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October 23, 1997


Pitt and the industrial model

To the editor:

How ironic and paradoxical life can be. Since I retired in 1995, my recently arrived at independent wealth has enabled me to do the one thing I have always enjoyed most about my 30 years at Pitt (or is it now obligatory to call it the University of Pittsburgh?):

I can now afford to teach one course a semester as a part-timer. No faculty or committee meetings, no involvements with the administration — what more could anyone ask for? But at the same time I miss the pleasures of closely observing the antics and doings of the administration. Now it is all done from an emotional and psychological distance, second hand, so to speak.

And sometimes that can be embarrassing.

Some months ago, sitting on the bus, I glanced over the shoulder of a man in front of me at the newspaper he was reading. My eye caught a news item about the University — that it was buying a million dollar instant replay scoreboard for Pitt (or is it the University of Pittsburgh) stadium. I held in my giggle, knowing that it might distract the gentleman over whose shoulder I was reading. I read about all the wonderful things the scoreboard would do, and then I read that it would NOT cost the University a penny. Well, at that I could restrain myself no longer and, I am sorry to say, I burst out in such a guffaw that the gentleman had to take out his handkerchief and wipe my droplets of spittle from the back of his neck. I apologized profusely and babbled something about a joke I had been thinking up, and in my embarrassment I got up and lurched toward the front of the bus and got off — three stops from my destination.

I think that I could have forgotten my embarrassment had I not recently had a conversation with an old friend and colleague, who told me that he had been reliably informed that the chancellor had had nothing to do with the scoreboard. I was so skeptical of the veracity of his statement that I pressed him — and he let me know that he had been reliably informed by people who know that the chancellor was indeed distancing himself from that caper — he had been told: "The chancellor had nothing to do with it. He knew nothing about it." As we walked under Pittsburgh's starry sky, I asked: "Are you telling me there are million dollar items in the budget that get by without his knowing about them? Who's running that place?" Retirement makes you think like that.

Well, last week I got a chilling answer. The newspaper announced that the chancellor and certain other top level administrators had been given salary increments and bonuses. Then I knew. After the administration and faculty had worked out an agreement about the salary increment for staff and faculty — it would average 3 percent — these top administrators were given a couple of decimal points more–just to show, just a symbolic demonstration of "in your face" management. It really didn't matter whether it was .1 or .2–though attorney Lewis Popper's 2 percent raise may well be read as a show of dissatisfaction.

But the bonuses. Ah, the bonuses. I really do not know — I admit it — what the chancellor did to warrant his bonus. The largest freshman class in the history of the school? Yes, but a smaller student body because of drop-outs. Larger classes? Of course. And a budgetary deficit staring the University in the face for the next several years? And no early retirement plan — central to the administration's long-term plan for budgetary reduction? Frankly, I consider it an embarrassment to reward non-achievement. Worse things happen when I compare this leader to one on the other side of town. Over at Duquesne, John Murray had the fastest and most successful fund raising campaign in that school's history. He significantly raised faculty salaries and changed faculty morale. When our chancellor was given his bonus, he is quoted as saying something about nobody knowing his expenses. Though I know nothing of John Murray's expenses, he turned back his $30,000 bonus for scholarships. I think the board has finally and fully accepted the industrial model: CEO, execs with big bonuses from the board, and to hell with what workers think they have either as rights or as negotiated agreements: We run this place.

Sincerely and sadly, but much happier,

Myron Taube

Professor Emeritus Department of English


Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg responds to Taube's letter:

Those unfamiliar with the modern world of sports marketing often are surprised by the business opportunities that can be presented. From his dramatized descriptions of personal disbelief, it would appear that Professor Emeritus Taube fits squarely into that group.

Through committed sponsorships and other marketing revenue already in hand, it is absolutely clear that the new video screen at Pitt Stadium will pay for itself. In fact, it now appears that earlier plans to provide a "bridge loan" until we reached a point of profitability sometime next year, though fiscally prudent when developed, probably will not have to be implemented. In the years ahead, the screen will directly generate a substantial income stream. This is a clear financial triumph for the University, and there are other benefits that go with it.

