A Triumphant Year For Pitt Despite Daunting Challenges

Issue Date: 
July 9, 2012

This is the print version of Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg’s Annual Report to Pitt’s Board of Trustees, delivered June 22, 2012.

Challenging Times

Late last week [June 14], the National Research Council released a Congressionally requested report. It is entitled, Research Universities and the Future of America, and was written by a 22-person, blue-ribbon committee chaired by the former CEO of DuPont.

The introductory pages of that document are so rich in relevant material that, if we had the time, I would just read several pages, in their entirety, to you. Instead, let me share some briefer excerpts. This is how the report begins:

“America is driven by innovation—advances in ideas, products, and processes that create new industries and jobs, contribute to our nation’s health and security, and support a high standard of living. In the past half-century, innovation itself has been increasingly driven by educated people and the knowledge they produce. Our nation’s primary source of both new knowledge and graduates with advanced skills continues to be our research universities.

“However, these institutions now face an array of challenges, from unstable revenue streams and antiquated policies and practices to increasing competition from universities abroad. It is essential that we as a nation reaffirm and revitalize the unique partnership that has long existed among research universities, the federal government, the states, and philanthropy, and strengthen its links with business and industry. In doing so, we will encourage the innovation that leads to high-quality jobs, increased incomes, and security, health, and prosperity for our nation.”

Those are powerful words, and they frame a consistent theme. In the very next paragraph, in fact, the report refers to research universities as “a major national asset—perhaps even its most potent one.” The authors then go on to list some specific advances that can be attributed to this potent national asset. “Lasers, radar, synthetic insulin, blood thinners, magnetic resonance imaging, computers, and rocket fuel are among the countless innovations in which university research has played an essential role.”

Some of you may recall that when the Association of American Universities (AAU) celebrated its centennial it highlighted three advances illustrating the profound impact of a century of university research. Its choices were space exploration, the computer revolution, and the Salk polio vaccine—which won this country’s war against that dread disease and was developed by a Pitt faculty team on this very campus. That listing, by a group as distinguished as the AAU, was a source of special pride for our University.

So is the National Research Council’s (NRC) list. It was a team led by Pitt professor Panayotis Katsoyannis that first synthesized insulin in labs on this campus. And building on work begun during his days as a graduate student here, Pitt alumnus Paul Lauterbur played a key role in developing the science upon which magnetic resonance imaging was built—work for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine.

On the AAU’s centennial list, then, Pitt could claim one of three highlighted advances, and from the NRC’s list, Pitt is closely linked to two of seven. Given all of the research triumphs from which these entries were chosen, that level of Pitt connection is remarkable.

After laying that inspiring foundation, though, the National Research Council creates a different kind of list by cataloguing the critical challenges facing America’s research universities today. Though we are affected by them all, we know one particularly well. As stated in the report, “State funding for higher education, already eroding in real terms for more than two decades, has been cut further during the recent recession.”

This fiscal year, we have been faced with two state funding challenges. One has been coping with reductions imposed for the current fiscal year. Remember that the original state budget cut our basic appropriations by 22 percent, or about $40 million. Then, in the fall, 50 percent of our capital projects support, or another $20 million, was taken from us, and, in January, we were directed to place an additional 5 percent, or $7 million, into “budgetary reserve.” That totals $67 million in reductions to state support in the current fiscal year.

But the bad news continued when the governor proposed an additional set of deep and disproportionate cuts for the next fiscal year, which begins in less than 10 days [July 1]. Much of our energy during the past few months, then, has been invested in advocating against these cuts.

Between budget cuts and bomb threats, it would be easy to characterize this year as a time of major problems for Pitt. That would not be inaccurate, but if we stopped there, we would miss a very important point. Even in the face of those challenges the “people of Pitt” were able to maintain our momentum by crafting another year of remarkable accomplishments. Let me provide just some of the highlights.

