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February 22, 2001

Pitt goes to Harrisburg: Alumni, staff, students make annual trek to plead Pitt’s case with state legislators

Some 60 Pennsylvania legislators were treated to bacon, eggs, bagels, toast, fruit, yogurt — and a heaping helping of pro-Pitt lobbying — during the University's sixth annual Alumni Legislative Network Breakfast in Harrisburg, Feb. 13.

About 65 Pitt alumni and a dozen employees, including Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg, mingled with lawmakers and pleaded the University's case for a bigger state appropriation than Gov. Tom Ridge has recommended for Pitt.

In his Feb. 6 budget address, Ridge proposed appropriating $173.3 million to Pitt for the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2001. That would be $4.1 million less than the University is receiving from the state this year. Pitt wants a 5.8 percent increase in its total appropriation, including $10.5 million in one-time funding for biotechnology research, information technology investments and laboratory improvements. Ridge did not recommend funding those initiatives.

Chancellor Nordenberg called Ridge's proposal disappointing but noted that the governor's recommendations represent only the first stage in the budget process. He said Pitt will continue to lobby for additional funding.

The annual Alumni Legislative Network Breakfast has become a tasty and effective part of Pitt's lobbying campaign, according to participants.

"It's a good event," said Sen. Joseph B. Scarnati III. "Whenever people take the time to visit us in Harrisburg, especially when they're not getting paid to be lobbyists, it means a lot to us. Certainly, we're able to discuss the issues a lot better one-on-one."

Alumni James Kirkwood (PHA '65) and Richard Nowe (engineering '67) said the annual breakfasts help Pitt to compete with Penn State for lawmakers' attention.

"It's tough out here because so many Penn State alumni live in this area," said Kirkwood, who is president of the Central Pennsylvania Pitt Club. "You go to the mall and there are Penn State stores, Penn State kiosks. Pitt really doesn't have a presence."

Nowe said: "One of the main things we can do by coming here for these breakfasts is grabbing legislators and saying, 'Hey, this isn't a one-dimensional state where Penn State is the No. 1 university and everybody else comes in a distant second or third.'"

"We really appreciate the briefing this provides," said Rep. David J. Mayernik, a Commonwealth trustee on Pitt's Board of Trustees for the last 12 years. "It gives us the ammunition we need to sell the University's programs to our fellow legislators. Everyone's trying to get more money, so we need to tell our University of Pittsburgh success stories."

Nordenberg cited many of those stories in his remarks during the breakfast, held at Harrisburg's Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts.

Freshman applications are running 15 percent ahead of last year's record-setting pace, he reported. Forty percent of those applicants graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school classes; in 1995, only 20 percent of Pittsburgh campus freshmen held that distinction.

In the last 12 months, Pitt has attracted $350 million in sponsored research support "and we're well on our way to $400 million" annually, Nordenberg said. "I can confidently predict that sponsored research dollars will be more than double our state appropriation, which means the University of Pittsburgh is probably the most effectively leveraged public university in the United States." Pitt ranks No. 1 in funding from the National Institute of Mental Health and among the top 10 in National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding, Nordenberg said. He noted the $14 million NIH grant that Pitt recently received to establish a center for treating cardiovascular disease with gene therapy, and $55 million in grants awarded since last summer to the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, in which Pitt is a partner. Nordenberg thanked legislators for state funding that kept the supercomputing center going "through good and bad times over the years."

During breakfast and meetings with individual legislators, Nordenberg and Pitt alumni emphasized the following points:

* For the current fiscal year, Pennsylvania increased its support for higher education by 6 percent, compared with a national average of 7.1 percent. Over the past five years, the average annual increase in Pennsylvania was 3.5 percent, compared to 5.8 percent nationally.

* Just to maintain current services, public universities should receive 6 percent funding increases next year, according to a study by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

* While recommending a 4 percent increase next year in the base appropriations of State System of Higher Education universities, Gov. Ridge proposed just a 3 percent increase in the base appropriations for Pitt and Pennsylvania's other state-related schools — Penn State, Temple and Lincoln. Pitt requested a 5.25 percent increase in its base appropriation and is lobbying for at least 4 percent.

* Chronic underfunding by the state leaves Pitt and other state-supported schools with a disturbing choice: Ask students to pay an even greater share of the cost of their educations, or sacrifice quality and risk falling behind competing universities.

* Contrary to Gov. Ridge's recommendation, the state should fund Pitt's special line items for information technology ($3.5 million), laboratory improvements ($3 million) and biotechnology research ($4 million).

* Ridge has proposed allocating $90 million to create three biotechnology centers to be modeled after the Pittsburgh Digital Greenhouse, a partnership among state government, industry and local universities. One of these biotech centers would be established in Pittsburgh. During a pre-breakfast briefing for Pitt alumni, Commonwealth Relations director Ann Dykstra called the governor's proposal "very exciting" but added, "Funding for projects like that is not a substitute for an adequate investment in our base appropriation. It is our base appropriation that allows us to attract faculty, to keep tuition affordable, to improve our core facilities and to keep our libraries current."

* As Pennsylvania spends its share of tobacco settlement money (estimated at $400 million annually for 25 years) on health-related projects, lawmakers should keep in mind: "In the quest for better health, long-term improvement depends on research," said Nordenberg. As a state leader in health research, Pitt should get a substantial share of tobacco settlement funds, he argued. Such an investment of state funds would help Pitt to attract even more NIH funding, which ultimately will generate high-paying jobs for Pennsylvanians. The NIH's annual budget is doubling, and "those dollars are going to go someplace. They ought to go to Pennsylvania," the chancellor said.

— Bruce Steele

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