For example, the new screen is just one of the many significant improvements to "game day atmosphere" that have been made by Athletic Director Steve Pederson and members of his staff. Those improvements have helped raise average attendance to well over 40,000 for the three home games already played this season — the first time we have been at that level since 1989. Just as important, the video screen and other enhancements have created the kind of friendly and exciting environment that should prompt fans to return to Pitt Stadium for other games, later this fall and in upcoming seasons. Professor Taube's assertion that I knew nothing about the video screen's acquisition is completely false. This is a matter that I discussed, in detail, with Mr. Pederson and with other members of my senior staff. Though I was out of the city when they formally met, it also is a matter that I endorsed in conversations with the chair and vice chair of the property and facilities committee of the Board of Trustees before the transaction was approved by that group. In fact, this so clearly was a step in the right direction for the University of Pittsburgh that I am pleased to have been a part of the decisionmaking process. The video screen's presence is a very visible sign of the new levels of overall quality being pursued and achieved in our athletics programs. Its marketing also is a very healthy step toward strengthening the financial foundation of those programs both by developing new revenue streams and by enhancing old ones. Therefore, one does not even have to be a football fan to applaud this particular victory.


J.W. Connolly, chairperson of the Board of Trustees, responds:

I understand that Professor Emeritus Taube frequently has been a public critic of this University — an institution that, according to his own descriptions, provided him with the opportunity to build a satisfying career and to enjoy a comfortable retirement. For those familiar with his letter-writing history, then, this most recent submission might have been predictable. I am loathe to respond to it because it will surely trigger another negative letter. When Mark Nordenberg agreed to serve as chancellor, he sought nothing for himself. Instead, in all of his conversations with me, he focused on what he perceived to be the needs of the University and how they might be met with the help of the Board of Trustees. More specifically, he did not negotiate a personal compensation package but, instead, accepted the salary and benefit arrangement offered to him.

Professor Taube signed his critical letter "sincerely and sadly, but much happier." I take it from his criticism of the chancellor's bonus that Professor Emeritus Taube would have been even more happy if the chancellor had failed and received no bonus. Professor Taube says that he does not know what the chancellor did to earn his bonus. Just as well, because they were all positive and would only upset him. If nothing else, Professor Taube's criticism makes it clear that he neither understands leadership nor is he able to place any value on the quality of leadership we now have at the University of Pittsburgh. Greater happiness might come from turning the clock back five years. And he must be very pleased that Mark's compensation is the lowest, by a significant amount, of the presidents/chancellors of any major university in Pennsylvania. This is true even after the performance-based portion of his salary is added to the guaranteed portion of his salary base. Just this week, it has been publicly reported that the presidential salaries paid by Penn, Duquesne and Carnegie Mellon during the 1995-96 academic year were $375,000, $312,943 and $300,224 respectively. Though not a part of this particular list, we know from other published reports that the presidential salaries paid by Penn State and Temple also are substantially higher than Pitt's. A certain source of additional glee for Professor Taube.

Standing in sharp contrast to this comparatively low level of compensation for the position he holds are the challenges that Chancellor Nordenberg has been asked to face. Given the size and complexity of this institution and the serious problems he inherited, I doubt that there are many jobs in American higher education more demanding than his. Throughout the past two academic years, and in the early months of the new one, he has worked tirelessly and effectively to advance Pitt's cause. The University of Pittsburgh finally is back on the move, and our current leadership team deserves much of the credit for that.

Of course, so do the many others, on campus and in the broader community, who care deeply about this University and who daily demonstrate their commitment to its progress through what they do and say. In a recent Campus Update, Chancellor Nordenberg correctly asserted that we must seize the special opportunity that now exists to "capture our true potential." As we aggressively pursue that goal, it is unlikely that any single decision will enjoy unanimous support within our varied constituencies. However, our overall pace and direction should bring a special sense of satisfaction to everyone sharing our deep desire to achieve the even higher levels of quality that are within our reach.

The real subject of Professor Emeritus Taube's letter should be why wasn't the chancellor's bonus larger. Try a positive thought, just once.

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