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March 3, 2011

Beeson addresses honors convocation

Pittsburgh is blessed with two major research universities that have helped the region to weather the current economic recession much better than most other regions.

“What is it about colleges and universities, and particularly research universities, that provide this strong foundation for economic success and individual well-being?” asked Patricia E. Beeson, Pitt provost and senior vice chancellor, who addressed the 35th annual honors convocation last week.

Beeson noted she came to Pitt more than 28 years ago as a faculty member specializing in urban economics and has written extensively on the role cities play in their local communities.

“When I arrived in Pittsburgh in 1983, the city was coming off a nine-month period of unemployment rates in excess of 15 percent and it would be another year before the unemployment rate dipped below 10 percent,” said Beeson to a packed Carnegie Music Hall crowd of faculty, staff, students and alumni, as well as family and friends of honorees at the Feb. 25 convocation.

“Now, with an economy more dependent on ‘eds and meds’ and less on manufacturing,” she said, “I have watched over the past 20 years as Pittsburgh has become an incubator for small, high-tech firms drawn by the presence of two major research universities. For the past 30 years, I have also seen Pittsburgh consistently rated as one of the most livable cities in America.”

Communities with research universities have stronger and more stable growth and, by many measures, a higher quality of life, Beeson noted.

“As much as 80 percent of leading new industries in the U.S. are directly or indirectly related to research done at universities and 65 percent of the differences in growth across metropolitan areas in the 1990s can be attributed to high-tech activity closely tied to universities. Even looking back over hundreds of years, we find that human capital and the institutions that produce it are as important as physical infrastructure in explaining the growth of cities,” she pointed out.

But why is this true was the question Beeson tackled in her address.

“First, and perhaps most apparent, universities serve as steady providers of the highly skilled, highly educated workers that firms need to be competitive,” she said. In addition, research universities provide educated and trained students who fill the employed ranks in the nation’s corporations, industrial labs, government and nonprofit organizations.

However, a university does more than help individuals develop skills and technical competence. “A university education also helps individuals develop an ordered intellect, the ability to think for themselves, to learn how to learn and to see things as a whole,” Beeson said. “These are the traits and habits of the mind that prepare individuals not just for a single job, but for a lifetime of careers. They give confidence to the innovators and leaders in every field of endeavor; they are characteristics of the risk-takers, the problem-solvers and those who are eager to imagine what the future may be.”

Access to such individuals in part is what attracts firms to locations with research universities, she added.

“It is the research and scholarly endeavors conducted at research universities that distinguish us from other institutions,” Beeson said. Of the more than 4,000 institutions of higher education nationally, only about 100, including Pitt, can claim to be among the great American research universities that are the envy of the world, she said.

“The development of new knowledge and technologies at these research universities has helped to promote economic development, improve public health and create higher standards of living for Americans and people throughout the world,” Beeson maintained, adding that many of the great innovations that have moved societies forward have come directly or indirectly out of universities.

What is it that makes these institutions great?

“An intellectually engaged and highly productive faculty; highly qualified and curious students; excellence in teaching, and loyal and accomplished alums,” Beeson said are among the chief characteristics. Great research universities also share a core set of values, including valuing achievement and the spirit of discovery; excellence in teaching and learning, and vision and high aspirations, she said. Such institutions value free inquiry and promote the open exchange of ideas. They foster a collaborative environment, a community working together that goes beyond the walls of any particular institution, she said. “Finally, the truly great universities recognize and nurture the contributions they make to the public good through their educational and scholarly activities,” Beeson said.

honorsconvBeesonEvery year Pitt confers nearly 8,000 degrees; its alumni contribute to communities economically, socially and culturally, and its faculty publish thousands of scholarly reports and conduct hundreds of millions of dollars in sponsored research that supports tens of thousands of local jobs, the provost noted.

“But the contributions of a great university like ours cannot be fully captured in these numbers. Because it is not just scale of activity that is important, it is the exceptional accomplishments of individual faculty, staff, students and alums that distinguish this institution and other research universities,” Beeson said.

Pitt alumni include two Nobel laureates, a Pulitzer Prize winner and a MacArthur Genius Award recipient, as well as scientists who have laid the foundation for the biotechnology industry and for magnetic resonance imaging, among other outstanding examples of accomplishment, the provost said.

“It is the exceptional contributions made by the faculty we recognize here today, including: exceptional teachers of biology, chemistry, education, nursing and engineering; exceptional researchers whose work is laying the foundation for quantum computing, the early detection of asthma and repairing cleft palates, and whose scholarly endeavors are helping us develop an understanding of the history and philosophy of such scientific discoveries,” Beeson said, referring to this year’s winners of chancellor’s awards.

“It is the exceptional contributions of our faculty who use their expertise in service to the broader community including work that has advanced public health, improved the lives of individuals with disabilities and preserved the history of black Pittsburgh,” she said. The University’s greatness also lies in the exceptional contributions of the staff who advance Pitt’s mission through their commitment and performance and who advance their communities through their volunteer efforts.

“Looking to our hope, our future, it is the exceptional contributions that will be made by the students we recognize today …  contributions to our community, our city, through their leadership, their study and their service,” Beeson said. She noted that current Pitt students have won Rhodes, Goldwater and Udall Scholarships and earned recognition from the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the Fulbright Foundation. “It is these achievements that define this great University — exceptional contributions that transform individual lives that advance our city and our society,” she said.

—Peter Hart

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