Pitt: A Powerful Force in Building Brighter Tomorrows

Issue Date: 
February 28, 2011
Chancellor Mark A. NordenbergChancellor Mark A. Nordenberg

This is the print version of Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg’s Winter 2011 Report to Pitt’s Board of Trustees, delivered on Feb. 25.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and good morning, everyone. It always is great to be with you. I want to open my remarks in a somewhat different way today—by showing you a five-minute video from a program called The Circuit, which is sponsored by the U.S. Air Force. The segment features Micah Toll, who is a senior mechanical engineering major in our Swanson School of Engineering.

As you can tell from that clip, Micah is a very special young person. Here at Pitt, he has been a two-time winner in the Big Idea Competition sponsored by the Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence in the Katz Graduate School of Business and College of Business Administration. I should note that support for this competition has been provided, from the very start, by Trustee Bob Randall and his wife, Rita. Recently, Bob and Rita made a more permanent commitment to this initiative, which is designed to stimulate and reward innovative ideas from within our student body, and it now will be known as The Randall Family Big Idea Competition. Thank you, Bob!

Returning to Micah Toll, in 2009, he received a first-place “Big Idea” award for developing the disaster-recovery building materials featured in his profile on The Circuit. In that same year, he and a friend also won first place in a sustainable design contest sponsored by the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation for developing a lightweight, inexpensive, portable wind turbine that generates enough electricity to light several rooms or power appliances. They hope to sell kits so that people can build their own turbines for about $100.

Pitt Board of Trustees Chair Stephen R. Tritch (ENGR ’71, KGSB ’77), Pitt senior Micah Toll, and John A. Swanson (ENGR ’66G), Pitt trustee and School of Engineering Distinguished Alumnus. Pitt Board of Trustees Chair Stephen R. Tritch (ENGR ’71, KGSB ’77), Pitt senior Micah Toll, and John A. Swanson (ENGR ’66G), Pitt trustee and School of Engineering Distinguished Alumnus.

In 2010, Micah won another first-place Big Idea award for developing a kit to test for toxins in imported Chinese drywall. His kit is more accurate and far less expensive than others on the market. He also won five awards at the 2006 and 2007 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair and is developing his third company, based on his design for a personal electric vehicle. Please join me in acknowledging this impressive young Pitt inventor and entrepreneur.

As I said from the outset, Micah obviously is a very special student. But what I know you have come to appreciate is that Pitt is full of students who are special in a broad range of ways. Let me give just two additional examples of very recent forms of high-level recognition.

• Richard Kyle, a third-year law student, has been named a Robert Bosch Foundation Fellow. The Bosch program is designed to enhance German-American relations and transatlantic understanding. Richard was one of just 20 fellows chosen from more than 600 applicants and will spend the next year in Germany, working on commercial legal reform and international dispute resolution.

• Paulina Gonzales and James Spears, undergraduates in the School of Arts and Sciences, have been chosen to receive 2011 Woodrow Wilson-Rockefeller Brothers Fund Fellowships for Aspiring Teachers of Color. These fellowships help fund the completion of a master’s degree in education, preparation to teach in a high-need public school, and a three-year teaching assignment. This was the first year that Pitt was invited to nominate candidates, and Paulina and James won two of just 25 fellowships awarded nationally.

Beyond these award winners, as I have said on many past occasions, there are countless University of Pittsburgh students who are producing prize-winning performances every day as they engage in a broad range of activities that add richness to their Pitt experiences and contribute to their overall growth. We will have the chance to recognize some of them at today’s Honors Convocation.

Pitt students sit at the top of the list of our shared reasons for being so deeply committed to the work that is done here. They top that list not only because of our current respect for them, but because of our belief in their potential. And because we regularly see that powerful potential realized in the achievements of our alumni, that faith is far from blind. Let me give two inspiring examples from just this month.

Wen-Ta Chiu; his wife, Juan; and their son, Jason, in a photo taken during the 2009 Legacy Laureate dinner at Pitt.Wen-Ta Chiu; his wife, Juan; and their son, Jason, in a photo taken during the 2009 Legacy Laureate dinner at Pitt.

