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September 26, 2013

Pitt needs to continue advocacy efforts, Nordenberg tells faculty

Chancellor Nordenberg

Chancellor Nordenberg

Despite the University’s successes as an effective, efficient provider of quality higher education, advocacy efforts need to continue, Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg told Senate Council as the group gathered Sept. 11 for its first meeting of the academic year.

“I think that we’re going to have to fight to hang onto the gains that we think we’ve won in the battles of the past,” the chancellor said. “And we’ve got to look ahead and anticipate and respond to the challenges that are still there bubbling, that — if they come to maturity — really could undermine our ability to make the kind of contributions that we know in our minds and believe in our hearts are indispensable to the collective strength of our country and to our communities moving forward.”

Citing the end of the University’s 225th anniversary year, during which Pitt surpassed its $2 billion fundraising goal, earned an “unusually positive” re-accreditation report and secured an early agreement for flat funding from the state, among other accomplishments, Nordenberg said the transition to the new academic year “has carried with it signs of strength and soundness and of hope.”

Nordenberg said Standard & Poor’s has upgraded Pitt’s outlook from stable to positive, which “kind of bucks the trend in terms of what you read these days with a dismal outlook being portrayed for higher education and particularly for public higher education.” In addition, the University secured a bond rating “one notch above the state’s” — unusual for a public university, Nordenberg said.

The chancellor commented on the fiscal year 2014 operating budget, which included a 2.5 percent salary increase pool. “At different points of our history when the economy was stronger and inflation was higher, [it] would not have seemed like much. But that really was an achievement, I think, in a year when we were dealing with state funding at levels of almost 30 years ago and where all of our other expenses had increased dramatically over the course of those three decades,” he said.

“We go into this new fiscal and academic year from a position of strength and soundness but we continue to move through a world that is inhospitable to our aims — particularly on the support side,” the chancellor said.

“We think that we have achieved a level of stability in terms of our relationships with state government. But how the year goes there will depend upon what their revenue flows are like. Because if they are inadequate, we may have people back looking in our direction for additional sacrifices in terms of our state support.”

On the federal front, Nordenberg said, “We really have endured the move back from days of the stimulus to normal levels of funding. But sequester is just beginning to kick in. And we don’t know exactly what that will mean to our programs but we know that it’s not good.”

He cited frustration with delays in restoring research funding while federal leaders agree that university research — especially biomedical research — ought to be a national priority.

“It first depends on whether there is the economic capacity to restore those funds,” he said, adding that it also “depends upon whether they ever do get beyond disagreements that have led to a form of political paralysis in Washington, D.C.”

Nordenberg said it will be interesting to see what 2014 brings, given that there is a relatively new county executive in office and a new mayor poised to take office in January. “We know the ways each of these local elders has an appreciation for what research universities have done in the transformation of the regional economy. But, at the same time, they’re looking for money,” he said.

Nordenberg cited a “troubling transformation in the national mood and dialogue” with respect to higher education. “We have endured for the last couple of years efforts by a Republican governor to dramatically reduce state support for higher education. Now we have a Democratic president who is supportive of higher education, but who is making it a part of his national platform to enhance levels of affordability. Depending on how that’s done, it could be either bad news or good news for a place like the University of Pittsburgh.”

He said the right assessment tools must be in place to discern what is a best value in higher education, rather than targeting only the lowest cost in delivering education.

“We really have made our mark over the course of the last many years as a deliverer of quality at an affordable price,” Nordenberg said. “For us to try to compete as a low-cost provider of higher education would be inconsistent with our mission and would not be good in terms of a business model that has worked well for us.”

In the 1990s, “low state funding was blamed for every problem we faced,” he said. While the University could perform better with more state funding, “we also have recognized that there were a lot of things that we can do to make ourselves more effective and more efficient. And that really is a never-ending quest.”

