Pitt Deserves Better: The proposed state budget cuts would put a first-class education out of reach for many Pennsylvanians, writes Pitt Board chair

Issue Date: 
March 21, 2011

This article originally appeared on page 1 of the Sunday Forum section of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on March 13, 2011. It is reprinted courtesy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Stephen R. TritchStephen R. Tritch

As a young man of modest means who grew up in Butler, I was able to attend the University of Pittsburgh, the school of my choice, because of the low tuition for in-state students that resulted from Pitt’s transition from a private university to a public university the year before I began. As both an engineering undergraduate and an MBA student there, I found the quality of the education and the total student experience to be life-changing.

Many years later, as chairman and CEO of Westinghouse, one of the state’s most-respected international corporations, I discovered anew the power of Pitt’s programs of education and research. In fact, partnerships with Pitt helped drive the decision to build Westinghouse’s new corporate campus here in Western Pennsylvania, even in the face of attractive offers from out of state.

These personal and civic experiences drive my sense of deep concern at the just-announced state budget proposal, which includes devastating cuts to Pitt’s appropriation. Direct and other state support would be reduced by more than $100 million.

Anyone who attended Pitt or whose life was touched in some other way by the university—working there or for its suppliers or spin-off companies; benefiting from its medical research; attending its cultural events; being helped by its community outreach; living in Oakland, where its police protection extends to all; or in uncountable other ways—almost certainly shares those feelings as the state budget ax is poised to fall on us all.

In 1966, when the state agreed to convert Pitt to a public university, it promised that the Commonwealth subsidy would help keep tuition low. That promise has eroded dramatically since then.

As a percentage of Pitt’s budget, the Commonwealth appropriation stood at more than 30 percent in the mid-1970s. By the mid-1990s, it was less than 20 percent. Today, it is less than 10 percent. The most recent budget proposal represents the sixth cut in Pitt’s appropriation in the last 10 years.

Meanwhile, Pitt has kept its end of the bargain, providing high-quality education at costs that are far below its peer private universities. Pitt tuition is just more than $14,000 per year, while comparable private universities charge more than $40,000 per year. Pitt was the state’s only public institution of higher education to be included in The Princeton Review/USA Today list of the nation’s “best value” colleges and universities. But with the state’s dwindling support, how long can this last?

Pitt is today a principal driver of Southwestern Pennsylvania’s economy, contributing $1.74 billion in total university-related spending; $1.3 billion in personal income from 33,800 Pitt-supported jobs; $737 million in sponsored research expenditures, representing well in excess of four dollars in research support for every dollar of our state appropriation; and $145.2 million paid to local governments, including sales, wage, and real estate taxes.

In this economy, when the state should be rewarding job generators like Pitt, the governor’s budget proposal would do just the opposite. And while I’m convinced that this level of reduction is both unwarranted and counterproductive, I’m not saying that the University expects to be exempt from the sacrifices that all are sharing in these difficult economic times.

In the past eight years, in fact, the University has reduced its budget by $21.1 million and implemented a salary freeze in fiscal year 2010 for all staff and faculty, restructured its retiree medical benefits program for a savings of $390 million over 20 years, and made a host of other cutbacks.

We understand the difficult situation in which the state’s $4 billion deficit places the Commonwealth. But the solution to the problem should not be the dismantling of one of the state’s primary economic engines and diminishing educational opportunities for the state’s young people for generations to come.

If Pitt is forced to raise tuition to cover the enormous state cuts, the university would be less accessible to a wide range of students throughout the state, shutting off their options for careers in medicine, science, technology, engineering, and other important fields. Until now, Pitt’s strong performance has helped reverse the brain drain from Pennsylvania, but this proposed budget would unleash an exodus of talent that would harm the entire economic region.

Looking back at my own situation some 40 years ago, I am left with grave concerns about the ability of a young person like I was, thirsting for a great education, to be able to afford Pitt, one of the world’s preeminent institutions of higher education, if these devastating cuts in the proposed state budget were to be enacted.

Stephen R. Tritch retired from Westinghouse Electric Company as chairman in 2010 after a 39-year career with the company and has chaired the University of Pittsburgh Board of Trustees since 2009.