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March 4, 1999

Pitt makes case for larger appropriation

HARRISBURG — A trio of Pitt administrators testified before appropriations committees in the state Legislature Feb. 23 and 24, fielding questions about the University's appropriations request for fiscal year 2000.

They also faced some ancillary queries from legislators interested in Pitt's stance on same-sex medical benefits, the future of Pitt Stadium and funding levels at the Johnstown campus.

Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, Provost James Maher and Senior Vice Chancellor for Health Sciences and medical school dean Arthur Levine pushed Pitt's proposal for a 4 percent increase over the current appropriation of $158 million. Should Pitt be granted the increase, about $4 million would go to modernizing laboratories and modifying undergraduate curriculum to ensure that all students, regardless of major, are trained in computer skills designed to translate into employment opportunities.

Calling state support "absolutely essential," Nordenberg pointed out that Pitt has awarded about 200,000 degrees, mostly to Pennsylvanians, since the University became state-related in 1966. "Since becoming state-related, we have emerged as one of the world's major producers of pioneering research, [which would not] have been possible without Commonwealth investments and the returns they have produced," the chancellor said.

State Sen. James J. Rhoades (R.-29th District) asked Nordenberg to address the impact on the University of the difference between the governor's and Pitt's proposals. In his Feb. 2 budget proposal, Governor Tom Ridge recommended a 2.5 percent increase for higher education institutions. (See University Times, Feb. 18.)

Nordenberg acknowledged that the University would not close its doors if only a 2.5 percent increase were approved. "We would push forward, but it would be difficult. And it would be a year of missed opportunity for a substantial impact on the region as well as students," the chancellor said.

Nordenberg pointed out that two years ago the Legislature had voted a 1 percent increase to Pitt over the governor's proposal. "You asked us to invest this [money] wisely," he said. "And we responded by renovating a bioengineering lab, a biotechnology lab and a botany greenhouse, projects contributing to the state's strength and growth."

Nordenberg also told the legislators the tuition increase would be tied into the amount the Legislature awards the University. "If we got a 4 percent increase, we would expect to keep tuition [hikes] to 4 percent or less," the chancellor said.

Undergraduate tuition stands at $5,800 for Pennsylvania residents and $12,500 for out-of-staters. About 80 percent of undergraduates are state residents, the chancellor said.

"I would say that with 2.5 percent [appropriation increase] it will put real pressure on the tuition increase side," Nordenberg said. "There is also the danger to continue to slip behind our competitors. Our faculty salaries have slipped to the bottom half among our competitors and we do recruit [faculty] nationally."

Both House and Senate members asked about the Johnstown campus. Senate appropriations committee chair Richard A. Tilghman (R.-17th District) asked, "Why am I getting letters from Johnstown saying that they have 11 percent of the students but get only 0.4 percent of appropriations?"

The chancellor said, "What you're seeing are letters that are a product of a campaign [by some Johnstown employees]. We responded to a similar letter just last week in writing, and I would be happy to share that correspondence with you before I leave [Harrisburg]."

Nordenberg was referring to a letter from the provost published in the Feb. 18 University Times in response to a letter from Johnstown faculty members.

Tilghman asked, "So, is it true as this letter says that Johnstown gets only $600,000 [annually]?"

"No, it's not true," Nordenberg said.

Rep. Dan Frankel (D.-23rd District, which includes part of Oakland) in the House committee hearing also broached the subject of Johnstown. "What are contributing factors in your decisions to allocate funding [to Johnstown]?" he asked.

"Well, early retirement questions have been a stimulating factor of unrest at UPJ," the chancellor replied. "But we need to make decisions based on programmatic and curricular plans, not on head count [of students]. We look at needs and ambitions and plans."

The chancellor added that the planning and budgeting process is University-wide, with regional campus representatives serving on the committee making allocation decisions.

"Everyone could use more money," Nordenberg said. "Our problem is not that there are crazy requests. It's making decisions from among many worthwhile requests."

Reacting to mention of early retirement, Rep. John Lawless (R.-150th District) asked if the term is a euphemism for down-sizing, which he characterized as a failure in the corporate world. "Is it true that Pitt hires faculty at high salaries then pays them more to retire and then they can also go work elsewhere? That's absurd," Lawless said.

The chancellor responded, "I learned a lot about business and retirement when we were creating this plan. I was answering to our Board of Trustees, many of whom are tough, outstanding people in the business world. And we worked and worked and worked until we did have a plan that made economic sense."

(In October 1997, Pitt's board approved a plan that would allow eligible professors to receive payment equal to 1.5 times their annual salary, up to $125,000. Participating faculty had to agree to retire between July 1, 1998, and May 1, 1999. Payments to retiring faculty began in July 1998 and will end in April 2000.) Nordenberg said some units have been down-sizing and others have been replacing retiring faculty under the early retirement plan.

Lawless asked, "So you're saying that you do not hire professors that are drawing retirement pay from other places?"

"To the best of my knowledge, no," Nordenberg said. The chancellor added that the early retirement plan was expected to save the University some $15 million over time.

Sen. William Slocum (R.-25th District) asked about Pitt's policy regarding same-sex benefits.

The chancellor replied that the University was involved in a law suit and he would not comment specifically on the issue. "I will say this: Five years ago, we granted certain internal benefits [to same-sex partners of Pitt's faculty and staff]. Those include use of a Pitt ID, library and certain tuition benefits. But the University will not have an extension to [health] benefits absent the compulsion of law. We plan to vigorously defend our position," Nordenberg said.

Regarding plans for Pitt Stadium given the likelihood that a new stadium will be constructed in Downtown Pittsburgh, Nordenberg told legislators the University would be foolish not to explore its options. "But no decision has been made," the chancellor emphasized.

Rep. Joseph Preston (D.-24th District, which includes part of Oakland) said, "I would like to go on record as being not in favor of moving games off campus. The stadium is an important part of campus atmosphere and life, not just a place to play football, and I will not support a move [to another stadium]," Preston said.

The three University officials also heard a number of legislators praise Pitt and its leadership. Pitt was cited for improved campus safety, programs to deter alcohol abuse, its record of attracting far above the national average of sponsored research monies, the freshman studies program, increased enrollments and rural outreach programs on the Bradford campus.

–Peter Hart

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