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December 6, 2001

Some faculty pose the question: Could Pitt survive without state funds?

Could Pitt make it as a private university?

Not that Pitt's administration is contemplating such a move.

But professors who serve on the University Senate budget policies

committee (BPC) – angered at state interference in Pitt affairs, most

recently attacks by some legislators against the University's

Environmental Law Clinic – asked Admissions and Financial Aid

director Betsy Porter how a move to private status might affect Pitt


Assuming that the move would force Pitt to raise tuition

substantially, maybe even to double it, "I think we could expect a

major decline in enrollment," Porter replied.

The reverse happened in 1966, she noted, when Pitt became

state-related and cut its tuition from $1,450 to $450 a year. "Pitt

suddenly became incredibly popular with western Pennsylvania

students, and within a few years our out-of-state population – which,

typically, had made up 35-40 percent of our enrollment – just


"I would think a drastic measure like [going to private status] would

take a long, long time to recover from," Porter said.

She also asked, in effect: Why drop out of the game when Pitt is

winning under the current rules?

"The truth is, the state is reducing its direct support" of

state-funded universities, Porter said, yet Pitt has been recruiting

high-quality, racially diverse freshman classes since the mid-1990s. "We're playing a cat and mouse game: We increase tuition when they

decrease their support," she said. "They're dumping more dollars in

the PHEAA grant program, saying they're meeting the needs of

Pennsylvania students" by providing grant money to students rather

than direct aid to universities.

"But as long as we can compete in this environment, I would say: Why

not stay the course?"

Life is difficult for most private colleges and universities in

Pennsylvania, Porter noted. "When the maximum state grant a student

can get is $4,000, it's hard for a college charging $25,000 a year

for tuition to compete.

"You can argue that Carnegie Mellon is doing well because they're

primarily after students who can afford to pay. But there are only so

many of those students."

Pitt's political situation would have to decline "pretty drastically"

to justify a move to private status, Porter said.

State money constitutes 34 percent of Pitt's current educational and

general budget (which does not include external research grants and

other restricted funds), down from 45 percent during the late 1980s. Yet, it seems that the less Pennsylvania contributes,

proportionately, to Pitt's budget, the more state lawmakers interfere

in the University's internal affairs, BPC members complained. Two years ago, the General Assembly passed legislation discouraging

Pitt and Pennsylvania's other state-related universities from

offering health benefits to employees' same-sex partners. A committee

of Pitt trustees, faculty, staff and students, appointed last May by

Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, is studying whether to offer those

benefits here.

This summer, the Assembly prohibited Pitt from spending state money

on the University's Environmental Law Clinic, threatening the

clinic's survival and triggering an ongoing campus debate over

academic freedom in the face of government interference. See story on page 1.

The University's chief Harrisburg lobbyist ruled out a return to

private status for Pitt.

"You're still talking about 34 percent of the University's E&G

budget," said G. Reynolds Clark, executive director of Community and

Governmental Relations. "And you have to remember, state funding goes

beyond just the operating budget. From the state's capital budget, we

get millions of dollars for major projects on campus, such as the

MPAC building and the Petersen Events Center.

"As a private school you could compete for money from the state's

capital budget," Clark said, "but I don't think you would see as

generous a funding stream if you were strictly a private school."

– Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 34 Issue 8

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