• Wen-Ta Chiu, who earned both his master’s degree and his Ph.D. from our Graduate School of Public Health, was named Taiwan’s minister of health, effective Feb. 1. Dr. Chiu had been president of Taipei Medical University. He returned to campus in 2009 as a Legacy Laureate. Here, he is shown with his wife and son, who was a student in the Graduate School of Public Health at the time. Dr. Chiu’s father also was a graduate of the School, making his a three-generation Pitt family.

• And just last week, it was announced that Bert O’Malley, who earned his undergraduate and medical degrees from Pitt, has been selected to receive the 2011 Ernst Schering Prize for international excellence in medicine and basic biological and chemical research. Dr. O’Malley is known as the father of molecular endocrinology and as a pioneer in the development of “team science.” His work has helped advance, among many other things, our understandings of reproduction, genetic disease, and endocrine cancers. He was named a Pitt Legacy Laureate in 2007, received the National Medal of Science in 2008, and was our Commencement speaker in 2009.

Of course, even though their records of accomplishment stand out, Dr. Chiu and Dr. O’Malley do not stand alone. Instead, they stand in the midst of the more than 277,000 living alumni of our University—a group that includes other nationally and internationally acclaimed achievers but that also includes even larger numbers of people who have used the power of higher education, often in less public ways, to elevate their own lives and to contribute to the lives of those around them.

Even after more than three decades at Pitt, I regularly am amazed by the almost countless ways and often surprising locations in which our graduates are making a difference, here and in more distant locations. On Sunday, for example, I received a photograph taken at the first meeting of the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission Working Group on Child Protection, held in Moscow just last week.

The U.S. delegation was organized by Luke Dembosky, who sits just to the right of the redhead with glasses. Mr. Dembosky is a 1994 Pitt law school graduate who has been assigned by the Department of Justice to our embassy in Moscow. The Russian delegation was led by Pavel Astakhov, who sits just to the left of the redhead with glasses. Mr. Astakhov is  the national commissioner for children’s rights in Russia.

Mr. Astakhov earned his Master of Laws degree at Pitt in 2002, and his stay among us could have been viewed as a form of temporary political refuge. At the time, he was under great pressure in his own country, tied to his legal defense of a Penn State professor who had been charged with espionage. That professor was convicted but then pardoned—a sequence of events not unusual in the Russian criminal system. Mr. Astakhov then came here to get away, to study and to reshape his career, something that he has successfully done. Before leaving campus, as a sign of his gratitude to the University, he presented me with his own oil painting of the Cathedral of Learning.

Examples of alumni who are making a difference, whether those examples come from the halls of government in Moscow or the neighborhoods of Pittsburgh, help fuel our passion for higher education. And over the course of our long history, state government has embraced and helped advance that special mission.

Back at the time of our founding, the preamble to the Act of Feb. 28, 1787, which established our first charter, declared that “the education of youth ought to be a primary object with every government.” And 45 years ago, when Pitt became a state-related university, the Commonwealth assumed a new, and more central, role in supporting our high-quality programs of higher education.

Slide23Unfortunately, as we have discussed on many past occasions, that support has eroded significantly over an extended period of time—with our appropriation representing more than 30 percent of the University’s budget in the mid-1970’s, less than 20 percent by the mid-1990’s, and just under 10 percent today.  The last eight years were particularly difficult—with inflation rising by more than 20 percent, state spending increasing by close to 40 percent, and state support for basic education climbing by more than 60 percent, but with support for higher education remaining flat.

Let me revisit a calculation—which, though rough, accurately advances a basic point. Our general appropriation is about $164.5 million. If that admittedly large amount—in its entirety and with no reductions for the overhead contributions envisioned in 1966 or any other adjustments of that type—is divided by 26,500, the total number of in-state students enrolled at Pitt, the result is about $6,200. That might, then, be viewed as the high-end calculation of a per-student, in-state subsidy, provided principally to keep resident tuition down.

Slide25That is a sizeable number. However, the tuition currently charged for an in-state undergraduate student enrolled in the School of the Arts and Sciences is about $14,100, while the tuition currently charged for an out-of-state undergraduate student enrolled in the School of the Arts and Sciences is more than $23,700. That is a difference of about $9,600, or more than 1.5 times that attributed subsidy.

But the difference becomes even more stark when viewed in its true historical context. In that regard, it is important to remember that the essence of the mid-1960’s agreement between the state and Pitt was that state support would be provided in amounts sufficient to enable Pitt to charge in-state students less than the private university tuition that it had been charging to that point. It would seem most directly relevant, then, to compare Pitt’s in-state tuition to the tuition charged by its private peers.

