Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

October 23, 1997

Pitt in Pittsburgh & Pennsylvania: Senate forum examines University relationships with city and state

One of the panelists at the University Senate's Oct. 16 forum, "Pitt in Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania: Perils and Possibilities," likened the University's relations with state government to a rocky marriage.

And indeed, listening to the panelists was like hearing one side of a spousal counseling session: Sure, Pitt is a good provider. It brings in lots of money ( federal research funds, mainly) and sees to it that the kids get a good education.

But it's inconsiderate. It sprawls wherever it likes. It can be rude to its neighbors. It doesn't seem to appreciate all that its state and local partners do for it.

Worst of all, it doesn't communicate enough.

But at no point, during the two-hour-long session, did anyone suggest that Pitt isn't vital to the city and the Commonwealth as an educator, employer and engine for socioeconomic development.

"Pitt really does occupy a unique niche," Chancellor Mark Nordenberg said after the meeting. "Nobody says we're unnecessary, or duplicating services." Several speakers lauded the Nordenberg administration's efforts in local and state relations, while quickly adding that there remains room for improvement.

* * * Pittsburgh City Council member Dan Cohen cited the University's recent collaboration with city government on building code enforcement, progress on policing off-campus fraternities, and cooperation on the Business Improvement District project, which Cohen said promises to revitalize the Forbes/Fifth avenues corridor.

"Things are improving" between Pitt and the city, Cohen said. "I don't want to give a negative impression. But there are strains." The biggest source of strain recently was the proposed closing of Bigelow Boulevard between Forbes and Fifth avenues — "the Bigelow Boulevard fiasco," Cohen called it.

Cohen, whose district includes North Oakland, said he learned of the University's proposal by reading about it in the newspapers. When his constituents "assaulted" him about the issue, Cohen said, he could not explain Pitt's side of the story because no one from the University had explained it to him.

"We need to have better communication, better interaction between the University and the city," Cohen said.

During the brief question-and-answer session that followed the formal presentations, Marshall Goodwin of the Oakland Community Council took exception to Cohen's remarks about communication.

The Oakland Community Council, an umbrella organization of Oakland neighborhood groups, was well aware of Pitt's desire to close and ultimately acquire the block-long stretch of Bigelow; University representatives had briefed the groups thoroughly and made themselves available to answer residents' questions, Goodwin said. "The people who actually mishandled the whole situation was the city," he said. "They cut everyone out of the loop." "We have good communication with the University of Pittsburgh. I can pick up a phone and get answers and have a discussion" with Pitt officials, Goodwin said. "The problem is a fundamental disagreement on some key issues, and the most important is student housing.

"Usually, what you need is a good employment center to have a good residential base. We [in Oakland] don't have a good residential base because our community is used for student housing. In fact, some areas I would call student ghettos," Goodwin said.

Another audience member and Oakland resident, social work emeritus professor James Cunningham, suggested more joint ventures between Pitt and the local community. "Student housing is a good example," he said. "There are all kinds of opportunities, it seems to me, for creative joint investment between the community and the University in providing student housing. There's a tremendous market for that housing." Parking and employment training also would lend themselves to joint Pitt-community projects, Cunningham said. He noted an existing Pitt program that recruits public housing residents as full-time clerical employees at the University.

Clarke Thomas, senior editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette since his retirement from the paper in 1991, agreed with Cohen and Goodwin that off-campus undergraduate housing is the greatest irritant in Pitt-Oakland relations.

Other sources of conflict, he said, include residents' fears of University expansion — a fear, well-justified by Pitt history, that continues to "poison the relationship" between the University and its neighbors, Thomas said — and arrogance on the part of Pitt administrators.

"I'm afraid that Pitt too often has considered them [Oakland residents] as pests, when it considered them at all," Thomas said.

The veteran newspaperman reviewed town/gown relations through the years, noting Pitt's transformation from a "streetcar college" to a research university during the chancellorship of John G. Bowman from 1921 to 1945. Those years saw the construction of the Cathedral of Learning with its Nationality Classrooms, which provide "a remarkable link" between Pitt and the city's ethnic communities, Thomas said.

Pitt's local outreach efforts, while imperfect and less effective than those of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, still have been "admirable" compared with those of Carnegie Mellon University, "which for a long time wanted to pretend that it had national status and therefore wasn't really located in Pittsburgh," Thomas said.