Inspiring Students

We opened the year in the very good company of our best-credentialed freshman class ever, drawn from the largest applicant pool in our history. The contrast—going back to 1995, when the most senior among us began working together —is stark. In 1995, we had 7,825 applicants; this past year, we had 23,409 applicants. In 1995, the average SAT score for the incoming class was 1110; for this year’s entering class, it was 1280. In 1995, 19 percent of the entering class ranked in the top 10 percent of their high school graduating classes; by this year, that number had climbed to 53 percent.

We welcomed close to 4,000 new students and family members at our Freshman Convocation, and then everyone got to work, building a continuing record of distinction.

•  In the fall, to give one shining example, Corey Rodgers—a first-generation university student from Somerset, Pa.—became one of just 32 students nationally to be named a 2012 Rhodes Scholar. He is our fourth Rhodes Scholar since 2005—a record equaled by only one other public university, the University of North Carolina.

• This spring, three Pitt students were selected to receive Goldwater Scholarships, the highest honor available to American undergraduates studying science, engineering or math. No university can nominate more than four students for a Goldwater Scholarship, so to have three students actually selected is a real coup. And this brings our total of Goldwater Scholars since 1995 to 38, an average of well in excess of two per year.

• Three Pitt seniors, all from the Swanson School of Engineering, were among just 45 students nationally to receive 2012 Whitaker International Pre-Doctoral Fellowships, which are designed to bring international insights and experience to bioengineering.

• Three graduating seniors and three Pitt graduate students were awarded National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships, the oldest graduate fellowships of their kind, with a long history of selecting recipients who achieve high levels of success in their future academic and professional careers.

• Pitt once again was recognized as one of the country’s top producers of Fulbright awards, with 14 Pitt students—nine undergraduates and five graduate students—successfully competing for this honor, jointly awarded by the State Department and the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board;

• And among many other high honors, our students claimed a Udall Scholarship; a Woodrow Wilson-Rockefeller Brothers Fund Teaching Fellowship, one of just 25 awarded nationally; a Humanity in Action Fellowship, for the seventh consecutive year; and two German Academic Exchange Service awards for study or research in Germany.

When it comes to education, our mission is to give all of our students the chance to be the best that they can be in everything that they do. If we do that job well, then some of our best will become among the best that anyone can be. This remarkable record of student accomplishment reflects the exceptional levels of learning and growth that are occurring in this institution and suggests that we are advancing that critical mission very effectively.

High-Achieving Faculty and Graduates

The more professionally mature members of the “Pitt family”—faculty and alumni—also continued to build a remarkable record of achievement and impact.

• Very early in the academic year, we learned that two of just 22 national recipients of what are commonly known as MacArthur Foundation “genius grants”— awarded for exceptional creativity and the promise for future accomplishments that will benefit human society—were claimed by “Pitt people.” One grant was awarded to Professor Elodie Ghedin, a parasitologist and virologist in our School of Medicine, who studies the mechanisms employed by parasites to sicken and kill large numbers of people inflicted with dread infectious diseases. The other was awarded to Kevin Guskeiwicz, who earned a graduate degree from our School of Education and is the Kenan Distinguished Professor and founding director of the Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center at the University of North Carolina.

• Just a few weeks later, we learned that two Pitt faculty members and two Pitt graduates had been elected to the prestigious Institute of Medicine. The faculty members are Nancy Davidson, the Hillman Professor of Oncology and director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, and Jeannette South-Paul, who also is a Pitt graduate and who holds the Drew Mathieson Professorship and chairs our Department of Family Medicine. The other Pitt graduates elected were Jonathon Gitlin, the James Overall Professor and Chair of Pediatrics at Vanderbilt, and Paul Offit, professor of pediatrics at Penn and chief of the Section of Infectious Diseases and director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

• Showing the strength that we continue to build in our more junior faculty ranks, in October, Professor Steven Little, of the Swanson School, received a 2012 Young Investigator Award from the Society of Biomaterials, recognizing his outstanding achievements in that field. In May, Professor Little received the Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award, which carries a $75,000 prize and honors demonstrated leadership in education and research in chemical sciences, including chemical engineering. Recently, Professor Little also was named the chair of the Swanson School’s Department of Chemical Engineering.

