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September 13, 2012

Faculty hear state funding update,

vets’ plea

Faculty Assembly members convened for the first time this fall to hear new University Senate President Thomas Smitherman’s goals and plans for the year, Vice Chancellor for Governmental Relations Paul Supowitz’s update on state funding and the Pitt Student Veteran Association’s plea for greater faculty involvement.

Student veterans seek support

Faculty Assembly representative Jay Sukits, of business, who has been involved with the student veterans group on campus since 2006, said the group would like to form a faculty advisory board.

“We would like to reach out to the departments in the University and the schools in the University to get faculty and staff who are veterans involved in this organization,” he said. Sukits urged Faculty Assembly representatives to convey the message to their departments and offered to serve as a contact for questions. His email is

He also requested that the University Senate form some sort of veterans affairs committee, be it ad hoc, temporary or permanent.

Sukits said the student veterans group has about 70 members out of an estimated 400-600 veterans on the Pittsburgh campus.

Sukits became involved in the student veteran group after reading about a similar organization at Dartmouth that had spread to other university campuses.

“It struck me as something very important because I was an undergraduate here in 1972, right after serving two tours as an infantryman in Vietnam.” Attending college with 18-year-olds at age 22 after attaining the rank of captain in active duty, “I was in really a different sort of world,” he said. “I remember my experiences and kept thinking, ‘Why aren’t we doing something like this here?’”

He said there has been little coordination between the Student Veteran Association and the Office of Veterans Services on campus.

“I’m convinced the administration of that office does not understand the plight of student veterans,” he said, noting that veterans returning from duty in Iraq and Afghanistan are facing similar difficulties in adapting to student life. “They have no support of their fellow military people in uniform,” Sukits said. “It’s a rather harrowing experience and it’s a very difficult transition to make.”

Sukits said the student organizations try to provide social and moral support as well as networking to aid in career and educational planning. They also can provide some intervention for veterans, he said, citing National Institute of Mental Health and Veterans Administration estimates that a veteran commits suicide every 80 minutes and that 25-30 percent of the 2 million service members who served in Iraq or Afghanistan have some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Sukits said Pitt’s Office of Veterans Services had agreed to send one email per semester on behalf of the student group, but he deemed that level of communication insufficient.

“The only way we can get the word out to other veterans is having the ability to communicate with them,” he said, lamenting that employers often would like to meet with veterans on campus, but those opportunities can’t be communicated effectively in only one email per semester.

Student Veteran Association president William R. Cole, a student in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, outlined four main needs the organization would like to see addressed:

• A veterans’ transition class in which students could network and discuss issues such as PTSD, traumatic brain injury and physical disabilities.

• A physical space or veterans resource center where students could network and study.

• A director of the Office of Veterans Services. Cole said the position has been vacant since November 2011 and that the office more recently lost a program assistant, leaving only a certifying official and outreach coordinator. “Needless to say, the Office of Veterans Services is operating far below full potential,” he said.

• An effective means of communication to enable the group to connect with the veterans community. Grassroots efforts have yielded a number of email addresses, but being permitted to email all veterans on campus through the Office of Veterans Services would ensure that all veterans are aware of the resources the student group offers.

Cole said, “I think that if we can increase the means of communication and provide these services to the veteran community and see if we can help veterans obtain an education and a means for employment in the future, these are some of the very same social tools that helped World War II veterans get an education, buy a house and eventually contribute to the American economy in meaningful ways.”

The University Times asked the Pitt administration for a reaction to the concerns voiced at the Faculty Assembly meeting.

John Fedele, associate director of News, said via email: “N. John Cooper, dean of the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences and the College of General Studies, has reviewed the issues presented by the Student Veteran Association at the recent Faculty Assembly meeting. He believes there are constructive ways forward on all of the issues that were raised.

“Most importantly, a search has been under way for some time for a new director of Veteran Services at Pitt. An offer was extended on Monday to an exciting candidate who also happens to be a veteran. When the new director is in place, Dean Cooper will invite interested parties, including the president of the Student Veteran Association, to a meeting to explore concerns and possible ways of addressing them.”

State funding overview

In the first of what Smitherman said is intended to be a series of regular special reports from areas across the University, Supowitz presented an overview of state budget issues.

He said that the budget process for the upcoming fiscal year already is underway, noting that Pitt’s state appropriation request for 2013-14 is due in late September. The governor proposes a state budget in early February, then come appropriations hearings in the House and Senate with a budget agreement due by the July 1 start of the fiscal year.

Commenting on Pitt’s flat appropriation in the current state budget, Supowitz said, “It’s sad when you have to feel good about a year in which you’re just staying flat, but given the environment that we’re in, given the economics that we’re experiencing and given the governor’s approach to higher education, and public higher education in particular, I think it is as best as we could have really hoped for under the circumstances.”

Last year, Gov. Tom Corbett proposed a 50 percent cut to Pitt’s appropriation that ultimately was reduced to a 27 percent cut. In the current budget, legislators eliminated Corbett’s proposed 30 percent cut, holding Pitt’s appropriation flat in exchange for tuition increases that did not exceed inflation. (See July 12 University Times.)