During a recent visit to Madison, Wisc., Thomas said, he was intrigued by State Street, which extends from the state capitol building through the University of Wisconsin campus. State Street, lined with retail businesses, seemed to Thomas to symbolize what he called "the many missed chances to create a viable, interesting retail district for students, faculty and the community at large in Oakland." Thomas noted one promising move by the University to boost retail development in Oakland: Pitt has offered to provide street-level space for retail businesses in its planned Multi-Purpose Academic Center, to be constructed in the two-block area bounded by Forbes and Oakland avenues and Bouquet and Sennott streets.

Commenting on university-based research and development efforts, Thomas said: "I think there is a concern among many people in the community that all of the research efforts between CMU and Pitt haven't translated well enough into jobs." But Linda Dickerson, president and publisher of the local business magazine Executive Report, predicted that Pitt and Carnegie Mellon "will exert more influence over the region's economic development than any other institutions." University-based R&D represents "one of the few bright spots in an otherwise bleak economic horizon," Dickerson said. Most of the universities' R&D monies are state funds that otherwise would not flow into southwestern Pennsylvania, stimulating economic growth, she said.

Pittsburgh's growth rate in university R&D spending slowed to 2 percent during 1994-95, compared with the national rate of 6 percent.

"Failing to bolster this one outstanding economic development aspect might seriously jeopardize our future economic prosperity," Dickerson warned.

* * * The three state government representatives at last week's meeting urged the University to do a better job of explaining how the Commonwealth benefits from its financial investment in Pitt. For the current fiscal year, state monies account for $153.1 million of the University's $855.1 million operating budget.

In return, state lawmakers should better explain what they expect from the University, the speakers said.

Peter Garland, executive director of the Pennsylvania State Board of Education, said Pitt and the state government should clarify their expectations of each other, set shared goals, and expand their relationship beyond an annual wrangling over money. Pennsylvania's current effort to define academic standards for public high schools is just one issue to which Pitt faculty could contribute substantially, he suggested.

Garland called on Pitt professors to "broaden your circle of communication" to include Pennsylvania lawmakers. Often, the academic and public service accomplishments of Pitt faculty members are well-known nationally and even internationally "but not within your own state," Garland said.

"People in policy-making positions in this state can often forget higher education or consider it an afterthought when the pressures and demands of the judicial system, public welfare and all the rest are daily considerations," he said.

Garland described university-state relations in Pennsylvania as "at best, a rocky marriage," full of misunderstandings. "There is a lot we don't know about each other," he said. "It amazes me that even well-informed public policy-makers in Pennsylvania lack an understanding of the issues in higher education." Unfortunately, state lawmakers often run into "academic arrogance" when they press Pitt and other state-funded universities for details on their operations, especially when they ask to see financial data, said state Sen. Melissa Hart, R-40th District.

But the universities owe it to "those who pay the bills" — Pennsylvania taxpayers and their representatives — to reveal how they spend Commonwealth money, Hart argued.

Garland noted that Pennsylvania lawmakers traditionally have used "a light touch" in dealing with institutions of higher education, eschewing state micro-management of university affairs. "Probably, that's because this state evolved with a strong tradition of private higher education," he said, in contrast to California, New York, Wisconsin and other states with long-established state university systems.

In reality, Pennsylvania's so-called State System of Higher Education is "at best, a loose confederation of providers of higher education," Garland said.

That confederation includes 14 state-owned universities, county community colleges, and four state-related schools: Pitt, Penn State, Temple and Lincoln. Garland defined a "state-related" university as "a private college with a public purpose." Pitt changed from private to state-related in 1966, when — in exchange for a hefty increase in its annual state subsidy — the University agreed to lower tuition for in-state undergraduates (from $1,450 to $450 per year at that time) and allow state lawmakers to appoint one-third of the University's Board of Trustees.

State Rep. Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, said Pitt and the state are failing to live up to their bargain of keeping tuition affordable for in-state students.

Many Pennsylvanians are having difficulty earning degrees from Pitt and Penn State because of continuous tuition hikes, Dermody said. Both the state and the universities need to do more strategic planning for higher education "or affordable education is going to go out the window," he said. "Tuition will continue to rise and, I think, our children will have a real problem with access to higher education."

— Bruce Steele and Mike Sajna

Filed under: Feature,Volume 30 Issue 5

Leave a Reply