• Also in October, David Perlmutter, the Vira Heinz Professor and chair of the Department of Pediatrics, received the 2011 Shwachman Award from the North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition in recognition of his lifelong scientific and educational contributions to the field.

• One month later, former MacArthur “genius award” winner, Pitt alumnus and Pitt Trustee Bill Strickland, traveled to Japan to receive the 2011 Goi Peace Award for his contributions toward the realization of a peaceful and harmonious world for humanity and for all life on earth. Past recipients of this prestigious award have included Bill Gates and former Costa Rican President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias.

• As the year progressed, Anthony Grace, Distinguished Professor of Neuroscience, and Christian Schunn, professor of psychology—both in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences—were named Fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

• Early in the new year, something really remarkable occurred. The Society of Critical Care Medicine selected 20 world-renowned intensivists to be the first to receive its highest honor—designation as a Master in Critical Care Medicine. Seven of the 20 members of that inaugural class of honorees came from Pitt. That group included four active members of our medical school faculty: Derek Angus, the current chair of the department, who also holds the Mitchell Fink Endowed Chair; Patrick Kochanek, the director of the Safar Center for Resuscitation Research; Michael Pinsky, the department’s vice chair for academic affairs and currently the president of the University Senate; and Ann Thompson, the department’s vice chair for faculty affairs and associate dean for faculty affairs in the School of Medicine. Also honored were Mitchell Fink, the founding chair of the department, and two true legends, Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus Ake Grenvik, and the late Peter Safar, widely known as the “father of CPR” and one of the great Pitt faculty members of all time.

• As the new year continued to unfold, Distinguished University Professor Savio Woo, from the Swanson School, received the 2012 Gold Medal for Innovations in Healthcare Technology from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers for his “pivotal contributions to biomechanics and its application to orthopaedic surgery and sports medicine.”

• John Wallace, who holds the Philip Hallen Chair in our School of Social Work, received the 2012 Urban Affairs Association—SAGE Marilyn J. Gittell Activist Scholar Award in recognition of his work in establishing the Homewood Children’s Village here in Pittsburgh.

• Sanford Asher, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, received the fourth annual Charles E. Kaufman Award from the Pittsburgh Foundation in recognition of his “substantial contributions to science for both the betterment and understanding of human life.”

• Then, in early May, we learned that three of our faculty members—Yuan Chang, Distinguished Professor and American Cancer Society Professor in the Department of Pathology in our School of Medicine; Patrick Moore, Distinguished Professor and American Cancer Society Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics in our School of Medicine; and Peter Strick, Distinguished Professor in the Department of Neurobiology in our School of Medicine and codirector of the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition—had been elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences, which is one of the highest honors in the world of scientific research. Only 10 universities had three or more faculty members elected to the National Academy. Stanford led the way with six; Berkeley and Princeton had four; and Columbia, Johns Hopkins, MIT, Penn, UC-San Diego, the University of Washington and Pitt each had three.

Impressive Institutional Strength

What does all of this mean for Pitt? Most basically, it means that we continue to build impressive institutional strength. Among other things, it means that, when records of achievement are compared, we now regularly find ourselves in the company of the very universities that we most admire. And that has been one of our most fundamental, long-term goals.

It means that we are playing a key role in the growth and development of some of this country’s most hard-working, high-potential students—positioning them to lead the lives of impact that have come to characterize Pitt graduates. And remember that, just since the beginning of this new century, Pitt alumni have captured the Nobel Peace Prize, the Nobel Prize in Medicine, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Medal of Science, the National Book Award, the Fritz Medal in Engineering, the Shaw and Albany Prizes in Medicine, and many other high honors. That is an extraordinary record—and it means something to current students, in shaping their own ambitions, to know that Pitt alumni have achieved so much.

It means that our faculty members, across a range of disciplines, are engaged in some of the most impressive work being done anywhere in the world. Hopefully, some sense of that was conveyed as I provided an overview of some of the awards bestowed on faculty members during the past academic year.

