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March 6, 2014

Trustees adopt set of new priorities for Pitt

The Board of Trustees has adopted a new set of strategic priorities for the University that echo and improve on those adopted near the beginning of Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg’s tenure in 1996.

Board chair Stephen R. Tritch said he hoped the new priorities “will serve us for the next 18 years.”

In presenting the revamped priorities to the board at its Feb. 28 meeting, Nordenberg noted that their 1996 versions followed the commissioning of an external review of Pitt by the board in the fall of 1995. While the review acknowledged an “impressive institution of great quality,” he said, quoting the report, it also found a “long list of negative observations”: a worldwide reputation “lost” amid administrative “gaffes”; a local faculty rebellion; a “general state of disrepair” among its Oakland buildings; missing leadership; sinking enrollment, and low campus morale, all in a city with a declining industrial base and a state producing fewer high school graduates.

“There is something missing when one walks around campus … call it pride,” the report concluded.

At the same time, Nordenberg said, the trustees were holding weekend retreats to envision “what the University might become so that a path forward might be effectively charted.” The resulting statements recommitted Pitt to focus on improving undergraduate education and research funding, as well as its community development efforts, operational efficiency and effectiveness and resource base.

“Those five priority statements have generally charted a useful course forward,” Nordenberg said.

The trustees’ top priority in 1996, “aggressive pursuit of excellence in undergraduate education,” acknowledged that despite the University’s “long and strong record” of producing successful alumni from its largest programs — its undergraduate degrees — Pitt had more of a reputation for graduate student education at the time.

In ensuing years, Nordenberg said, the University implemented Pitt Pathways to combine career and academic planning for undergraduates from their freshman year onward; became the first major university to guarantee an internship for undergraduates; improved faculty skills in classroom technology use; renovated residence halls; added recreational facilities, and beautified all five campuses.

This helped to transform Pitt, he said, into “a university of choice for hard-working, high-achieving students.” In 1995, Pitt had fewer than 8,000 applicants; by 2013, that number had grown to more than 29,000. “Perhaps most important, we have good-hearted students” who are eager to give back through service projects, he added.

The 2014 priority for undergraduate education, one of six passed unanimously by the board, calls for Pitt to “further strengthen our position as a university-of-choice for committed and accomplished students …”

The second 1996 priority — “maintaining excellence in research” — has been far surpassed, Nordenberg said. In 1995, Pitt ranked 24th on the National Science Foundation’s list of universities receiving federal dollars for science and engineering research, at $240 million. In 2010, Pitt ranked 5th, with more than $800 million received. With a drop in federal funding, that total was $760 million in 2013. In all, $9 billion has been brought to Pitt in federal research funding since 1995.

The new research priority says Pitt will “make contributions of impact through pioneering research.”

“Partnering in community development,” another 1996 priority, was a great necessity, the chancellor pointed out. “At the time of that statement there was a lot of community development to do,” he said, following the low-point of the local economy just 13 years before, when unemployment hit 18 percent.

“Today the so-called eds and meds … accounts for more than 20 percent of the region’s employment,” he noted. He also praised Pitt’s role in creating local technology and health care companies and in partnering with UPMC and Carnegie Mellon University.

The new priority states that the University will “continue making significant contributions to what is viewed as a model of 21st century regional economic transformation. …”

Another original priority, “ensuring operational efficiency and effectiveness,” “has really become an ingrained part of the culture” at Pitt, Nordenberg said. While some of that efficiency has resulted from the voluntary early retirement program for staff, which led to a reduction of 352 employees in 2012, “more often we have found ways to enhance the productivity of existing employees,” he asserted. Despite the fact that 3.6 million gross square feet of space has been added to campus since 1995, it is managed today with the same number of Facilities Management staff. Similarly, the accounting staff is the same size but handles more than three times the research funding.

Nordenberg also cited the University’s improved long-term bond rating and its best-value college rankings among Kiplinger’s top 100 public universities for the ninth year in a row and among Princeton Review/USA Today’s top 75 for the fourth year in a row.

The newly adopted priority calls for Pitt to undertake “careful planning, regular assessment and effective partnering, further securing our position. …”

The chancellor labeled as “mixed” Pitt’s success in meeting the fifth 1996 goal of “securing an adequate revenue base.” Tops among its successes was the $500 million fundraising campaign of the previous decade that turned into a successful $2 billion campaign. But he also noted that “research support now is our single biggest revenue stream by a considerable margin,” and that the state has cut back its funding to 1995 levels as measured in absolute dollars — and to a level equal to Pitt’s original funding in the 1960s, if adjusted for inflation.

“We do recognize our obligation to operate in the most efficient manner possible,” he said, adding that new technology may allow Pitt to deliver programs in a more cost-effective way.

The current funding priority calls for the University to “marshal the public and private support necessary to sustain our existing momentum. …”

There was no call for a greater global presence for Pitt on 1996’s priority list. Today, a sixth priority commits the University to “ensure that Pitt graduates are well prepared to function effectively in a highly competitive and rapidly changing world.” The chancellor maintained that such an effort has been nonetheless evident since 1996, with an increase over the past 18 years of international students (from about 1,500 to 3,000) and students undertaking study abroad (from 343 to more than 1,600) — “one of the highest rates of study abroad participation of any public university in the country,” he said.

Along with the new priority statements, the board re-adopted unchanged its “Statement of Aspiration” from 2000, which begins: “Our overarching goal is to be among the best in all that we do. We will add — significantly, measurably and visibly — to institutional quality. …”

“It is a noble goal,” Nordenberg concluded, “and we have made some real progress in the pursuit of it.”


In other news:

• The board’s properties and facilities committee has approved two projects. Interior upgrades to Bruce Hall will involve 52,440 gross square feet of this residence facility. The renovation, costing $7.8 million, will include replacing storm and sanitary pipes, adding stairway pressurization as a fire safety measure, replacing all bathroom fixtures and installing new bathrooms accessible to those with disabilities. The committee also approved a 10-year lease for 11,667 square feet in building 7 of South Water Street’s Rivertech Office Works, expanding from the 7,790 square feet already leased by the Department of Sports Medicine and Nutrition in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. The space will be used by 12 faculty and five staff members. The lease costs $227,091 annually for its first five years and $228,758 each year for the remaining five years, until Dec. 31, 2025.

• The board approved Pitt-Bradford’s move to name a new residence hall under construction the Lester and Barbara Rice House, after longtime donors. Lester Rice, chairman emeritus of KOA Speer Electronics and former chairman of the Mukaiyama-Rice Foundation, has been a Bradford advisory board member since 1996, and the Rices have supported the campus’s Frame-Westerberg Commons Building, Sport and Fitness Center, and a scholarship that helps 10 students annually.

• The executive committee was charged with reviewing and updating the board’s governance documents in a periodic effort to improve its University oversight.

• Increased funding of $3.8 million for the Bruce Hall renovation and Bradford’s new campus housing were approved, bringing their total cost to $17.1 million in the capital budget for fiscal year 2014.

• The board also authorized the University to borrow up to $100 million for capital improvements by issuing bonds. The resolution noted that capital budgets from FY11 through today had okayed $524 million in capital expenditures, allowing for $149 million to be financed through new debt, with the rest of the funds coming from “internal reserves, commonwealth funds, gifts and/or other external sources of funds.” The last time the budget committee had approved a bond issue was 2009, said trustee Michael A. Bryson, of the property and facilities committee.

• Pitt Alumni Association President Jane Allred gave a presentation on the organization.

—Marty Levine