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September 15, 2011

What others had to say on Pitt’s behalf

Joining the university leaders in addressing the appropriations committee on campus were Molly S. Stieber, Pitt Student Government Board (SGB) president; biological sciences professor Graham Hatfull; Board of Trustees chair Stephen R. Tritch; computational and systems biology professor D. Lansing Taylor, who directs Pitt’s Drug Discovery Institute, and Dennis Yablonsky, CEO of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.

Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg, Student Government Board President Molly Stieber, faculty member Graham Hatfull of biological sciences and Board of Trustees chair Stephen R. Tritch were among the speakers who presented testimony at the state Senate appropriations committee hearing on campus.

Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg, Student Government Board President Molly Stieber, faculty member Graham Hatfull of biological sciences and Board of Trustees chair Stephen R. Tritch were among the speakers who presented testimony at the state Senate appropriations committee hearing on campus.

Undergraduate research

Biological sciences professor Graham Hatfull emphasized the important role research plays in undergraduate education.

“When many students go to college or university, they’re taught by teachers or professors who have read the book. When students come to the University of Pittsburgh, they get taught by professors who wrote the book,” he said.

That is important not only for the quality of information, but also because students can look up to these faculty members as role models for success, he said.

Hatfull said Pitt provides real opportunities for undergraduates to work alongside scientists in “cutting-edge, boundary-breaking, well-funded research. … Students are not just washing bottles … they are sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with professors, with graduate students, with post-doctoral researchers, professional scientists and participating in the thrill of discovery. They are not mere watchers of the process; they’re participants,” he said. As such, students can be co-authors of peer-reviewed scientific articles.

“For that to work, it’s important that the research infrastructure is strong,” he said. It gains that strength through well-trained faculty who can bring in external funding to support that infrastructure.

At  the  same  time,  Pitt’s research is enhanced by undergraduate involvement, Hatfull said, creating a “cycle of reinforcement” that strengthens both the quality of the research and the quality of the students who enroll.

“We see it everyday in their inquisitiveness, their curiosity and their ambition. They come in and they are unafraid to join a research lab early on and publish the papers that advance the research mission and help to bring in those additional external funds.”

Hatfull said the teaching environment has changed. Students used to come to school to sit and listen to professors who would teach facts. “Content was king,” he said. Today, that content can be accessed with a few clicks of a mouse, or via an iPhone. But strong research institutions like Pitt have a competitive edge in attracting the best undergraduates “because we can move away from teaching them about content or facts. We can teach them about process, about how we understand, how data support conclusions, how it is that we say that we know these things that we say we know.

“I think students simply get to learn more and differently and in ways that are specifically beneficial to the workplace to which they transition once they graduate from the University of Pittsburgh,” he said.

CMU President Jared L. Cohon told legislators that many states, forced to pinch pennies in difficult budget circumstances, may be tempted to direct funding away from research universities and toward other institutions in hopes of getting more education out of their dollars.

“There’s a real false economy there,” he cautioned.

“One of the things about undergraduate education at a research university: … That education, above all other kinds of undergraduate education, prepares students for the kind of hypercompetitive, innovation-based economy that we have to be successful in if we’re going to survive.”

Student concerns

SGB’s Molly Stieber testified that, as the youngest of four siblings, affordability was an important consideration when she chose a college.

“In my opinion, and in the opinion of many other Pitt students, $30,000-$40,000 a year for an out-of-state or private education is hard to justify when there is an opportunity to receive in-state tuition and a top-of-the-line education at Pitt,” she said.

Stieber noted that in 2009-10, 23 percent of all Pitt students received Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency grants averaging $2,989. “If we do not work hard to keep tuition costs affordable, I guarantee many of these hardworking students will not be able to return to the University,” she said.

“We represent the future of this commonwealth. The debt that students have already endured to attend this institution is more than enough,” she said, noting that for members of the 2010 graduating class who borrowed money for school, the average debt was $26,612.

Lower in-state tuition makes Pitt more accessible to Pennsylvania students, she said. “However, if you continue to reduce our funding, I guarantee you that Pennsylvania students will be driven away from the state and will most likely not return post-graduation,” she told the Senate committee.

“We need to invest now in the students of Pennsylvania if we can ever hope to achieve a successful, prosperous, opportunistic and limitless future for the state of Pennsylvania,” Stieber said. “Students at Pitt are the future of Pennsylvania and to achieve this incredible future, we cannot balance our debt on the backs of Pennsylvania’s and the country’s finest students.”

Business arguments

Trustees chair Stephen Tritch echoed Stieber’s sentiments, telling legislators how the lower in-state tuition that came with Pitt’s transition to state-related status enabled him to pursue his engineering degree at the University. He expressed concern over the current state funding cuts that “seem to be abandoning the next generation of students with high potential from families of modest means,” he said.

Tritch, who went on to a career at Westinghouse that culminated in becoming chairman and CEO, also spoke to the University’s value as a source of employees for local companies and an impetus for drawing and keeping corporations in the region.

“That pipeline of well-educated Pitt talent is a key factor in Westinghouse’s ongoing success,” he said, noting that Pitt and Penn State graduates make up the bulk of the company’s hiring.

In addition, he said, when other regions were courting Westinghouse as the company sought a new corporate home, the presence of Pitt as a source of talent and as a research partner was a factor in the company’s decision to remain in the Pittsburgh area.

“The presence of Pitt is a powerfully positive factor for many companies in the region,” he said, urging the legislators to make the restoration of more reasonable appropriations a high priority.

Dennis Yablonsky of the Allegheny Conference on Economic Development testified to the critical role local universities played in diversifying the region’s economy over the past 30 years and in contributing to the livability of the Pittsburgh area.

Research collaborations and innovations have spawned startup companies and drawn a cluster of life science and biotech activity to the region, he said.

“I understand the challenge that you all faced last year on the budget and I understand you will probably face a similar challenge in the next year,” Yablonsky told legislators. Commending them for balancing the state budget, he said the next big step in strategy must be job creation and economic growth.

“Funding for public universities has to be considered as part of all that,” he said.  “These kinds of strategic investments can make a difference.”

Research collaborations

D. Lansing Taylor of Pitt’s Drug Discovery Institute enumerated several examples of research collaborations that have resulted in the founding of companies as university-based technologies were brought to the marketplace.

Taylor, who left an academic position at CMU to found Cellomics and Cellumen before returning to academia last year, said Pittsburgh’s reputation as an academic center and a source of an educated workforce was key in keeping Cellomics in the region when early investors from the West Coast sought to locate the company in California.

Pennsylvania’s economic future is tied to the technical developments of major academic institutions, Taylor said. “We must keep this engine running and running strongly.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 44 Issue 2

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