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April 16, 2015


envelopeAn open letter to Chancellor Patrick Gallagher in response to his call for “Making an Impact Through Commercialization”

Dear Chancellor Gallagher:

We write in response to your recent communication to our faculty regarding the commercialization of research and the expansion of partnerships with area businesses. While we share your goal of making the results of our research accessible to the larger community, we write to stress the many diverse communities with which the University must engage and the myriad forms this engagement must take if we are to fully realize your stated goal of “improving lives and the society around us.”

As you know, today’s knowledge-driven economy has left growing numbers of people behind. In addition, it is becoming increasingly clear that the growth orientation of our economy is the major driver of global warming, which is the most urgent problem confronting society. These concerns are related; it is the worst-off members of our communities, local and global, who will also bear the brunt of climate change. In addressing these challenges, we need to work with an understanding of what you call the “economic ecosystem” as interdependent with society and the natural environment on which human survival depends.

We recognize the economic realities facing modern universities. Decades of cuts to public education have forced institutions of higher learning to find other sources of support for research and teaching. Partnerships with the private sector have been central to many university resourcing strategies and can, as you so clearly articulate, bring benefits to the University and to the communities we serve.

Yet the commodification of knowledge through intellectual property law can effectively exclude most of humanity from the benefits of our research. As we encourage engagement with the community, we need to transcend the narrow metric of dollars and cents and think in terms of the well-being of all members of our communities. The business sector can be an important partner in research and development, but there is also a crucial social need and ethical imperative to engage and partner with those who have suffered the most from growing inequalities in wealth, income, security and education. For it is among people in these sectors that the solutions to the world’s intersecting crises are emerging.

Commercialization has its place, but it also carries substantial risks. These include risks to the nature of the research that we conduct and to its integrity. Keeping knowledge free is in our own professional self-interest. The open and free exchange of research and data is essential to advancing scientific knowledge, and commodification threatens this fundamental principle of scientific inquiry. We need access to others’ research in order to advance our own work and contribute to the collective pursuit of relevant knowledge.

In addition, universities are increasingly subject to pressure from their corporate “partners” to manipulate, suppress or simply avoid research that counters the interests of those who fund it. Many scholars regard it as our obligation to ensure that the knowledge we help to generate is protected as a common resource and made widely and equally accessible to all people — especially the most underprivileged groups. Pitt has in some respects been a leader in this regard, as initiatives on open access publishing and accessible digital repositories of scholarship attest. We must be prudent in devising strategies for the production and dissemination of knowledge that maintain intellectual integrity, are inclusive rather than exclusive, and that create opportunity for and empower all members of our communities.

The university is one of the few places where our society might find leadership in developing the ideas and models we need to re-orient society in ways that can help to ensure that everyone today and in future generations can share in the benefits that so many of us at Pitt enjoy. We agree on the need to enhance our partnerships with the community, and we urge you to reiterate that our engagement must be with partners of all kinds —especially those working with and on behalf of people whose needs are greatest.

We also urge you to take steps to make Pitt a leader in the search for real solutions to the climate crisis. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded that we need to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases to nearly zero by 2050 to avoid catastrophic disruption to human life on Earth. Our skills as innovators and entrepreneurs are needed to address the coming realities of unpredictable and unprecedented environmental disruption. We must do so in ways that also address the increasingly precarious social and economic situation of growing numbers of our citizens and of people around the world.

While technological innovation will certainly play a significant role in this search for solutions, we must have the courage to apply our skills and knowledge in the search for new models and new ways of thinking. This search must include a turn away from a narrowly conceived “growth” agenda that has brought us to the brink of climate catastrophe while leaving more and more people behind. It must include developing, through engagement with our various community partners, models that theorize our economy as embedded within communities and for improving those communities and all of their members.

We are eager to work with you to devise strategies for knowledge production and dissemination that support higher education while increasing the capacities of everyone to access and benefit from that knowledge in building vibrant, sustainable and inclusive communities.   With you, we share the belief that all of these steps “are in support of our core mission — making the world better through knowledge.”