“Even before the recession hit and Gov. Corbett came into office, it’s been a tough number of years since the beginning of the decade for the state-related universities and public higher education,” Supowitz said, noting that Pitt’s funding has been held flat in the past decade and that the University has seen cuts in seven of the past 11 years.

“Private higher ed has always had a large place at the table in Pennsylvania,” Supowitz added, noting that students at private universities benefit from PHEAA grants. “The Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency provides grants directly to students. It’s based on income but it also figures into the grant calculation the cost of attending the institution,” he said. “That weighs heavily in favor of students who attend these private schools because they use the sticker price, not the actual price students pay.”

The state budget has increased dramatically during the period when public higher education funding has been held flat, Supowitz said, citing public welfare (up 127 percent since 1995) and corrections (up 159 percent since 1995) as areas in which funding has been increased. The prospect of snowballing state pension liabilities contributes additional budget pressure.

There also is a gap when comparing funding for the state-related universities with increases in inflation. Collectively, the four schools’ (Pitt, Penn State, Temple and Lincoln universities) appropriations are $331.9 million less than they would have been had funding since 2001 merely kept up with Consumer Price Index increases, he said.

In the most recent budget cycle, “Keep Pitt Public” became the focus of the University’s lobbying efforts. “We made it very clear that enough was enough; that we had experienced seven cuts in 11 years, that our appropriation was not nearly covering the tuition discount that we give to Pennsylvania students, but that public higher ed had been used long enough as the place to go when there’s a problem in the budget.”

Citing Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg’s often used description of the cuts as “disproportionate,” Supowitz said the overall state budget trimming was proposed at 0.1 percent while Pitt was targeted for a 30 percent cut; the prior year the overall state budget was proposed to be cut 4.1 percent while Pitt’s proposed cut was 50 percent. In comparison to the cuts made in Pitt’s appropriation, the state budget has increased dramatically, Supowitz said.

“We really tried to hit hard with that disproportionality theme and I think that did resonate with a lot of legislators,” he said.

Because the state is not constitutionally required to fund higher education, “it’s an easy mark” during tough budget times. In addition, he said, appropriations to the four state-related universities add up to a significant amount.

This year, he said, was a “line in the sand year” in which Pitt pushed to be restored to last year’s funding level. “I think we got an excellent reception from the legislature on that,” he said, adding that legislators recognized the University’s belt-tightening and “really jumped on the bandwagon of the ‘enough is enough, no more cuts’ effort.”

Looking ahead, Supowitz said, “There is no appetite for further cuts in the legislature or among the voters.”

But a wild card lies in the report due in November from the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Postsecondary Education.

Nordenberg is among about 30 members of the commission, which was convened by Gov. Corbett in February. (See Feb. 9 University Times.)

While representation on the committee gives the state-related schools the opportunity to talk about the value of research universities and their role as an economic driver, the commission also has representatives from private and for-profit schools and business and industry, Supowitz said.

“It’s hard to say where that’s going to go,” he said.

Thomas Smitherman

Thomas Smitherman

President’s report

In his report, Smitherman announced that he intends to focus on projects that already are underway rather than begin new initiatives in the upcoming year. In particular, he said he hopes to get more faculty involved in the Fitness for Life and Community Engagement for Research and Teaching Through Service, or CERTS programs. (See Oct. 27, 2011, University Times.)

Smitherman also seeks to improve the University Senate’s communication with faculty members, adding that web site improvements are planned and that he would like to increase the frequency of the Senate newsletter from two to 10 per year.

In addition to special newsletters at election time, he envisions the issues would include reports on the activities of Faculty Assembly and Senate Council as well as updates from committees and groups within the organizations.

Smitherman said he hopes to schedule frequent special reports at Assembly meetings. A special report on the student athlete has been set for January.

He also sought members’ input regarding Faculty Assembly’s new meeting place in conference room A on the University Club’s third floor. Smitherman said the University Club is more centrally located than Posvar Hall and that the move from the club’s ballroom to the smaller conference room aims to improve acoustics and reduce costs.

“We are hopeful that the move proves to be a good one,” he said, noting that the cost savings had enabled the group to reintroduce “modest refreshments” of coffee, tea and water for attendees.

In other business, Smitherman offered a brief overview of ongoing issues and upcoming events:

• There has been “substantial communication” over the summer between the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences and the religious studies, classics and German departments “to make sure the established policies and processes of the University ultimately will be followed in any potential restructuring of the graduate programs in the departments.”

The suspension of graduate admissions in the departments (see June 14 University Times) has raised concerns among faculty regarding the departments’ opportunity for input in the process.

Smitherman said he expects the issue to be resolved by late fall or early winter.

• A single Senate plenary session, “The Oncoming Cyberlearning Revolution in Higher Education?” is being planned for March. “We’re going to try to make it very big and very substantive,” Smitherman said. “Doubtless you’ve read much both in the lay press and in educational journals about the rapid introduction of much more computer-based teaching and learning in higher education. How fast is it coming? Why is it coming? How will we apply these changes at Pitt? How will we maintain the best of our prior educational methods in the face of the new technological innovations? All these questions will be addressed. It should be a timely, highly informative, exciting discussion.”

Faculty Assembly’s next meeting is set for 3 p.m. Oct. 2 in University Club conference room A.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 45 Issue 2

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