University Update

Issue Date: 
February 22, 2010

To: Members of the University Community

From: Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg

Re: Moving Through Challenging Times

Date: February 19, 2010

MANChancellor Mark A. Nordenberg

Generally, when I reflect on a past year, my focus is on an academic year or a fiscal year. Calendar years simply have less significance to the normal rhythms of life within the University. However, the year just past was an exception. Calendar year 2009 probably was one of the most difficult 12-month periods we ever have endured. In fact, one of the things that I like best about 2010—and I say this even in the face of recent weather—is that the further we get into 2010, the more quickly 2009 fades into the past. At the same time, it is important to remember that Pitt demonstrated remarkable strength and resiliency in meeting last year’s many challenges.

By this time last year, for example, we were well into the process of doing everything that was required to absorb significant midyear state appropriation cuts. Among the steps taken was the imposition of an institution-wide salary freeze. That actually became a shining moment for Pitt’s employee culture, with people throughout the University recognizing that shared sacrifice was required if we were going to forge further progress in the midst of a true economic crisis and embracing the proposition that our top priority should be saving institutional jobs, even if that meant we could not increase individual pay.

In midsummer, we faced the startling attempt to label Pitt, Penn State, Temple, and Lincoln as “nonpublic” universities. That designation would have resulted in tens of millions of dollars of additional losses, because we would have been denied federal stimulus funding and deprived of state-funding protections built into the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Fortunately, that position was reversed in the U.S. Department of Education, a victory not only for the four involved universities but for the cause of public higher education.

We were nearly halfway through the current fiscal year, into the second half of December, before our state appropriation finally was approved, and our first appropriation payment was not received until February 1. To our shared distress, funding for all four of Pennsylvania’s state-related universities had been held hostage in a political battle tied to the expansion of gaming.

The last two months of the calendar year also involved intense efforts to defeat the City of Pittsburgh’s proposed tuition tax. Fortunately, those efforts—driven by a coalition of Pittsburgh colleges and universities and featuring significant student involvement—ultimately were successful. It was ironic, however, that even while the State was withholding its support for public higher education, the City was trying to take funds away.

Not all of our challenges last year were economic. In the wake of the Steelers’ Super Bowl win, we had to contend with “street celebrations” that were not consistent with the culture of student behavior that has been a source of shared pride and that is regularly on display at our own athletic events. Months later, in the immediate aftermath of an historic afternoon at Pitt—one featuring on-campus presentations by the Presidents of both the European Commission and the Russian Federation—Oakland, unfortunately, became the site-of-choice for G-20 protests that triggered what has been criticized as a disproportionate deployment of police power.

In the minds of many, even our “year in sport” may be remembered less for the thrill of victory and more for the agony of defeat. Our men’s basketball team, after all, was deprived of a spot in the NCAA Final Four by a last-second shot, following a court-long drive. And a last-minute touchdown cost our football team a spot in the Bowl Championship Series (BCS).

Of course, you have to be positioned near the top of your sport to experience that kind of disappointment. There were only eight teams in the country still contending for those Final Four spots, and there were only two teams competing for the Big East Conference’s berth in a BCS bowl. To make that point more broadly, Pitt’s substantial strengths and good positioning really were on display throughout last year, as we met every challenge that came our way and also maintained our remarkable momentum. Let me provide just a brief overview.

Leader in Education

For example, as a leader in education:

#17We continued to attract larger numbers of applications from better-qualified students. Applications to the undergraduate programs on the Oakland campus have soared from 7,800 in 1995 to nearly 22,000 for this fall’s entering class, and average SAT scores have risen by more than 150 points in that same period.

Enrolled students continue to perform at levels that are a source of genuine pride. To give one general example, we have raised freshman-to-sophomore retention from 83 percent in 1995 to 93 percent last year, a very significant jump that has moved us into the top ranks of public universities on that important measure.

#16To turn to student performance at the very highest levels, this last year, we claimed our third Rhodes Scholar in the last five years.  Since only 32 Rhodes Scholars are selected each year, from among the very best students at all of the colleges and universities in America, the fact that a Pitt undergraduate has been selected in three of the past five years is a truly amazing record.

We also have worked hard to provide all of our students with the best possible environment for learning and growth. This past year, to give one telling example of our successes in creating a culture built around the right values, we earned top national recognition from a coalition of six higher education organizations for our efforts to promote “a vibrant intellectual and social climate that de-emphasizes the role of alcohol.”

Pioneer in Research

As a pioneer in research:

We applauded as senior members of the faculty earned such impressive forms of recognition as election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, to give just a few examples.

Equally important is the extraordinary record compiled by more junior faculty members, who garnered such high honors as a Presidential Early Career Award and early-career awards from the National Science Foundation and from the Pew and Sloan Foundations, showing that the Pitt pipeline of faculty talent is full and flowing.

NIH-chartInstitutionally, we moved into the top five universities in terms of support received by members of our faculty from the National Institutes of Health—joining Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Penn, and the University of California at San Francisco.

We also ranked in the top 10 nationally in terms of total federal science and engineering research and development support. That distinguished top 10 also included Johns Hopkins, Washington, Michigan, Penn, UCLA, Duke, Columbia, Stanford, and UCSF.

Partner in Community Development

As a partner in community development:

We were the country’s top-ranked public university in the 2009 edition of Saviors of Our Cities: A Survey of Best College and University Civic Partnerships, reflecting our long-standing commitment to strengthen the economy and enhance the overall quality of life in our home region.

