Pitt Day in Harrisburg 2013

Issue Date: 
February 18, 2013

Advocating for Pitt and Making a Difference in Just One Day

“What difference does this make?”

That’s the greeting Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg received from a student upon entering the main rotunda in the state Capitol for the 2013 Pitt Day in Harrisburg, held on Tuesday, Feb. 12.

“It makes ALL the difference,” Nordenberg told the student. The Chancellor relayed this encounter to an enthusiastic crowd of nearly 500 Pitt students, faculty, staff, and parents who had spent the day meeting with Pennsylvania legislators. Nordenberg thanked the volunteers, who had come from across the Commonwealth and from as far away as Washington, D.C.

Their message to Pennsylvania lawmakers was threefold. They thanked senators and representatives for their continued support of state funding for Pitt. They relayed the University’s importance to Southwestern Pennsylvania’s economy and to high-level research in many academic fields. And finally, the volunteers told their personal Pitt stories. 

Nordenberg reminded the volunteers that the Governor has proposed a second year of flat state funding for Pitt. “Flat funding—after a decade of flat funding, a year of deep cuts, and another year of flat funding—does not mean the next fiscal year will be easy. Flat funding takes us back almost 20 years to 1995 levels of funding, in dollars unadjusted for inflation. …” the chancellor said.

“But we need to recognize that these are difficult times. It also is important to note that there is a different tone to the discussions this year—one that might be described as respectful of our 225 year legacy of building better lives,” Nordenberg added.

Most of the volunteers began their voyage during the predawn hours when they boarded buses in Oakland for the three-and-a-half hour trip to Harrisburg. Others took personal vehicles, or arrived the evening before to attend an alumni gathering. 

Once inside the Capitol, team leaders got off to a running start. They picked up information packets that were prepared for the 36 prescheduled meetings with legislators. In addition to detailed breakdowns of students and alumni living in each legislator’s district, the packets contained:

• A copy of the statement released last November by the chancellor on the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Postsecondary Education; 

• A summary sheet of “Pitt Progress,” outlining the ways Pitt has continued to improve in the face of state budget cuts;

• A background paper on the history of the Commonwealth’s support for Pitt, including the cost-cutting measures the University has enacted over the years to deal with recent budget cuts and a compilation of examples of Pitt’s successes despite the cuts;

• A fact sheet with Pitt highlights in education, research, and regional development;a fact sheet about Pitt health science achievements; and

• The Office of Technology Management’s OTM Impact at a Glance, a summary of achievements in patenting and licensing Pitt inventions.

In addition to distributing the packets during the prearranged meetings, volunteers delivered similar packets to nearly every one of the 253 Commonwealth legislators. Members of Pitt’s Alumni Relations office and students from the University’s Blue and Gold Society were on hand to answer questions and offer support and direction to the volunteers. 

Information about Pitt lined the perimeter of the Capitol’s ornate marbled rotunda, including booths representing Pitt’s School of Medicine, which featured a video of a prosthetic robotic arm; the Center for Military Medicine Research; the Office of Veteran’s Services; the Center for Energy; the Office of Technology Management; the Pitt Alumni Association; Pitt’s regional campuses; the Keystone Club; the School of Social Work; and the Institute of Politics. Members of the Pitt Men’s Glee Club, aided by Pitt Panther Mascot Roc, serenaded the volunteers during lunch.

But the main purpose of the day was for Pitt volunteers to interact with Commonwealth lawmakers. 

James Becker, a professor in the Pitt School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry, with secondary appointments in the Departments of Neurology and Psychology, was attending his first Pitt Day in Harrisburg. Becker, who is also vice president of the University’s Faculty Senate, traveled the halls of the Capitol with a group that met with Michael Rish, the chief of staff for Rep. Frank Dermody (D-33), whose district is predominantly in Northern Allegheny County, and with Russell Miller, a budget analyst for Sen. Jake Corman (R-34), chair of the Appropriations Committee. Later that day, Becker was scheduled to meet with representative Mike Vereb (R-150).  

Becker said he came to Harrisburg because “during my tenure on the Faculty Assembly and Senate Council, my world view has gotten broader, and as an officer of the Faculty Senate, this is an important responsibility.”

The lawmakers “were as supportive as they could possibly be given the fiscal constraints under which they are operating,” Becker said. “This is a time when people in public service are, in fact, serving the public, and it’s a huge, huge responsibility—they are responsible for millions of dollars and the welfare of thousands of people in their districts, and millions across the Commonwealth. The fact that they were able to restore funding for higher education is a big deal, and the fact that the Governor proposed a budget that recognizes the importance of higher education is important. It’s a small percentage of the budget, but it’s a lot of money.”

Linda Perkins, a Pitt alumnus (CGS ’94) and a former Pitt employee, drove from her home in Washington, D.C., at the encouragement of a friend and former coworker, Pitt Student Conduct Officer Deborah Walker (CGS ’01, GSPIA ’03). It was the first Pitt Day in Harrisburg for Perkins, too. “The University has always been good to me as well as my daughter. I have very strong positive feelings about Pitt,” she said.

Perkins’ and Walker’s group visited with James Schultz, the first executive deputy general counsel for Gov. Tom Corbett, as well as some other government officials. “The meeting went very well. It was very open and positive,” Perkins said, adding that “I tell people to take advantage of the opportunities that Pitt affords: It will change the trajectory of your life!”

Robert Beecher, a Pitt senior majoring in political science, urban studies, and philosophy, chairs the Pitt Student Government Board’s (SGB) Government Relations Committee. Beecher said he is particularly interested in local politics and came to Pitt Day in Harrisburg to represent Pitt and to see, firsthand, Commonwealth government in action. 

Beecher and a group of four other SGB members, including SGB President Gordon Louderback, met with Sen. Mike Fleck (R-81), who serves on the Senate Education Committee. Beecher said Fleck was friendly and well informed about Pitt’s contributions to the Commonwealth; he was one of the legislators who fought to restore Pitt’s funding last year. Beecher added that he was looking forward to three more meetings he had scheduled that day, with Reps. Steve McCarter (D-54), Carl Walker Metzgar (D-69), and Sen. John Wozniak (D-35).

“It’s always great to talk to legislators and find out how they balance priorities, especially when those priorities are competing for limited funds,” Beecher said. 

Senior political science major Tricia Dougherty, meanwhile, was trailing Sen. Timothy J. Solobay (D-46) as part of the “Legislator for a Day” program offered through Pitt’s Institute of Politics. Dougherty said the senator had seven meetings that day, including one with a group of Pitt students. She added that the senator appreciated hearing how Pitt has impacted people in his region.

Shawn Ahearn (GSPIA ’07), director of communications in Pitt’s Office of Student Affairs, is the parent of one daughter expected to earn her degree in elementary education from Pitt-Johnstown in April and the father of another daughter who has been accepted at Pitt for this fall. Ahearn did not have a prearranged appointment with Rep. Rick Saccone (R-39), but he did deliver his business card and an information packet to Saccone’s office. Shortly thereafter, Ahearn received a call from Saccone’s assistant, and he was able to schedule a 20-minute, one-on-one meeting with the legislator.

Ahearn said he thanked Saccone for his past support and went on to describe Pitt’s positive impact on his family—how he obtained a master’s degree at Pitt while working for the University and how one of his daughters is now following her dream of becoming a teacher. 

The day concluded with the reception in the rotunda, where Pitt advocates, legislators, and other visitors mingled and were thanked by Pitt Alumni Association President Jane Allred (A&S ’71) and Chancellor Nordenberg. The volunteers then piled onto their buses and into their cars to return home, many of them convinced that they had made a difference—even in just one day.