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September 29, 2011

Senate Matters

pinskyAcademic engagement

Welcome back to the start of another academic year. I have been honored to serve as president of the University Senate for the past two years and now am entering my third and final term. These last two years have witnessed our University experiencing nearly continuous economic challenges both directly and indirectly from local and state governments. Yet we have remained united, vigilant and proactive in our approach to these crises.

The effective opposition to a proposed student tuition tax in 2009 through organized student and administration efforts is an example of this approach. And earlier this year, the faculty, student body, alumni association and administration aggressively argued to minimize the cuts in state appropriations initially proposed by the governor. Through our efforts, the ultimate cuts were only 50 percent of those originally proposed. However, the final decrement in our state funding is the greatest reduction in state support in our history. As we start our new academic year, it is good to take stock of where we are, how we got here and where we are going.

The last few years have brought an ongoing reduction in Pennsylvania’s support for higher education. These reductions have spanned both Democratic and Republican governors, suggesting a primary failure to appreciate the importance of higher education. Our state’s support for higher education is one of the lowest in the United States.

It is hard to reconcile this downward trend with the clear connection between higher education and sustainable regional economic growth. Clearly, this connection either is not understood in Harrisburg or is being subjugated to other priorities. But we, like the other state-related institutions of higher education, have a social contract to partner with the people of Pennsylvania for the overall good of the commonwealth. We need to make the electorate aware of our value to their general welfare in real terms.

The University Senate and its associated committees have a direct role in these processes. The events of the past few years have made it starkly clear that we, as a university faculty, cannot sit idly by and presume external benevolence. So what can and should we do? As a world-class research university, we hold a sacred trust not only to strive for academic excellence in all its guises but to share with the community an understanding of how our work contributes to the greater good. In this regard I can suggest three action items that all faculty should seriously consider supporting.

1. Get involved with the Senate’s commonwealth relations committee (, which routinely invites state legislators to our campus for informal small-group lunch meetings. These sessions allow us to present our strengths in a collegial and relaxed atmosphere where real dialogue can be created to underscore our value in regional job creation, retention of recent graduates, leadership in environmental sustainability initiatives and direct support of regional and state government through local and state taxes paid by Pitt employees. You do not have to be a committee member to attend the lunch meetings; just contact one of the co-chairs or the Senate office.

2. Get involved in advocating for the University of Pittsburgh. Be part of the great American tradition of participatory politics. Write your local representative and senator about the issue of state funding. See my open letter to the governor on the University Senate home page ( itemizing the reasons to sustain state funding of the University. I encourage you to read that letter and, if you agree with it, to maintain an active correspondence with your own elected state officials. Tell them in your own voice what you believe the state should support. Our local elected officials really do notice personal letters from their constituents, so let your voice be heard.

3. Consider participating in University Senate affairs as either a representative or a member of one of our 15 committees ( Your own views can then be part of the conversation, and your own voice will carry farther.

As we start this new year, invigorated by our ability to deliver excellence despite profound reductions in state support, we realize that we will not be able to sustain this level of performance for long without additional revenue. Drastic internal cost-cutting and short-term compensatory measures will not sustain us into the future if state and federal support continue to dwindle. The long-term health of the commonwealth requires greater support of the higher education infrastructure, which will lead to a stronger region and to our state being prepared to take a leadership role based on new economic opportunities that only research university programs can supply.

Michael R. Pinsky is president of the University Senate.

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