In his final year as chancellor of the University, Mark A. Nordenberg delivered the address to Pitt’s graduating Class of 2014 at the Petersen Events Center April 27. But before he delivered his message to this year’s class of over 6,000 graduates, including over 500 doctoral degree candidates, Nordenberg and three others were honored.
First, Nordenberg bestowed Chancellor’s Medals on Pitt faculty members Julius S. Youngner, Bernard Fisher and Thomas E. Starzl. According to Nordenberg, Chancellor’s Medals are the most prestigious of all medals and medallions awarded by the University and are awarded to those who have left an indelible mark on the traditions, values and character of Pitt.
Youngner, a faculty member in the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics and a pioneer in polio prevention, assisted in the development of the vaccine after arriving at Pitt in 1949. “Among his many contributions, he established the self-culture technique that made large-scale production of the polio virus possible, developed the process to destroy the ability of the virus to infect without impeding its effectiveness as a vaccine … ,” Nordenberg said.
Fisher, a professor emeritus, who earned both a BS (1940) and his medical degree (1943) at Pitt, has been an innovator in breast cancer treatment. Revolutionizing the way breast cancer is treated, Fisher was the first to point out that breast cancer is a systemic and not a localized disease, while showing that chemotherapy and hormonal therapy could be as effective as surgery, Nordenberg said. “There are those who believe, with good reason, that Dr. Fisher has done more to advance the cause of women’s health than any other person in history,” the chancellor said.
Starzl, a faculty member in the Department of Surgery, is among the world’s leaders in organ transplantation. He built one of the world’s biggest transplant programs here and is considered the “father of transplantation.” In 1963, Starzl performed the first ever human liver transplant then performed the first successful human liver transplant in 1967. “It was Starzl’s team at the University of Pittsburgh Transplantation Institute that made liver transplants routine,” Nordenberg added.
Then it was Nordenberg’s turn to be honored. Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Patricia E. Beeson, Board of Trustees chair Stephen R. Tritch and Senior Vice Chancellor for the Health Sciences Arthur S. Levine, who also is the John and Gertrude Petersen Dean of the School of Medicine, conferred an honorary doctor of humane letters upon Nordenberg. According to Beeson, the honor goes to an individual who embodies the ideals of the University: high achievement, humanitarian commitment and meaningful engagement in a purposeful life.
“Chancellor Nordenberg has led Pitt through one of the most impressive periods of progress in its 227-year history, progress that a visiting accrediting team attributed to extraordinarily talented and beloved leadership and an unwavering commitment to excellence,” Beeson said. The honorary degree marks the fifth such honor bestowed on Pitt’s chancellor and Distinguished Service Professor of Law. Carnegie Mellon, the Community College of Allegheny County and La Roche and Thiel colleges all have recognized Nordenberg with honorary degrees.
Beeson added that in his 19-year tenure as chancellor, Nordenberg has conferred over 140,000 degrees and 40 honorary degrees on recipients such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan. “These numbers and awards, while impressive, fail to capture one of the most important elements in his success: He cares deeply about Pitt and the people of the University community,” Beeson said.
Tritch cited Nordenberg’s beginnings at the University; he first accepted an appointment in Pitt’s School of Law in 1977. Tritch noted that Nordenberg was touted by former School of Law Dean John Murray as “a terrific teacher, a splendid scholar and a great human being.” Eight years later, Nordenberg was appointed dean of the school. He also served as interim provost, 1993-94. In 1995, Nordenberg was appointed as interim chancellor before assuming those duties on a permanent basis as the University’s 17th chancellor. “When you step down as chancellor, following 19 years of service, you will do so having guided the University through an unparalleled period of progress in its never-ending quest to become one of the finest and most productive universities in the world,” Tritch said to Nordenberg.
In addressing the Class of 2014 and their families and friends, Nordenberg reflected on his tenure at the University. He said one of Pitt’s goals had been to establish a record that made people feel that this chapter was one of the best in the University’s history, in addition to building Pitt’s reputation as one the best public research universities in America. “If we haven’t fully achieved those goals, we at least have made significant progress,” Nordenberg said, giving praise to the trustees, faculty, staff, alumni, students and others for that success.
He went on to cite three examples tied to the University’s missions of education, research and community commitment. First, he noted that an external review commissioned by Pitt’s board in 1995 expressed concerns about the University’s undergraduate programs, “that we were not attracting enough students, that we were not attracting well qualified students and that we were not appropriately engaged with our undergraduates,” Nordenberg said. Since then, applications to the undergraduate programs on the Pittsburgh campus have almost quadrupled, entering test scores have risen about 200 points and Pitt’s students have created a record of competing effectively in national and international competitions, he added.
Second, he noted that Pitt has been home to prominent researchers such as Youngner, Fisher and Starzl throughout its modern history. In 1995 Pitt was ranked No. 23 in the country by the National Science Foundation in terms of the research support secured by members of the faculty. Just 15 years later, Pitt ascended into the top five in the nation. “I’m unaware of any other university that has ever climbed upward so far and so fast within the top ranks of America’s finest research universities,” Nordenberg said.
Last, he explained how Pittsburgh now is praised as “a model of 21st century economic transformation” after the area’s economy eventually recovered from the collapse of the steel industry 30 years ago. Nordenberg noted that Pitt currently accounts for more than one in five jobs throughout the regional economy.
Pittsburgh is ranked as one of America’s top cities on multiple fronts, including being named a best city for recent graduates, Nordenberg said. “Together then we have created a University that attracts and nurtures hard-working, high-achieving students, that is one of the world’s respected centers for pioneering research and that has stimulated economic growth and social vitality within its home region,” Nordenberg added.
The chancellor noted that while those advances should be celebrated, there also are lessons that graduates can learn from Pitt’s experiences. “In whatever you do, strive to be among the best,” he urged the graduates. Nordenberg noted the stellar record of Pitt alumni, who have received the Nobel Peace Prize, the Nobel Prize in Medicine, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Book Award for Poetry and many other honors. He told the Class of 2014: “You are about to take your place within that distinguished group and their example should be both instructive and inspiring.”
The chancellor said that any form of work “directed to a good end is work of worth,” and that the graduates should invest their time and talent in noteworthy causes. In addition, Nordenberg urged them to work hard. “One of the most appealing things about Pitt and Pittsburgh is that there is no culture of entitlement here,” he said.
While working hard is important, so is working smart, he said. It isn’t necessary to map out one’s entire life after graduation, Nordenberg said: “There is a wonderful world of opportunities out there but it also is a world that is characterized by rapid change, intense competition and slow economic growth, which means you’ve got to deploy your talents and do your work in thoughtful ways.”
He advised the graduates to keep building, looking forward instead of backward. “As some of you have heard me say, everyone at Pitt will cringe if at any point in time we hear any of you say ‘the best years of my life were my years at the University of Pittsburgh,’” he said. “To be clear, we hope that your years here were great years, but your basic mission has been to use the power of higher education to build the foundation for a life of years that are successively better than those that came before.” He also counseled the graduates to believe in the goodness of people. While not ignoring the reality that everyone may not be good, Nordenberg insisted that good will prevail, as was the case when the University dealt with the 2012 bomb threats. “People on this campus stood together, supported and encouraged and helped each other as we moved through the challenges of that difficult time.”
Similarly, he urged the importance of simply being nice people. “Nice people who are also committed and capable people almost always prevail in the end,” Nordenberg said.
Finally, Nordenberg counseled the members of the 2014 class to make themselves happy. Citing the ending of one of his favorite books, Nordenberg said, “Happiness is like everything else, the more experience you have, the better you get at it.”