Pennsylvania is the home to four AAU research universities. Two—Pitt and Penn State—are public, and two—Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pennsylvania—are private.

Slide32At CMU, undergraduate tuition for the current academic year is $41,500. That is almost three times higher than Pitt’s in-state charge. And the single-year dollar gap between CMU’s private-university tuition and Pitt’s in-state tuition is more than $27,000, almost enough to pay for two years of in-state tuition at Pitt.

It is harder to compare Penn, which adds a very large general fee to its stated tuition charge. But however one sorts that out more precisely, Penn’s charges, too, are more than $40,000—over $25,000 more than Pitt’s in-state tuition and more than four times larger than the attributed subsidy.

Put most simply, what that means is that Pitt has consistently delivered on its end of that 1966 understanding—to keep in-state tuition comparatively lower. To be clear, our in-state tuition is high by public university standards, and we know that it presents challenges for some families. However, the differences between in-state and out-of-state tuition and public- and private-university tuition are essentially tied to the level of public subsidy. That is the essence of being a public university. And by that measure, because our subsidy is relatively low, we have done very well.

Unfortunately, the erosion of state support almost certainly is going to get even worse, for public universities and for their students, during the year ahead. That, I should make clear, is a product of the revenue and expense structure inherited by Governor Corbett. To state the obvious, the $4 billion budget deficit that Pennsylvania now faces was not created by our new governor during his first few weeks in office, even though he and his team must now deal with it.

Their lack of fault, though, will not make life any easier for those who will be adversely affected by the cuts to come, and that unfortunate group almost certainly will include Pennsylvania’s public research universities and their students. To express even more directly a point earlier made, the University of Pittsburgh did not benefit by a single dollar from the run-up in state spending in recent years. In fact, because some costs traditionally borne by the state were shifted to the federal government, the current investment of state dollars in Pitt actually is lower than it was eight years ago. However, large portions of the state budget cannot be meaningfully reduced, at least in the short-term—so, fair or not, we almost certainly will be expected to help balance the state budget.

Slide37What is not clear—in Washington or in Harrisburg—is what priorities will shape either the size of these looming cuts or the longer-term recovery from them. As one legislative leader said to me last week, when you are facing a $4 billion budget deficit, there are no good choices. That almost certainly is true. However, there are better choices—or at least “less bad” choices—and it needs to remembered that even short-term cuts can have long-term consequences.

To frame the responsibilities of government in everyday terms, it has become customary, particularly for those most committed to deficit reduction, to draw an analogy to the basic constraint faced by every family—the need to live within its means. But the comparison almost always stops at that point, without encompassing the even more telling aspects of the analogy—the values that shape family priorities and the parental struggles to advance those priorities once they have been set.

The families whose approaches to life we traditionally have honored are those in which the highest parental priority is helping to build the foundation for better lives for their daughters and sons—their next generation. Moving this a bit “closer to home,” as a society, we always have celebrated, in particular, the efforts of parents who sacrifice spending on themselves, or who find ways to generate more family income by taking on additional work, in order to provide their children with a college education.

Slide48Today, the application of the family analogy to governmental budgets rarely seems to reach that second stage. Elected officials do regularly say that we cannot, in good conscience, leave our children and grandchildren to deal with the crushing government debt that continues to grow, and it would be hard for anyone to disagree with that. But comparatively little attention is paid to the crushing personal debts that may be incurred by many members of our society’s next generation if public support for public higher education is further slashed. It also is rare for there to be any express acknowledgment of the fact that our children and grandchildren collectively will be less well equipped to deal with the world that we leave them if public higher education moves beyond the means of large segments of society.

In the 1960’s, the Commonwealth became an active partner in creating broader access to higher education. Its commitment, over time, was reflected in a range of actions—involving not only the state-related universities, but also community colleges, the State System of Higher Education, and the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency. The  direct beneficiaries of these actions were the young people of my generation and their parents. I wonder how many of us have forgotten about those boosts as we retreat from the responsibility to make such opportunities available, on roughly equivalent terms, to the young people of today, including those who are less fortunate.

