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February 17, 2000

Pitt dormitory sprinkler project exceeds fire code requirements

HARRISBURG — Even though Pittsburgh's fire code doesn't require it, the University last May launched a five-year, $15 million project to install sprinklers in every dormitory room on campus.

"All of our dormitories meet the city code. All of our residence halls are equipped with smoke detectors. All of them have sprinklers in common areas — hallways and lounges and places like that. But not all of the older dormitories have sprinklers in each room," Chancellor Mark Nordenberg told the state Senate appropriations committee Feb. 15.

Newer dorms were built with room sprinklers, but older buildings such as the Litchfield Towers complex lack them. "Part of our capital projects plan over the next few years is to provide [sprinklers] in each room, whether they're required by code or not," Nordenberg said.

The chancellor's comments were prompted by a question from Sen. Jack Wagner, D-Allegheny Co., one of several appropriations committee members who expressed concern about campus safety following last month's fire at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. The fire killed three students and injured 62.

Wagner said college students tend to bring into their dorm rooms hot plates and various other items that could start a fire.

Also at Tuesday's budget hearing, senators questioned Nordenberg and other Pitt administrators about Gov. Ridge's proposed plan to reward universities for graduating at least 40 percent of their students in four years (see story on page 1) and the following issues: How to spend the state's share of tobacco settlement money As its share of the tobacco companies settlement, the state is slated to receive $400 million annually over 25 years.

Asked how Pitt would like to see the funds distributed, Nordenberg said the University has recommended allocating 25 percent for research on cancer and other tobacco-related conditions such as heart disease and emphysema. Research money should be distributed through a peer review process to ensure that the highest quality projects get funding, he said.

Earmarking one-quarter of the settlement money to biomedical research would increase understanding of the diseases while benefiting the state economy, the chancellor said.

Sen. Mary Jo White, R-Butler and Venango counties, suggested it might be "provincial" to insist that Pennsylvania's settlement monies go only to Pennsylvania research institutions. "My feeling about pure research," White said, "is that it's global in scope, and that by putting our money into Pennsylvania initiatives we may not really be funding the true breakthroughs that may be right on the edge, that would benefit everybody, including Pennsylvanians." She suggested that the National Institutes of Health (NIH), rather than state officials, determine how to spend the portion of Pennsylvania's tobacco settlement money for biomedical research.

Arthur S. Levine, Pitt senior vice chancellor for Health Sciences and medical school dean, disagreed. Pennsylvania, he said, boasts a critical mass of proven researchers and two of the nation's top 10 recipients of NIH funding, Pitt and the University of Pennsylvania. No other state has more than one institution among the top 10, Levine said.

Further, biomedical research "is, in fact, global," and Pennsylvania physicians and scientists are an inextricable part of this global network, which shares the latest research findings through the Internet, he said.

Figure in the economic benefits of promoting biomedical research here, and devoting one-quarter of the state's tobacco settlement money to Pennsylvania institutions "is, at every level, a wise move," Levine argued.

Faculty teaching loads Sen. Bill Slocum, R-Cameron and Potter counties, noted that the average full-time professor at a non-research university teaches 12 credit hours per week. Profs at research schools such as Pitt spend even fewer hours per week in the classroom, he complained.

"I personally don't think that's enough teaching time on the part of full-time faculty," Slocum said. "It's my belief that you should fulfill near to 50 percent of your time, if your mission is to educate young people, in actually teaching them."

Slocum suggested that Pitt subtract non-teaching research faculty when calculating average teaching loads. That might make the University's average look better, he said.

"We probably could take a step in that direction," Nordenberg replied, "although it is also true that in a research university, teaching takes so many forms."

In the medical school, for example, much of the teaching is done in the operating room or by patients' bedsides, the chancellor said. In sciences like physics, he added, it's hard to draw the line between classroom learning and the education that students gain by participating in research projects.

Progress on the Petersen Events Center Demolition of Pitt Stadium is nearly complete, and construction of the new center will begin once demolition is finished, Nordenberg said.

"We anticipate that construction will take at least two years, so the earliest we could occupy [the Petersen Center] would be the beginning of 2002. More likely, it will be some time after that," the chancellor said.

— Bruce Steele

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