Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

March 30, 2000

Chancellor reports on state of University: “Seeking to become one of the best”

"We are not a marginal institution seeking to make our way up the middle ranks," Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg said. "We are a strong institution seeking to become one of the best."

The chancellor assessed the state of the University for an audience of about 225 at the March 22 University Senate plenary session.

Nordenberg reiterated and elaborated on goals established by Pitt's Board of Trustees — pursuing excellence in undergraduate education; building on research strengths; increasing overall operational efficiency and effectiveness; securing a resource base, and partnering with the community — and said the University had made progress toward meeting each goal.

But two faculty members, responding to the chancellor's remarks, focused on Nordenberg's theme of what it means to be "one of the best," and cautioned that goals by themselves are not sufficient benchmarks of a university's health without corresponding clearly defined and agreed-upon measurements. (See story on this page.) Nordenberg began his address, "Pitt in the Year 2000: Pursuing Our Full Potential," with a quote from Clark Kerr, former chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley: "A reputation, once established, is an institution's greatest asset."

As examples of Pitt's reputation, Nordenberg pointed to membership in the Association of American Universities (AAU), increased federal and state support, higher enrollments and better-qualified students, and record fundraising, among other indicators.

The chancellor said the University boasts a top 20 ranking among universities nationwide in attracting science and engineering dollars, a top 10 ranking in medical research funding and a No. 1 ranking in support from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Nordenberg said Pitt was awarded 175 research grants of at least $250,000 between June and December 1999. "Research dollars are up almost 30 percent over the last four years and we are on par for another 14 percent increase during this year alone, a remarkable jump," he said. "The University can import into this region more than $300 million, nearly twice our state appropriations."

In addition, Pitt received from private donors about $65 million in cash last year, a record amount, and has about $100 million in long-term commitments as part of the quiet phase of its capital campaign, which is expected to be launched this fall.

"This will allow us to enhance our undergraduate programs and research, add to the endowment, attract top-quality faculty, attack cost barriers of students, foster human development, add to the storehouse of knowledge and renovate and build, even as it enhances the strength of the region," he said.

The chancellor said the University had received the highest percentage increase in state appropriations in recent memory and that a $138 million five-year commitment from the state allowed Pitt to embark on "a construction program of historic dimension which will dramatically improve this campus." Nordenberg pointed to the upcoming construction of the Multi-Purpose Academic Complex and the Petersen Events Center and renovation of the Masonic Temple as examples.

Among Pitt's highest priorities, Nordenberg said, is improvement of undergraduate education. "High academic ambition is the defining characteristic over the entire course of the 213-year life of this institution," he said. "You literally cannot stroll the streets of this city without running into countless examples of outstanding individuals who began building their careers as Pitt undergraduates. Fairly or not, our graduate programs are better known for quality; in moving ahead, it is essential to elevate the quality of our undergraduate programs."

To reach that goal, the chancellor said, Pitt must market its programs and recruit more effectively; must better deploy the financial aid office; and must make long-term investments in improving the environment for students, including classroom renovations, enhanced technology infrastructure and support of programs like Pitt Arts and study abroad that maximize student academic and personal growth.

"We must not only admit a diverse student body, but make sure that each student is fully positioned to develop his or her potential. We believe that if we give all our students the chance to be the best that they can be, some of them will become among the best that anyone can be," he said. "We must also make opportunities fairly available to all, including in particular those struggling with some disadvantage."

The marketplace reaction to Pitt's push to improve undergraduate education over the past few years has been very encouraging, Nordenberg said, as evidenced by a 60 percent hike in freshmanapplications at the Pittsburgh campus; rising SAT scores and high school class rankings, and a high number of Rhodes and Marshall scholarship winners.

The University also has "effectively leveraged its research engine," Nordenberg said, by retiring start-up debts, upgrading laboratories, revitalizing a dormant research incentive fund and nurturinginterdisciplinary research programs between departments and with other universities. "It is our research culture that distinguishes us from most colleges and universities and support of that culture allows faculty researchers to reach the highest level of attainment and to perform research that touches lives," he said.

Focusing on academic planning priorities, the chancellor said, "The success of academic units themselves depends in large part on their ability to articulate their needs. There has been a range in the ways various units respond [to the planing process]. In the main, the provost and I have been pleased with the plans, to date."

Nordenberg said that plans with the most promise have five common features: an over-arching commitment to the highest quality; willingness and ability to make responsible fiduciary choices; a high value assigned to human worth; connections to the community, and overall respect for Pitt's mission.

"Our level of state support is not as high as that of our AAU peers. There is no quick fix to that and almost always there will be internal resource allocations, triggered by units' plans," as part of the formula, he said.

Nordenberg added that as recently as fall 1995 his administration was faced with a budget built around a University-wide salary freeze. Pitt is much more fiscally sound now, he said, in part due to recent internal initiatives, such as the faculty early retirement program, a restructured relationship with UPMC Health System, a comprehensive master facilities plan, a nearly completeinformation technology plan, the ongoing upgrading of Pitt's information systems and a more business-like approach with outside vendors — all of which have helped ensure cost-effectiveness and efficiency.

He touted Pitt's recent strengthening of its role in community development and establishing respectful relations with local neighbors and city officials. "There is better appreciation by the communities of what we bring to them from each of our five [regional] schools. As Pitt Chancellor George Woods said 125 years ago, 'education is the best means to new industries … and academic science lies at the heart of commercial innovation.' There is a growing recognition that the region's promising commercial possibilities are tied to this University's strengths," Nordenberg said.

Despite the stereotype of academic life as cushy, the chancellor said, "I do not believe that anyone in this room has an easy job…. I regularly wake up before the alarm goes off, and even before your eyes are open your mind is racing with ways you'll deal with the challenges of that day. I've had my fair share of difficult problems and difficult people, but when I leave the office at the end of the day, I remind myself how lucky I am to be where I am and doing what I'm doing."

Nordenberg said he felt sure that Pitt's greatest days are ahead. "By creatively applying our shared vision and having faith in our ability to pursue lofty goals, I have no doubt that our greatest victories are yet to come. I look forward to sharing them with you."

–Peter Hart

Leave a Reply