Chancellor discusses commission’s report
Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg said his work on the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Postsecondary Education was among the most demanding undertakings he has faced in more than 17 years as chancellor.
Nordenberg spoke to Senate Council Nov. 14 about the commission’s report, which was released earlier that day. “It has been a tremendously demanding and challenging experience: In part because the job was big, in part because we did have a clear deadline and in part because the climate is so difficult,” he said.
Difficulties lie not only in competition for limited funds but also in fundamental issues that have been raised about higher education in the wake of the recent recession — “issues that you wish you didn’t have to spend time answering, but they’re out there,” he acknowledged.
Nordenberg pointed out that the report was supported unanimously by the 31 commissioners, which he labeled “a major accomplishment by the leadership of the commission,” adding, “It was not easy to get to that point because of the strains that exist, the challenges that we face and the competitive nature of the way that people look at the world today.”
The chancellor explained, “It was a challenge for us in a sense that the commission consisted of representatives from a broadly diverse cross-section of the postsecondary education community and also consisted of numbers of other people who at the start probably were not so favorably inclined to public education and the support of the public higher education, but in the end I really am quite comfortable with the report that has been issued.”
The chancellor has posted his own statement on the commission report at www.chancellor.pitt.edu.
In his comments to Senate Council, Nordenberg said he felt that the general statements in the commission’s report “almost are more important to me than the specific recommendations … because such sweeping questions have been raised about the world in which we live and the worth of the work that we do. The report, as one of its foundation themes, recognizes that the postsecondary education community in Pennsylvania is strong, it’s impactful; it is a community of high quality.”
He said he found the report’s explicit acknowledgement of the strength of Pennsylvania’s diverse postsecondary education community to be a “very important starting point.”
Another issue, one that has roots in some discussion in Harrisburg about expanding the “dollars follow students” model to higher education funding, “is what priority should support for public institutions have when you’re talking about a total reservoir of resources that is not expanding,” the chancellor said.
“Here I would say that the report explicitly identifies the goal of ensuring the health and vitality of our public institutions — including our community colleges, the state system and our state-related universities — as a priority and then expresses the belief that these institutions play a critical role in sustaining the overall infrastructure that a leading educational system demands in providing lower-price alternatives for all citizens of the commonwealth,” Nordenberg said.
“When you think about all the skirmishing that’s going on, that statement is a very important statement for us,” he said.
The report also addressed the risks associated with further cuts in state support, recommending the current funding levels as a base on which to build.
“The report urges that the current level of funding — which we all know already is the product of steep cuts — be viewed as the minimum acceptable level of funding for postsecondary education in Pennsylvania,” Nordenberg said.
“It says the commission believes it is imperative to the health and vitality of our postsecondary system that funding not fall below this level. In addition, by making a long-term commitment to this base funding, institutions will be able to more effectively plan and manage their operations,” he said.
“It would seem in a lot of circumstances that establishing as your minimum a base that already has been reduced by steep cuts is not much of a win,” he said. “But remember, six months ago we were talking about a proposal to reduce us 30 percent more.”
The report recommends a three-step plan to increase funding.
“The first is flat funding for the next fiscal year,” Nordenberg said. “The second is that for years two and three we attempt to get back to the average level of support for the 10 years preceding the two years of big cuts.
“What that would do essentially is to inject another $250 million into public higher education to be divided amongst the sectors,” the chancellor explained, adding, “It would be a measurable increase for us and something that is perhaps achievable within that timeframe.”
The third step is “the more general aspiration that, once we reach that point, the commonwealth do all it can to fund the system of postsecondary education in ways that are consistent with its desire to provide affordable educational opportunities to Pennsylvania residents and also to provide the boosts to the economy that come in so many forms from education at this level,” the chancellor said.
Nordenberg said the report also singles out research universities for their role in enhancing Pennsylvania’s economic vitality and its ability to compete globally.
“There are sections in the report that provide opportunities for special investments or changes of other kinds — tax credits for businesses that might support us, for example — that say that we do need to put research universities in a different category as we think about funding going forward,” he said.
