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March 30, 2000

2 professors respond to Nordenberg's assessment

University Senate President Nathan Hershey asked two faculty members to respond to Chancellor Nordenberg's remarks at the March 22 Senate plenary session.

James G. Holland, professor of psychology and a Pitt faculty member for 35 years, was asked to represent senior faculty, and Jeanette M. Trauth, assistant professor of health services administration in the Graduate School of Public Health and co-director of the joint master's degree program in health promotion and education, was asked to speak for younger faculty.

James G. Holland

Holland drew comparison in a half-dozen categories between Edward M. Litchfield's tenure as chancellor (1956-1965) and the current chancellor, by presenting a mock report card.

Noting that Pitt's Board of Trustees in 1955 had laid out similar sounding themes and goals to those of today's board, Holland gave Litchfield a D grade and Nordenberg a B+ in the category of "luck."

Holland quoted from a 1955 statement: "The trustees have set forth new goals which, when realized, will place the University of Pittsburgh among the leaders of the world's great universities.We are fully aware of all that this will require, and we intend to provide it."

Holland said the board apparently agreed with Litchfield's assessment that "a program of this magnitude has major financial implications. Preliminary appraisal would indicate the need for an additional endowment of from $90 – $100 million in the period just ahead," Litchfield wrote in accepting the appointment as chancellor.

But the 1955 Board of Trustees did not back up the stated intentions of its chair, Alan M. Scaife, and the goal to turn Pitt from a "trolley car university" to an Ivy League-quality institution fell flat on its face, Holland said.

"In examining that failure we might be better prepared for the dangers ahead for our own attempt 'to be the best in all we do,'" Holland said. "After a 10-year try, the University was broke and no longer credit-worthy. It was $20 million in debt. So what went wrong? First, bad luck. Alan Scaife died of a heart attack three years after Litchfield's appointment," Holland said, and the board never supported Litchfield after that, allowing the debt to accumulate.

"The message to us today: Be lucky," he said. The current administration has been lucky recently with the opportunity to develop prime real estate on campus at the Pitt Stadium site, he said.

Another lesson for today: "Have all board members committed to the goals." In the category of "board commitment" Holland gave Litchfield an F and Nordenberg an "incomplete/wait for mid-term exam," saying it was too early to tell if the board would sustain a commitment to its stated goals.

In Pitt's relations with the community, Holland gave Litchfield a D grade and Nordenberg an A. Litchfield made "a number of worthy moves," Holland said, "but moves carried out with arrogant disregard for community opinion. The message for us: Work for the mutual benefit of Oakland and the University," which he said Nordenberg had done.

Litchfield earned another F for "alliance with faculty" for exerting too much personal control in academic decision-making and for having a top-heavy administrative structure, Holland said.

"The message for today: The University is a community of scholars to be managed collectively by scholars — some of whom have taken on special administrative responsibilities." He gave Nordenberg a C in this category without elaborating.

Holland gave Litchfield a B+, the only time he graded Litchfield higher than Nordenberg, in the category of "leadership in social diversity." "Much to Litchfield's credit," Holland said, "he manifested a strong commitment to academic values even in the face of opposition by the conservative industrial elite." Holland cited as examples Litchfield publicly defending academic freedom in response to McCarthy-era investigations, and assisting students in participating in a civil rights march in Alabama.

"We might hope today for bravery in defense of diversity," Holland said, giving Nordenberg a C grade.

Holland told reporters that the C he gave the chancellor for leadership in social diversity hinged on the issue of same-sex partner health insurance benefits, which Pitt does not offer. "It would be a higher grade if that was not considered; it would be lower if only that was considered," he said.

Finally, Holland gave Litchfield another F in "goals," saying they were unrealistic and unattainable given Pitt's starting point in 1955.

On the other hand, he said the goals of the University today were too modest in light of Pitt's overall economic health and strength of its reputation. "Today, the Ivy League would be a better target than the best of public universities."

He said he had planned to give Nordenberg a "no entry" grade in goals, but amended it to A after hearing the chancellor's speech.

Jeanette M. Trauth

Trauth said that goals by themselves were inadequate without clear-cut standards for measuring them. "First, what does 'being among the best' mean? Do we want to be among the best at educating the largest and most diverse number of students? Or, do we want to be among the best at teaching the best students that apply to the University?" she asked.

And how is that measured, she continued, "by the total number of students whom we graduate? By student academic performance — GPA? By measuring levels of student satisfaction as reflected in course evaluations? By the percent of alumni who contribute financially to the University? Or will we measure the success of our teaching mission by the contributions that our graduates have made to society — such as authors, Rhodes Scholars, inventors, leaders in business, etc.?"

Whatever the goal and however it's measured, Trauth said, it ought to be a product of dialogue among faculty and not handed down by the administration.

Trauth said getting students to apply to the University was not a problem but getting students to enroll was directly related to offering competitive financial aid packages.

"If we want them to attend we need to think seriously about financial aid," she said. "It stands to reason that investing in student aid is a concrete step toward the goal of being 'student-centered.' It also stands to reason that satisfied students — that is, those who feel that faculty, staff and the administration cared about them when they attended the University — are more likely to be alumni who contribute financially to the University. This is a long-term investment."

Trauth maintained that as more part-time and adjunct faculty teach at Pitt, the quality of the courses and the programs suffers. "In thinking about the number and range of courses offered in departments, faculty administrators need to think about who will be offering these courses," she said. "As more and more part-time adjunct faculty teach at the University we must take care to monitor the overall quality and coherence of the courses and programs we offer."

Regarding the University's research mission, Trauth said faculty often have to weigh the competing demands of teaching, advising and service against a continuous cycle of grant proposal deadlines and time spent conducting research and publishing findings.

"We may be among the best with regard to our funded research mission, but the price is, at times, a reduction in the quality of our teaching and advising roles," she said. "If we are too busy or stressed that we put off students and make their concerns a lower priority, what are we communicating to them?"

Trauth again asked for clearer definition of how to measure success of University goals. "Will we measure our success in research by the total number of NIH (National Institutes of Health) or NSF (National Science Foundation) dollars that we generate? By the number of publications we produce? By the impact that the research has upon society? Or by some other combination of standards?"

Trauth cited a local study as an example that the greatest research dollars don't always translate into the most influence on society.

"Recently, researchers at the Graduate School of Public Health conducted a study of the impact that not having health insurance had on children. As a result of this work, the National Children's Health Insurance Program was passed. This was not a large, publicly funded study, but rather [it was funded] by a small local foundation. This example illustrates that it is important to be careful in thinking about how we define and measure what it means to be among the best in all that we do — both in our research and our teaching."

–Peter Hart

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