The chancellor continued: “It really is not enough for all of us to say we’re going to focus on self-improvement because there is this inescapable advocacy role. No one is better positioned for this charge than we are because we know the University, we believe in its work. We ought to — we need to — stand up and be counted … whether it’s in chance conversations with neighbors or others, or whether it is in organized directed efforts to influence the positions of elected officials,” he said.

“One thing that’s stood out about Pitt in the last few years is how effective we have been at that together. I see absolutely no signs that the need for that kind of advocacy is diminishing.”

Nordenberg recounted declaring a goal in 1995 with incoming Senate President Keith McDuffie as Nordenberg prepared to assume the role of interim chancellor. “We’re both really in this to try to advance Pitt and the best way to do that is to do it together,” Nordenberg said. “That really has been the tone of the relationship over the course of the last 18 years. And it has made a real difference in the successes that we have been able to achieve on lots of different fronts,” he told council.

Nordenberg also addressed Pitt’s move from the Big East to the Atlantic Coast Conference, which he labeled a “milestone movement” because of the stability and the resource base ACC membership provides. “It will give us regular visibility along the East Coast from Boston to Miami, which is the region of the country that is clearly most important to the University of Pittsburgh.”

Nordenberg said, “The ACC really presents a wonderful collection of academic institutions for us to become associated with,” crediting the provost’s office and undergraduate student government for their early efforts to  strengthen the academic links among ACC institutions.

The chancellor said Pitt will host the ACC’s showcase program on undergraduate research later this year. In addition, Pitt’s student government, in cooperation with Florida State student leaders, launched what is hoped will become an annual conference for ACC student leaders as part of the Labor Day football festivities.

“It really was nice to see our students saying, ‘How can we create something out of this new relationship that will be good for everyone who participates?’” the chancellor said, adding that their efforts also “present a visible statement about sportsmanship that some of us find all too lacking in the modern world.”

Nordenberg commented on his impending retirement in August. “It’s not that I’ve slowed down; it’s not that I don’t take satisfaction from the work, but things have got to end,” he told council. “And you need to try to end them at a time that is workable institutionally.

“It wouldn’t have been workable institutionally when the Great Recession hit. It wouldn’t have been workable institutionally when Gov. Rendell was trying to declare us nonpublic and to keep us from receiving stimulus support. It wouldn’t have been workable when we were battling the tuition tax. It wouldn’t have been workable when we were trying to beat back proposals for 50 percent cuts to our base appropriation and 100 percent cuts to our academic medical appropriation. It wouldn’t have been workable when we were dealing with weeks and weeks of bomb threats.

“But I do think that it is workable now. I think I have worked with all but one member of the search committee. It’s a terrific group. It ought to do very well.

“I look forward to working with all of you to build another great year of progress here at Pitt. And I thank you, even with that year still lying ahead, for everything that each of you has contributed to the strengthening of the University over the course of the past 18 years, because it has been a remarkable record, and all of you do own a share of credit in building that record for Pitt.”


In other business at the Sept. 11 council meeting:

• University Senate President Michael Spring reported that 27 percent of the 4,000 eligible faculty cast ballots to select faculty representatives to serve on the chancellor search committee. Fifty-two faculty members were on the ballot. (See Sept. 12 University Times.)

He said the voting was more intense than in Senate presidential elections, noting that nearly half the faculty in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences (46 percent) and the provost’s area professional schools (45 percent) voted for faculty representatives in their areas.

Spring urged faculty to share their thoughts on the chancellor search with their representatives.

• Spring reported on Faculty Assembly’s action to endorse the creation of an ad hoc committee to examine non-tenure track faculty issues and their approval of a pilot plan to stream or record an Assembly meeting to aid faculty participation.

• He also outlined changes to the Senate’s web presence. He noted that upgrades have been made to the Senate web site ( and faculty portal (accessible by clicking on University Senate under the resources tab at (See Sept. 12 University Times.)

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 46 Issue 3

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