But a quick look at the work of our three new members of the National Academy underscores that point. Professors Chang and Moore have discovered two of the seven known cancer-causing viruses—one that causes the most common cancer in AIDS patients and the other that causes a particularly deadly form of skin cancer. Professor Strick studies the neural circuits that are responsible for the control of voluntary movement, cognition and affect. Those same circuits, when dysfunctional, could be responsible for the symptoms of such behavioral illnesses as schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and autism.

What this amazing record also means is that Pitt has become a global powerhouse of pioneering research. Looking just at the numbers, when we closed the books on the last fiscal year we were able to report that our research expenditures had exceeded $800 million.

What that huge number means, in the comparative sense, became clear last month, when the National Science Foundation released its annual listing of American universities by total federal science and engineering research and development support. Pitt was in the top five—along with Johns Hopkins and the Universities of Washington, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. The next five universities were Stanford, the University of California at San Diego, Columbia, North Carolina, and Wisconsin. As noted above, this is great company, just the kind that we want to be keeping.

And to be clear, this is not the ranking based solely on National Institutes of Health funding, where we have regularly appeared in the top five in recent years. This is total federal grant support, where we never before have cracked the top five. In fact, some members of this Board may recall that in 2000 we had climbed up to 20th place on this list and decided, as what we thought was a stretch goal, to try working our way up to 16th in five years. Obviously, we did that and more. And when you think of the quality of the universities we have passed, every step up that ladder has been a real sign of growing strength.

That $800 million figure also is one indicator of our impact on the regional economy. Those dollars alone support, directly and indirectly, some 28,000 local jobs. And Pitt sits at the heart of what the U.S. Department of Labor calls the education and health services “supersector,” which now is responsible for more than one in every five jobs in the Greater Pittsburgh region.

These levels of accomplishment and impact also have helped drive our very successful efforts to generate higher levels of private support for Pitt. As I talked about the achievements of students and faculty, I made frequent reference to the Swanson and Dietrich schools. John [Swanson], of course, is with us and hopefully feels a well- deserved sense of pride in hearing references to some of the many good things now being done by those in the school that bears his name. Bill [Dietrich] no longer sits with us at this table, but we cannot forget that this year was launched with the news of his extraordinary gift to Pitt, one that will help power future successes in both education and research.

And we never can forget the many other examples of generosity, large and not-so-large, that have come from nearly 180,000 donors and have taken Pitt close to its $2 billion capital campaign goal—a level of support that consultants would have dismissed as not achievable when we launched this effort. Among the extraordinary contributions of the past year, I need to make special reference to the $22 million grant made by the Richard King Mellon Foundation to our Center for Energy and the combined commitment of $15 million, from the Institute for Transfusion Medicine and the Hemophilia Center of Western Pennsylvania, to our new Vascular Medicine Institute.

The R.K. Mellon Foundation is one of Pitt’s oldest and best friends. The Institute for Transfusion Medicine and Hemophilia Center are newer friends. But the contributions made by both are more than just a reflection of friendship. Instead, these are carefully conceived investments in the future of the regional economy and the cause of human health.

I also do want to acknowledge the members of the board who will be formally inducted into the Cathedral of Learning Society tonight [June 22], recognizing their contributions of $1 million or more to Pitt. Tonight’s honorees include Tom and Joan Bigley, George and Ada Davidson, Herb and Barbara Shear, and Janet Swanson— who will be inducted in John’s presence but in her own right. They join a roster of distinguished trustees who earlier were recognized as Cathedral of Learning Society members. That group includes Suzy Broadhurst, Henry Hillman, John Pelusi, Dick Simmons, Chuck Steiner, John Swanson, Dick Thornburgh, and Tom Usher.

Meeting Challenges

If our record has helped generate ever- greater levels of respect, even higher levels of research support, and record-breaking examples of philanthropy, there is one thing that it has not been able to do. That, of course, is to move beyond the yearly struggle to generate more reasonable levels of state support. That is a real concern, not only for those who care about Pitt, but for those who care about the future of our community, our Commonwealth, and our country.

