University Update: Looking Back and Moving Ahead

Issue Date: 
September 27, 2010

To:    Members of the University Community
From:    Mark A. Nordenberg
Date:    September 22, 2010

Chancellor NordenbergChancellor Nordenberg

As everyone who lived through it knows, last year was both a time of trouble and a time of triumph here at Pitt. Right from the start, we faced a succession of daunting challenges. Not only did we effectively deal with each obstacle that the year presented, but we continued to build momentum as we pushed forward with our important work.

• In the earliest days of the last fiscal year, we faced the truly urgent need to counter an attempt to reclassify Pennsylvania’s state-related universities as “non-public” entities. Though contrary to both precedent and policy, that misdesignation could have deprived Pitt, Penn State, Temple, and Lincoln of tens of millions of dollars of federal and state support. Working with those other universities, we were able to secure a reversal of that position in the U.S. Department of Education, preserving our right to share in federal stimulus funds targeted for public higher education and also to benefit from the state funding protections built into that federal legislation.

• We endured not only an extended delay in the passage of the Commonwealth’s general budget but, when our funding was tied to the resolution of partisan differences over the shape of gaming legislation, were forced to contend with an even longer delay before action was taken on our own appropriation. Formal approval of our state funding did not come until mid-December, and no state appropriation dollars actually were received until February. Relying on financial strength built over the course of many years, we simply had to “wait out” these delays. And to be clear, that wait did not just involve maintaining our own operations without state funding flows. Instead, we also provided an extended grace period for students who could not meet normal tuition-payment deadlines because their individual state grants also had been held up by the budget delay.

• A highly publicized plan to tax the tuition paid by all students enrolled in Pittsburgh institutions of higher education put this City in a negative national media spotlight and raised the specter of increased costs for our students and an uncompetitive business climate for Pitt and Pittsburgh’s other colleges and universities. Through a broad-based higher education coalition, whose efforts included a heavy dose of student advocacy, we were able to secure the withdrawal of that proposal.

• The disruptions following the G-20 Summit posed a threat to positive campus relations that had been productively and respectfully built over the course of many years, even though the University’s influence over summit-related events was very limited. During the G-20 and in its wake, we worked hard to maintain the good relationships between our students and administration—and particularly with our Office of Student Affairs and the Pitt Police—that have come to characterize the University of Pittsburgh.

• Not long after the G-20 and before either our State budget woes or the problems posed by the City’s proposed tuition tax were behind us, talk of possible conference expansion threw the world of intercollegiate athletics into a state of some disarray—a condition that persists, though to a somewhat lesser degree, today.

Our success in effectively meeting, or at least deflecting, those challenges took enormous effort and might itself be viewed as a worthy cause for celebration. What is far more remarkable, though, is that we not only met those very significant challenges but were able to build further momentum while moving through such a difficult period. What we saw during the last year was a continuation of the progress that now has been building at Pitt over the course of many years. In some key areas, in fact, we saw even more dramatic rates of progress despite these troubling times. Consider the following examples.

We continued to build an outstanding record in both student recruitment and student performance. Looking just at this fall’s freshman class here in Oakland, as one key indicator of broader institutional strength, that class was drawn from a pool of 22,616 applications, compared to 7,825 in 1995 and 21,737 last year—a near-tripling of applications over the course of the past 15 years and a jump of nearly 900 applicants in the last year alone. Based on the most current data available, the class has an average SAT score of 1273, compared to 1110 in 1995 and 1264 last year, and 51 percent of the entering class members ranked in the top 10 percent of their high school graduating classes, compared to 19 percent in 1995 and 49 percent last year.

The fact that we claimed our third Rhodes Scholar in five years was one visible sign of the high accomplishment that has come to characterize our enrolled students. Pitt undergraduates also claimed Goldwater, Udall, and Boren Scholarships; three Humanities in Action Fellowships; two Whitaker Foundation International Fellowships; and a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Junior Fellowship. To give just three other examples, six graduating seniors and seven current graduate students were awarded National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships, two graduate students received dissertation fellowships in a competition jointly sponsored by the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Andrew Mellon Foundation, and another graduate student was named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer.

During the last year, we also saw our freshman-to-sophomore retention rate rise to 93 percent, about a 10 percent increase since 1995 and a level that takes us into the range of retention rates found at the country’s other top public research universities. Such goals also remind us, if we need reminding, that our mission is to create a learning environment that positions all 35,000 Pitt students to effectively use the power of education to build better lives.

We continued to build exceptional strength as a center of pioneering research. Our research expenditures rose from $240 million in 1995 to $654 million in FY 2009 to $737 million in FY 2010. Take a moment to think about those numbers—we have more than tripled our research expenditures over the past 15 years, and last year, at a time when almost everything else in the economy was stalled, we grew our research base by $83 million, an increase of nearly 13 percent. Roughly half of that increase is tied to success in pursuing federal stimulus grants. The other half reflected our more general success in federal grant competitions.