Nordenberg emphasized two dimensions of the report as especially relevant to the Pitt community:
“One is that there is a clear commitment to cost-cutting. I don’t think you could put together a report these days talking about the future of almost any kind of enterprise without pledging yourself to cost-cutting.
“And of course, we have been committed to cost-cutting and believe that we have a history supporting the assertion that we have been quite effective in doing that,” Nordenberg said.
He noted that the report states that cost-cutting must be done in a way that also recognizes the desire to maintain quality.
“Anybody can cut costs if you’re not concerned with quality. It is cutting costs while you continue to deliver the services or the products that your clients are expecting that becomes the trick,” Nordenberg said.
He noted that it also must be recognized that different cost structures accompany different institutional missions. “That already is pretty clearly reflected in the tuition charges that you see in public higher education in Pennsylvania,” he said, explaining that tuition at research institutions may be twice as much as at other types of universities and that tuition at those institutions may in turn be twice as much as at community colleges.
The report states that Pennsylvania ranks below many other states in affordability driven by lower-than-average levels of state funding per student and also by higher-than-average costs to deliver education in the commonwealth.
Rather than viewing the costs as a reflection of the institutions’ cost-management efforts, the report attributes the high-cost position in large part to “the quality and range of courses our students are afforded and the mix of sectors in the commonwealth,” Nordenberg said. “On the contrary, we believe that there are many examples of cost management best practices across Pennsylvania that can be leveraged for future gain,” he said.
“It really is not making anyone a scapegoat, but is saying the realities are that we’ve got to even redouble our efforts in this area if we’re going to preserve and protect the programs, the institutions and the good that flows from them.”
The report also provides for the development of a long-term performance-based funding program.
“I think there is a tendency on the part of people to recoil at the notion of something that is performance-based but I don’t feel that way about it,” Nordenberg said.
“The performance measures are to be developed consistently with the mission of the institution. They are to be developed in close collaboration with the institution and actually we do a lot of this,” he said.
“And I believe that, given our mission and our position within the broader community of institutions charged with that same mission, it actually gives us a good opportunity to demonstrate our worthiness for state investments, just as we have demonstrated our worthiness for private investments.”
The chancellor said that the report’s language “makes clear that the performance that is sought is either maintaining performance at what is defined as an acceptable level or climbing closer to that level of performance if you’re outside of the desired range.”
Nordenberg said, “Performance-based funding, applied in a particular way, can lead to a more competitive environment. Applied differently, though, it can simply be a means by which you seek to elevate the performance of every institution that is capable of elevating its performance. And I hope that’s the way it comes out.”
The chancellor said, “I really do believe in this place and would do just about anything to advance the work of the University of Pittsburgh. I also believe that there are lots of other fine institutions of higher education in Pennsylvania — public and private — so when we go about our work, we’re not looking to fight with people. And we’re really not looking to advantage ourselves at their expense.
“Our basic approach has been: Higher education ought to be in it together. And we ought to be doing everything that we can to elevate the levels of respect and support that we all enjoy. I think that has been hard over the course of the last couple of years because others have not taken that approach. But I also think that this framework provides the opportunity for it,” he said.
The chancellor said of the report, “I think that it is a very good product coming out of very challenging circumstances that will provide us with opportunities to hopefully improve our position in a whole range of ways moving forward.
“I say that not only in terms of the possibility of having a more stable and maybe more generous funding base, but I actually think that reinforcing the focus on cost-cutting, reinforcing the focus on performance measures, is not a bad thing and it is entirely consistent with the culture of assessment that was the subject of so much praise [for Pitt] from the Middle States group earlier in the fall.”
He cautioned, however, that while the governor has responded favorably to the report’s recommendations, legislators also would play a role in their implementation.
“There are the members of the legislature in particular who were not a part of this process. But we also know that they have generally been quite sympathetic to our position in the past and I hope that this will make it easier for them to be our allies,” the chancellor said.
—Kimberly K. Barlow