Of course, as noted, this is not just a matter of supporting the educational aspirations of individual citizens. It also is a matter of building collective strength, because Pennsylvania itself has been a major beneficiary of its investments in higher education.

In arguing for the creation of an academy in Pittsburgh some 225 years ago, our founder observed that “the strength of a state greatly consists in the superior mental powers of its inhabitants.” Whatever may have been the case in those frontier days, we all know how true that statement is today. And we also see tangible benefits that flow directly from the higher-education enterprise and extend beyond the general benefits of a well-educated citizenry.

Among other things,

• they include an education and health services sector that is the largest and fastest-growing employment super-sector in the Pittsburgh region;

• they include five vibrant campuses that are economic anchors in their home communities of Bradford, Greensburg, Johnstown, and Titusville, as well as Pittsburgh; and

• they include the impact of Pitt as a research powerhouse that attracts four dollars in research funding for every one dollar of state appropriation (probably an unequaled return on state investment) and that is recognized as a primary source of the ideas that will define our economic future.

Slide59As important as building the economy of the future may be, these research initiatives also have the potential to produce other benefits that can only be described as amazing. Think, for example, about the headlines from last week—announcing that Pitt researchers would receive nearly $7 million in federal support over the next three years to test two different types of brain implants designed to advance work that would permit paralyzed individuals, including “wounded warriors,” to control prosthetic limbs through the power of their own thoughts. As we think about the world that we would like to leave to the next generation, are we really prepared to say, as a society, that work of this type will no longer be a priority?

Abraham Lincoln, who had a few problems of his own to deal with as a highly placed elected official, once said, “The best thing about the future is that it comes only one day at a time.” In moving through what looms as a succession of difficult days, those words may occasionally be a source of comfort, as we meet some of our big challenges by breaking them down and tackling them one piece at a time.

However, it also is important to remember that we really are in the future-building business. By the work that we do with our students, we equip them to build their own futures while advancing the greater good. And through our research and public service missions, we contribute in unique and meaningful ways to the progress of our home communities and to the building of a better world.

As we engage, not only as discussants but also as advocates, in conversations regarding the priorities that will shape more limited public investments in the years ahead, I suggest that we return, again and again, to the wisdom of Benjamin Franklin. The man whom many consider to be the greatest Pennsylvanian of all once said, “An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.”

More than two centuries of intervening history have shown that Mr. Franklin was right about his civic investment strategy, just as he was right about so many other things. And what we know about Pitt’s recent history, more specifically, adds 21st-century meaning to Franklin’s 18th-century advice. Pioneering research advances, public service initiatives of impact, and what our bicentennial biographer described as “an annual harvest of young people admirably trained to earn a living, to make a contribution to their community, their profession, and their country” have become broadly recognized and widely respected hallmarks of our University.

Efforts to further develop these qualities tie directly back to the statement of aspiration, publicly adopted by this Board more than a decade ago. Though you probably need no reminders, this, in part, is what we said then:

Our overarching goal is to be among the best in all that we do. . . . By aggressively supporting the advancement of Pitt’s academic mission, we will clearly and consistently demonstrate that this is one of the finest and most productive universities in the world.

We have traveled an enviable distance in our pursuit of that never-ending goal, even though the path that we have traveled rarely has been easy. As we face what could be our most significant set of challenges yet, I look forward to pushing ahead with you and with all of the other groups that have been such significant contributors to the progress that has been a well-earned source of pride here at Pitt—faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends.

As we do move forward, I have no “Lincoln-esque” or “Franklin-like” wisdom to offer, but I do have a well-developed sense of recent Pitt history. That recent history began with Pitt in a deep hole. It was not easy, but we managed to climb out of it. And, then, we continued climbing higher and higher, whatever challenges came our way. I have no doubt, then, that we will continue to find ways to further elevate the quality and enhance the impact of Pitt, even in the face of emerging challenges.

However, as we enter a new era of government, we can only hope that our leaders not only find ways to shrink our accumulated budget deficits, which we know they must do, but also find ways to help us secure the dreams that are the key to our shared future.

For 224 years, Pitt has been a powerful force in building brighter futures. As we move further into a new century characterized by a rapidly changing and highly competitive world and faced with the need to nurture a vibrant society and to rebuild a strong and sustainable economy, Pennsylvania cannot afford to let that light go dim.