Michael Goodhart

Interim Director, Global Studies Center, and

Associate Professor, Department of Political Science


Jackie Smith

Professor and Director of Graduate Studies, Department of Sociology and

Editor, Journal of World-Systems Research

(Editor’s note: Letter authors indicate that as of April 15, as the University Times went to press, an additional 76 Pitt faculty had signed this letter.)


Chancellor Patrick Gallagher responds:

Dear Colleagues:

Thank you for your thoughtful letter in response to “Making an Impact Through Commercialization.” As we continue our University-wide effort to develop a strategic plan, your letter is a powerful reminder that our core mission is bigger than any of its component activities. Our fundamental mission to “improve the world through knowledge” includes many forms of positive impact, and certainly is not limited to driving economic growth or commercial returns. It is much more than this. The University’s full impact is realized through our mission activities of research, teaching and service that have been and will always be at the heart of what we do as a University. In its 228-year existence, Pitt has provided the promise of a better life to hundreds of thousands of students, has brought innovative — and often life-saving — research discoveries to the world, and has served our community to the benefit of many. In this, I wholeheartedly agree with you.

Your letter also provides me with a welcome opportunity to extend the context of my original message to the University community. My goal in writing the “Making an Impact Through Commercialization” memo was to highlight some (but not all) of the conditions we need to make a positive impact in our work. More specifically, my goal was to indicate that some forms of collaborative partnership, namely those dealing with commercialization of research, were both consistent with our mission and areas where we could, and should, improve if we want to have a greater impact.

Commercialization is one method to allow our scholarship and research to have impact. I focused on it because it seemed ripe for broader engagement. Commercialization is not just about seeking new sources of research funding, even though that may be an outcome. In the United States, research activities are funded for both public and private benefit, and are carried out by both public and private institutions, and the greatest possible benefits to both accrue when these two “worlds” can collaborate and work together as appropriate. If done effectively, the intersection of university and business can be a productive one for our students and our research, and need not compromise our mission or values.

This is not to say that the University has the same goals as a commercial institution. We don’t. We are here to educate students, contribute to the greater good through scholarship and serve our communities. We seek public benefit, not profit. I agree with you that a great university should tackle the greatest problems — including climate change, economic inequality, injustice, security and health. I am proud that Pitt has been and continues to be a leader in these types of challenges, from conquering polio to a renewed focus on sustainability. We have always sought to make a difference, and our approach is guided by a goal to maximize the benefit to our society. Often, the best strategy will include scholarship, open dialogue and actions via public policy, programs or public service. We must have the capacity to pursue and excel at those activities. But when our goals can be advanced by the translation of our research into new products or services, or are advanced by partnering with commercial institutions, we should have the capacity to do so in ways that are consistent with our values and our public mission.

Let me conclude where you started: It will take many diverse communities working together through a wide variety of forms if we are going to improve the world around us. I agree. I also share your enthusiasm for the task before us, and I am looking forward to working with you to develop the broad set of strategies that will support us in pursuit of this great goal.

Pat Gallagher

For more of Chancellor Gallagher’s thoughts on Pitt’s core mission, go to


Language demonizes the mentally ill

To the editor:

What’s the definition of irony?  Former Pennsylvania Gov. Thomas J. Ridge presents a talk on March 25 entitled “Bridging the Employment Gap for College Students With Disabilities.” Presumably he really means only those with physical disabilities, and not those dealing with cognitive difference and/or cognitive impairment. Otherwise, why do we log in to the Pitt home page every day and see the small yet visually prominent message, “RecycleMania”? This kind of language is part and parcel of a common culture that consistently and casually demonizes the mentally different and the mentally impaired. I challenge anyone in this supposed community to spend a week or two gathering examples of derisive appellations and descriptions for the mentally ill that pervade our culture so extensively that they aren’t even noticed, let alone commented upon, and certainly not condemned. On the contrary, such language is typically meant to evoke laughter and/or stigmatization, depending upon which late-night comedian or conventional media that you’re consuming.

Now, considering that “RecycleMania” is a nationwide college and university challenge contest of some sort, I wonder what the mathematics of this misuse of the word “mania” might be.

Given that 1-2 percent of the population experiences the badly named bipolar disorder (think manic-depression), I wonder what the afflicted, or those who know others who are afflicted, think when they see “RecycleMania”?  I know what I think.

Curtis C. Breight

Associate Professor Department of English


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