotten.

On Monday evening, I delivered the opening remarks at our annual K. Leroy Irvis Black History Month program. (See remarks, page 3.) That prompted me to also discuss Speaker Irvis—a Pitt law graduate and a long-time Pitt trustee—when I addressed a group of student advocates on Wednesday evening of this week. 

Among some 1,600 pieces of legislation that Speaker Irvis sponsored, three have particular relevance to this topic—the bill creating the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, the bill creating Pennsylvania’s community college system, and the bill making Pitt a public, state-related university. Each of those bills was driven by the same belief expressed in the preamble to the Brackenridge-sponsored act chartering the Pittsburgh Academy—that the education of youth ought to be a primary object of every government.

We do recognize our obligation to operate in the most cost-effective manner possible and will renew that commitment through an earlier priority statement. We also share in the hope that emerging technologies may permit us to become more cost-effective than we ever could have been in the past. Still, as believers in the power of higher education, both in the building of individual lives and in the building of society’s collective strength, we also have continuing responsibilities to advocate for higher education as a national and state-wide priority.

The new priority statements do include one that specifically re-expresses the commitment to “secure an adequate resource base.” That statement, then, goes on to state that we will “marshal the public and private support necessary to sustain our existing momentum and advance our important work, which is essential not only to individual advancement but also to the collective strength of society.”

Extending our Global Reach

Our commitment to global initiatives was embedded within some of our 1996 priority statements. For example, the statement on undergraduate education includes a passage expressing a desire to both attract students from around the world and to encourage more domestic Pitt students to take advantage of study-abroad opportunities. 

Looking just at those two factors, the number of international students enrolled at Pitt has almost doubled from roughly 1,567 in 1995 to 2,953 this year. The number of Pitt students participating in study-abroad programs has more than quadrupled, from 343 in 1995 to about 1,600 this year, leaving us with one of the highest rates of study-abroad participation among public universities.

Of course, the extent to which global perspectives have long been a part of Pitt is visibly reflected in the creation of our Nationality Rooms. We also were one of the first universities to create a University Center for International Studies, and ours has been a model for those at many other institutions. Our strengths in area studies have been demonstrated by our record of success in Title VI competitions with some of our centers designated national resource centers. We are home to an EU Center of Excellence funded by the European Union and we house a major EU document collection. We are known for teaching less commonly taught languages; our students regularly win Fulbright Scholarships; and we produce large numbers of graduates who enter the Peace Corps.

Among recent global developments of particular note are:

• The extension of activities in Sicily beyond the highly successful UPMC-operated transplant hospital to include a new biomedical research institute of which Dr. [Arthur] Levine currently serves as the scientific director and which already has brought talented European researchers into Pitt labs as they lay the groundwork for the careers that they will continue in Sicily when a new research tower has been constructed.

• The creation of a unique partnership between our School of Medicine and Tsinghua University in Beijing (also known as the MIT of China), which brings 20 to 30 outstanding and fully funded Chinese medical and graduate students to Pitt for two years of training in biomedical research.

• The creation by our Swanson School of Engineering and Sichuan University, one of China’s strongest universities, of the Sichuan University Pittsburgh Institute—which is one of just five such partnerships in all of China. Its focus will be on advanced sustainable manufacturing and educational innovation, with plans to initially offer three undergraduate degrees—in industrial engineering, mechanical engineering, and materials science and engineering.

• And the very recent recognition of our Confucius Institute as a 2013 Confucius Institute of the Year. Our program provides instruction in Mandarin language and Chinese culture to students from kindergarten through college across Pennsylvania and Ohio. A principal partner in this undertaking is another of China’s very strong universities, Wuhan University.

• Given this level of activity and the importance of such activities in the 21st century, it was suggested during our October discussion that global outreach might be deserving of its own place as a separate priority statement. That change has been incorporated into the proposal that will be presented for your consideration. That priority statement commits us to “extend our global reach,” stating further that we will “enhance our global impact through prudent partnering and the power of new technologies, while also developing and regularly refining educational programs designed to ensure that Pitt graduates are well prepared to function effectively in a highly competitive and rapidly changing world.”

In February 2000, after we had enjoyed a few years of success in advancing our 1996 priority statements, we adopted a broad statement of aspiration. That ambitious statement remains unchanged in the proposal that will come before you. It says: 

Our overarching goal is to be among the best in all that we do. We will add—significantly, measurably, and visibly—to institutional quality and reputation through the accomplishments of our people, the strength of our programs, and the regional, national, and international impact of our work. By aggressively supporting the advancement of the University of Pittsburgh’s academic mission, we will clearly and consistently demonstrate that this is one of the finest and most productive universities in the world.

That mission, of course, keeps us engaged in a never-ending quest for excellence and impact. That is a noble goal, we have made some real progress in our pursuit of it, and it has been a source of immense satisfaction for me to have been engaged in the pursuit of such an ambitious and worthy goal with you.