Let me return, briefly, to the National Research Council’s “call to action”:

“We believe that America’s research universities are today a key asset for our nation’s future. They are so because of the considered and deliberate decisions made in the past by policymakers, even in difficult times. Our future now depends on the willingness of our current policymakers to follow their example and make decisions that will allow us to compete, prosper, and shape our destiny.”

To be clear, the report also calls upon research universities to commit to “improve management, productivity, and cost efficiency in both administration and academics.” Of course, this Board very publicly made that one of Pitt’s never-ending institutional priorities back in February of 1996. This language is from the resolution on operational efficiency and effectiveness passed back then:

“Institutions of higher learning are not insulated from the economic pressures that, in recent years, have affected virtually every other segment of American society. In fact, in a time when a potentially declining resource base is accompanied by increased performance expectations, it is essential that University resources be invested wisely, that programs be managed efficiently, and that the institution be positioned to meet challenges and pursue opportunities in timely and effective ways.”

That is a shared commitment that has been advanced by both the Board and the senior management team. Of course, we always can do better, which is why I referred to this commitment as never-ending. However, our record of doing more with less is equal to any university in the country. Looking at things from the other side, it is difficult to examine the record of dramatically diminished public support for Pennsylvania’s public research universities without wondering about the plan to keep our state competitive in the innovation economy of the 21st century.

And if implemented and proposed state budget cuts did not represent a big enough challenge, this also was the year in which we endured several weeks of unrelenting bomb threats. Those threats generated real concerns and disrupted campus life. But with a lot of help from our friends—and I cannot be too effusive in expressing gratitude to federal law enforcement, which led the investigatory efforts, and to the City of Pittsburgh and other municipalities, which provided support throughout our time of need—we made it through this period of challenge.

The fact that we endured this challenge also was a real credit to the people of Pitt. Our police, student affairs staff, and computer network professionals often were working “around the clock”; faculty and staff stepped up to help in wide-ranging ways; and our students demonstrated levels of determination and resiliency that are going to serve them well in meeting the many other challenges that await them in life. In a very real sense, we grew in strength as individuals, and we grew closer as a community.

Maintaining Momentum

This community came together, in the literal sense, at commencement. That ceremony always is special, but this year’s stood out. The Petersen Events Center was packed with people who had made the decision that no one was going to keep them from celebrating this major milestone in the lives of our graduates.

Our keynote speaker, Lieutenant General Patricia Horoho—a Pitt graduate and the first woman and first nurse to be nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate to serve as Surgeon General of the Army and Commander of the U.S. Army Medical Command—captured the spirit of the gathering in her address:

“I recognize that the last few months here at the University have been difficult, with countless evacuations. Your presence here today, and that of your family and friends, reflects your resolve to challenge and overcome the efforts that have sought to disrupt student life. You celebrate not only the graduating class of 2012, but demonstrate the character of the University of Pittsburgh, the spirit of the city of Pittsburgh, and the resolve of America to overcome adversity.”

Building on Lt. Gen. Horoho’s theme, it has been said that “adversity causes some to break; others to break records.” In the face of varied, and very serious, challenges, Pitt built further momentum during this past year, as it continued down its accustomed path, a path of record-breaking progress.

In traveling that path, we advanced the overarching aspiration proclaimed by this Board 12 years ago—that “[b]y aggressively supporting the advancement of Pitt’s academic mission, we will clearly establish that this is one of the finest and most productive universities in the world.” Like many of our other goals, that quest is both ambitious and never-ending. But when others look back on this academic year, what they will see is that a group of committed Pitt people did not permit our progress to be impeded, even by challenges that might easily have set us back.

Put another way, what was one of Pitt’s most difficult years—its 225th birthday year—also was one of its most triumphant. I am grateful to you for setting an appropriately high standard so many years ago, for being consistently supportive in the face of wide-ranging challenges, and for all that you have done to help propel our already outstanding University to even greater heights.

Faced with very tough challenges, in addition to the stiff competition that always exists in the world of top research universities, the “people of Pitt” joined forces to collectively craft another year of impact and accomplishment. There could not have been a better way to celebrate our rich heritage of 225 years of building better lives.