We currently rank 5th among all American universities in terms of the grant funding attracted by members of our faculty from the National Institutes of Health— joining Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Penn, and the University of California at San Francisco in that top five. We also rank in the top 10 universities in total federal science and engineering research and development support. That group consists of Johns Hopkins, Washington, Michigan, Penn, UCLA, Duke, Columbia, Stanford, the University of California at San Francisco, and Pitt.

We continued to garner wide-ranging forms of recognition for our many and varied strengths. For the fourth consecutive year, we were ranked in the very top cluster of the country’s public research universities in the objective assessment independently produced each year by the Center for Measuring University Performance—joining Berkeley, Illinois, Michigan, North Carolina, UCLA, and Wisconsin in that distinguished group. During the course of the year, Pitt received many other honors—recognized as one of the best places in the country to do biomedical research, as one of the country’s best employers of people older than 50, and as one of the country’s most veteran-friendly universities. We were the country’s top-ranked public university in the Saviors of our Cities assessment of community outreach programs. We also received top national honors for our commitment to programs designed to create a vibrant campus culture that is not alcohol-dependent, and the most recent issue of the Princeton Review’s college guide listed us as one of the country’s top 10 universities in the “happiest students” category.

We continued to build the levels of financial strength that are essential to the pursuit of our high academic goals. Earlier this month, we announced that we had passed the $1.5 billion mark in our $2 billion capital campaign. This is the largest amount of money ever raised by any group for any purpose in this region, and our successes in fundraising have made a difference to the people, programs, and physical plant of Pitt. Among other things, this campaign has created nearly 500 new endowed scholarships and fellowships, more than 100 new endowed chairs and professorships, and nearly 700 new named student and faculty resource endowments. Campaign contributions also have been critical to the creation and support of key program initiatives and to transformational facilities improvement projects on all five of our campuses.

As further signs of financial strength, following the market plunge during the “Great Recession,” our endowment has moved back above the $2 billion mark, and endowment returns last year climbed to 12.5 percent, a very welcome sign. For most Pitt employees, probably few signs were more welcome, though, than our ability to craft a budget that included a salary increase pool, while maintaining the size of our work force, in the face of flat state funding and stress on almost all other revenue streams.

We brought new talent into our senior leadership team. Most notably, of course, Patty Beeson assumed the Provost’s position on Aug. 15. Her appointment generated enthusiasm and entirely positive reactions on campus, and she certainly is off to a very strong start, having named three outstanding colleagues—David DeJong, Juan Manfredi, and Alberta Sbragia—to key positions within the Provost’s Office. The summer months also brought the appointment of Steve Husted—who is both an outstanding teacher and an accomplished administrator—as Interim Dean of the Honors College.

Despite the many victories of the past year, though, many of our most serious challenges have persisted. For example, the City’s pension problems, which led to the “tuition tax” proposal, have not been solved, and we are dependent on a safe, vibrant, fiscally healthy City of Pittsburgh. Even worse, the City’s pension problems are dwarfed by the state’s pension problems, and the state’s budget challenges go far beyond underfunded pensions, with some experts predicting that total short-term shortfalls will be measured in the billions of dollars. At least under existing law, this is the last year of federal stimulus funding, which means that we soon will confront what has come to be known as the federal “funding cliff.” Public transportation problems recently have become the focus of real concern, particularly in this region. And we are an institution that depends heavily on public transportation—as a means of getting employees back and forth to work, for students who do not live in the immediate vicinity of campus getting back and forth to classes, and for students taking advantage of the richness of the region, whether that is for jobs or internships or enrichment activities like the Pitt Arts Program.

What does this mean for us? Most obviously, we have not moved beyond troubled times. In fact, it seems likely that even more daunting challenges may await us. To take just the single most obvious example, the federal funding cliff could present very serious difficulties, as could almost any of these other issues, with possible consequences becoming even more severe if some combination of them were to hit us at once. But our success in meeting past challenges should provide some measure of confidence moving forward, and our record of forging further progress, even when challenged, adds substance to the hope that we might emerge from this period as an even stronger and more highly regarded university.

In his book, Troubled Times for American Higher Education: The 1990’s and Beyond, Clark Kerr—whose distinguished career included service as Chancellor at Berkeley and Chair of the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education—said, “Everybody behaves more or less alike at a cocktail party (the 1980’s), but not on the firing lines (the 1990’s).” He also predicted that, in light of the serious challenges that he expected would arise, the period from 1990 to 2010 could be a period of greater-than-usual change in university rankings, tied to the comparative effectiveness of institutional responses to those challenges.

The last 15 years have seen a clear rise in the strength, quality, and reputation of the University of Pittsburgh. The momentum that we have built obviously is tied to a rich reservoir of human talent. But other qualities consistently on display throughout our University—commitment, discipline, selflessness, and an appetite for hard work, among them—have been indispensable to our progress. To borrow from the language of Chancellor Kerr, we seem to have responded appropriately and well to life on “the firing lines.”

I wish I could promise that the weeks, months, and years ahead will be easier, but I cannot. However, I do believe that, as long as we remain true to the institutional character that we have helped shape and keep working together, more good days lie ahead, for Pitt and for all of us who care about Pitt. Some of the victories yet to be claimed almost certainly will be worthy of celebrations taking a range of forms, and I look forward to sharing them with you.