University Update

Issue Date: 
January 14, 2013

Even though New Year’s Eve celebrations signaled the official arrival of 2013 and most offices of the University re-opened last week, this is the week that has brought the practical beginning of both a new calendar year and a new academic term to Pitt. I hope that

each of you enjoyed a wonderful holiday season. I also hope that the year ahead is one in which we are able to share the many

special satisfactions that come from being part of a university community without some of the disruptions that characterized the first half of the past year.  

We enter the new year with still-building momentum. Consider just some of the many achievements that signaled our continuing progress in the closing months of 2012, the year that marked the 225th anniversary of Pitt’s founding.   

  • We received the wonderfully complimentary report from our Middle States accrediting team. That report reaffirmed our position as a “world-class research university”—an enviable status that we all have worked hard to attain and maintain.   
  • Building on the generosity of more than 182,000 donors, we surpassed the $2 billion mark in our fundraising campaign. That success obviously is a credit to our campaign volunteers and fundraising professionals. It also is a clear reflection of our progress in making Pitt an exceptionally investment-worthy institution.   
  • Data released by the National Science Foundation confirmed that we continue to occupy a position of distinction in terms of our overall research strength. For fiscal year 2011, we ranked fifth nationally in federally financed research and development expenditures—trailing only Johns Hopkins, Washington, Michigan, and Penn and ahead of Stanford, Columbia, UC-San Diego, Wisconsin, and Duke, the other universities in that top 10.   
  • Individual faculty members continued to earn the highest forms of recognition. Some examples include the receipt by Tom Starzl of the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award; the election of Michael Boninger and Jennifer Grandis to the Institute of Medicine; the election of Tom Hales to the inaugural class of American Mathematical Society Fellows and the election of Bruce Freeman, Peyman Givi, Valerian Kagan, and Allan Sampson as Fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.   
  • Most major student awards are made in the spring term. However, Pitt senior Paras Minhas launched that season in a big way when he was one of just 34 students nationally to be named a 2013 Marshall Scholar, building on our legacy as a specially designated “Marshall Center of Excellence.” Pitt also was recognized as one of the country’s top producers of student Fulbright Scholars.   
  • The closing days of 2012 brought worldwide attention to an unbelievable advance when it was demonstrated that a woman suffering from quadra:plegia could maneuver an artificial arm using only the power of her own thoughts. A number of years ago, the work of Pitt professor Andy Schwartz, at that time demonstrating this potential through work with monkeys, was featured on 60 Minutes. Just about two weeks ago, that same television program, as well as other media outlets, highlighted the more recent extension of that work into humans. In addition to Andy, other key members of this pathbreaking Pitt team included Michael Boninger, Jennifer Collinger, and Elizabeth Tyler-Kabara.   

The new year will provide us with further opportunities to build on this distinguished record. From experience, we know that it also will present its share of challenges. Some of them may surprise us, but others already can be predicted. Certainly, as we continue to move through difficult economic times, funding will remain a central concern.    

Our elected representatives in Washington finally agreed to a last-minute approach that avoided a plunge over the “fiscal cliff,” but key revenue and spending issues still have not been addressed. Potential casualties, as negotiating resumes, include funding streams important to our principal missions—particularly federal support for student aid and for university-based research. On the Harrisburg front, the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Post-Secondary Education recommended that there be at least flat funding for higher education in the next fiscal year, as one part of a larger plan and acknowledging that economic challenges remain and that there will be competing demands for limited Commonwealth resources. However, since our own costs continue to rise, even flat funding, if that is secured, will present budgetary challenges for us.   

Meanwhile, the City of Pittsburgh, complying with a mandate from the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, one of the two fiscal oversight groups to which it reports, is creating a working group to study steps that might be taken to increase “contributions” from the nonprofit community. A fundamental flaw with this initiative is the narrowness of that charge. All who have studied these matters recognize that the principal structural problem facing the City on the revenue side is the dramatic imbalance between the number of commuters who work in the City, directly benefitting from the services that it provides, and the much smaller number of City residents who pay, through their property taxes, for most of those services. On the spending side, underfunded pensions continue to loom as a huge problem for Pittsburgh, as they do for other cities. However, the ICA chose not to put these critical matters on the working group’s agenda, virtually ensuring that no meaningful solution can emerge.   

In these matters, we do have interests to protect, but, at least as I see things, our advocacy and other efforts are driven by something more. We believe in the power of higher education and in society’s obligation to make high-quality university opportunities available at a reasonable cost. We know that the products of university research already have improved the human condition and now stand at the center of this region’s innovation-driven economy. Most of us also know how lucky we are to be part of a community that includes so many talented and committed people working hard to advance the greater good. 

Certainly, I consider that to be my good fortune and look forward to working with you to advance these important ends in the new year. Best wishes for 2013!