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

February 1, 1996

The Fisher report — an overview

Who wrote it: A five-member team led by academic management consultant James L. Fisher, a psychologist with a doctorate from Northwestern University. Other members were: Paula P. Brownlee, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities; Peter Buchanan, president of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education; University of Minnesota President Nils Hasselmo; and Old Dominion University President James V. Koch.

Who commissioned the report, and why: In August 1995, Pitt's Board of Trustees hired the Fisher team to review the current condition of the University and recommend strategies for its future. Trustees asked the consultants to identify strengths, limitations and aspirations of Pitt academic programs, faculty, students, administration, University governance, finance, private support and grants, alumni, public relations and the Board of Trustees itself. Fisher's team also was asked to suggest qualities to look for in Pitt's next chancellor. What the review team did: Between Aug. 1 and Oct. 31, 1995, the consultants pored over University documents and position papers and interviewed more than 200 trustees, faculty and staff members, students, alumni, politicians, business leaders, publishers, editors, benefactors, people from other universities, randomly selected community residents, and others.

What Pitt paid for the report: The $68,500 paid includes a $50,000 fee plus $18,500 for the consultants' travel, lodging and other expenses.

Why the report is important: Since his election in June as the new chairperson of the University's Board of Trustees, J. Wray Connolly has vowed to improve Pitt and rebuild its image. Connolly, retired senior vice president of H.J. Heinz Co., is generally perceived to be one of the most active and powerful Pitt board chairpersons in years, perhaps decades. Ordering the Fisher study was one of his first actions as chairperson. (Connolly's most significant action as chairperson-elect was helping to lead the trustee revolt that forced J. Dennis O'Connor to resign last spring as Pitt chancellor.) Since November 1995, no fewer than 36 trustees have gathered for each of three all-day, closed-door retreats held on Saturdays to "re-evaluate every aspect of the University," as Connolly described their agenda. The Fisher report was the focus of discussion during the third meeting and during half of the second, Connolly said. In order to have even more time to discuss the report, the trustees have insisted on holding a fourth, all-day-Saturday meeting prior to the next public meeting of the full board on Feb. 22, Connolly said.

At the Feb. 22 meeting, ideas and conclusions from the four day-long board meetings will be made public, he added.

Why the report's importance should not be overestimated: Connolly said, "The Fisher study is just one piece of a much larger effort to get a focus on where we are as a university and where we want to go. The Board of Trustees has no intention of officially adopting this document or using it as a blueprint" for future action. Already, Connolly has rejected at least two of the Fisher report's 70 recommendations: reducing the sizes of Pitt's 50-member board and the chancellor search committee (which the report described as too large and "poorly constituted"). Connolly cited the Saturday meetings as examples of how dozens of trustees can "meet in one place and work very efficiently together." Interim Chancellor Mark Nordenberg described the Fisher study as "a snapshot of this institution taken in September." Since then, he said, Pitt has begun to address some of the consultants' criticisms — for example, the report's condemnation of the 1994 consolidation of Student Affairs and Public Affairs. Combining the two offices was a "positional anomaly" that was "looked on with great dismay by students and faculty alike," the consultants wrote. But Nordenberg said that his decision last fall to assume direct supervision of media relations, removing it from the jurisdiction of Vice Chancellor for Student and Public Affairs Leon Haley, "resolved some of the most fundamental problems with combining those two offices. I think there is now much more of a synergy between the basic student affairs responsibilities and public affairs responsibilities that fall within that office, such as the volunteer service.

"I'm not suggesting the arrangement is perfect, but things have changed since the September snapshot was taken." The report's style: "Blunt," "candid" and "no-holds-barred" were among the adjectives that University personnel and local reporters have used in describing the report. A few examples: * Pitt's financial operation is "an organization out of control," according to the consultants.

* "There is no area of a university's educational program that is more important than its undergraduate core requirements, yet this appears to be the single-most neglected area at the University of Pittsburgh," the report states.

* In criticizing what they called the "woefully inadequate" percentage of trustees who contribute money to Pitt, the consultants concluded: "Pitt trustees should be admonished to 'Give, get, or get off.'" Connolly pointed out that trustee gifts to Pitt increased dramatically in 1995, and that the University is taking steps to improve undergraduate education. As for the report's characterization of Pitt finances, the board chairperson said: "I think the phrase 'out of control' overstates things substantially. It makes it sound like it's just chaos, and I don't think it's chaos. This is a big business and it's being run reasonably effectively. Can we do a much better job in these areas? Yes, I think we can, and I'm confident that we will." He added: "These people [the Fisher team] write in a pretty provocative and dramatic way. I personally felt that a few of their word choices were unfortunate, but this report is exactly what the board expected. And we didn't ask them [Fisher and his colleagues] to water it down. We let it all hang out, so to speak." PR fallout: The consultants wrote, "Nearly everyone agrees that Pitt's public relations have been miserable over the past few years. Of course, not even Svengali could put a positive spin on some of the public relations disasters that have afflicted the University recently." So how has releasing the report affected Pitt's already-suffering public image? Board chairperson Connolly opined: "I don't think it's particularly good [public relations] anytime you're prepared to share with the outside world what has to be regarded as dirty linen. But I think the good that will come from this will begin to become obvious in the very near future." How to get a copy: Pitt's administration mailed some 350 copies of the 126-page report (along with an 8-page executive summary) last week to the Pittsburgh campus "3-D" list — deans, directors and department chairs. A few dozen more copies were mailed to the University Senate, Staff Association Council and Pitt's four regional campuses. The report also is available at the Hillman and regional campus libraries.

For additional copies, call the Office of the Secretary of the Board of Trustees, 624-6623.

— Bruce Steele

Leave a Reply