To give just a few examples of that commitment, close to 3,000 students participated in dozens of community improvement projects as a part of “Pitt Make a Difference Day”; faculty and staff helped to distribute food to more than 1,000 families through the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank during the holiday season; and on Christmas Day itself, Pitt and the Salvation Army teamed to feed 900 adults and children in the Market Place dining area of the Litchfield Towers residence halls. Efforts like these symbolize what is an all-year-long commitment to public service by students, faculty, and staff.

Our $654 million in annual research expenditures supports, directly and indirectly, some 23,000 local jobs—underscoring the fact that we sit at the heart of the “eds and meds” sector, which now is Western Pennsylvania’s largest employment sector and the only sector to have added jobs each and every year since 1995.

In short, we crafted a record of accomplishment that would be impressive in any year but that can be viewed with special satisfaction in such challenging times. We also are off to a fast start in 2010. Here are just a few key headlines from the early weeks of the new calendar year.

Two faculty members—Graham Hatfull, the Eberly Family Professor and Chair of the Department of Biological Sciences, and Michael Zigmond, Professor of Neurology, Neurobiology and Psychiatry and Director of our Morris K. Udall Center of Excellence in Parkinson’s Disease Research —were elected fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

A multicenter research team led by Professor Ian McGowan from the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences received a $17.5 million NIH grant focused on HIV prevention.

The University was recognized as one of the best places in academia to work by The Scientist magazine and as one of the nation’s most veteran-friendly universities by Military Advanced Education magazine.

We received a $15 million grant, the largest awarded under this particular federal program, from the National Institute of Standards and Technology to support the expansion of our nanoscience and experimental physics facilities.

And a team led by Harvey Borovetz, Distinguished Professor of Bioengineering and Chair of our Department of Bioengineering, received a $5.6 million NIH grant to further develop its pediatric heart pump so that device can be taken to clinical trials.

As these news items suggest, we are off to a strong start in this new year, and there is every reason to believe that our momentum will continue to build. At the same time, no one can reasonably expect 2010—or 2011, for that matter—to be easy years. Even if we are fortunate enough to be moving toward the end of the recession, its effects will be felt for some time. To cite one critical example, unemployment remains a huge national problem. Closer to home, recently published reports indicate that the Commonwealth’s revenue receipts are down. It also has been reported that charitable contributions to higher education suffered their steepest drop in at least three decades last year.

Looking around the “world of higher education,” last month’s biggest story probably came out of the University of Illinois, which announced that it planned to begin a furlough program that would impact 11,000 employees and also had instituted a freeze on all staff and faculty hiring, as two parts of a broader effort to deal with what it described as a “grim and worsening” financial situation. Most noteworthy for us is the fact that this is the University of Illinois, one of this country’s finest public research universities, making clear that it is not only marginal institutions, or strong institutions located in the State of California, that are being forced to implement severe measures in the face of recession-related financial pressures.

In fact, a New York Times article from the first week of this month bore the headline, “Yale, With $150 Million Deficit, Plans Staff and Research Cuts.” The body of that article also discussed cuts imposed at Cornell and Princeton, among the country’s finest private universities.

Hopefully, Pitt will be able to continue traveling a more stable path. Certainly, that will be our ongoing goal. We have been careful in our spending, and we have worked hard to develop good business practices and to build financial strength. We also can take comfort from the last year—because we did meet every challenge that came our way and continued to build momentum, which was no small feat.

Recent days also have brought reasonably good news on the governmental front. President Obama’s federal budget for FY 2011 has been viewed favorably within the higher education community, proposing substantial increases for student aid and more modest increases for federal research programs. The Governor’s proposed Commonwealth budget for the next fiscal year essentially calls for flat state support for Pitt and the other state-related universities—which, as recent experiences have taught us, is far more positive than it might have been. Not only has the City’s proposed tuition tax been shelved, but a collaborative effort to effectively address the legacy problems presented by its underfunded pension plans has been launched.

Still, this comparatively positive news will not eliminate serious challenges. Most obviously, flat state funding, though far preferable to cuts, does not provide any support for dealing with the cost increases that await us. Even more troubling is the fact that the federal stimulus funding, upon which two successive Commonwealth budgets will have been built, is scheduled to disappear in FY 2012. This so-called funding “cliff” would result in far larger state budget deficits and would produce even greater pressure on funding for public higher education.

As noted above, whatever does come our way in the weeks and months ahead, we can take some measure of comfort from our successes of the past year. We also can be confident that the University of Pittsburgh community will keep pushing forward, energetically and with true dedication, because we do have a mission in which we believe and that we all know needs to be advanced. And fortunately, as important as that is, we have even more than our worthy cause. We have an inspiring history; we have a deep reservoir of institutional strength; and, perhaps most important, we have each other.

Certainly, I know that we could never have risen to our current levels of excellence and impact except for the committed and creative efforts of the thousands of “people of Pitt.” I also know that the good times have been more joyful and the bad times have been more bearable because, good and bad, they are times that we have shared. And, so, I congratulate you for what we have accomplished; I thank you for your many contributions; and I encourage you to keep up your excellent work.

I wish I could promise that the weeks and months ahead will be easy, but I am quite certain that they will not be. However, I can assure you that as we move forward together, meeting challenges and seizing opportunities, it will continue to be a very satisfying journey, and I certainly am glad to be traveling forward in your company.