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October 10, 2002


At the Sept. 11 Senate Council meeting, Chancellor Mark Nordenberg vigorously defended the University, in response to a Pittsburgh Post- Gazette article describing Pitt’s practice of excluding the test scores of “special access” students and athletes from the calculation of the average SAT score of incoming freshmen. Although not specifically stated, the article intimated that Pitt’s practice was misleading to those interested in the average SAT score for entering freshmen.

The chancellor’s statement at the meeting was carefully phrased and similar in approach to other statements he has made explaining and defending Pitt policies and practices. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the chancellor’s statements, almost everyone would agree that he mounts as good a defense as one could hope would be made by the University’s chief executive. When I have differed with a practice or policy the chancellor has defended, I nevertheless have been highly impressed by the skill with which he presented his, or the University’s, position.

On the same day the chancellor gave his response to Senate Council, the Post-Gazette ran an editorial that follows the prevailing pattern of Post-Gazette editorials and articles by its editor John Craig. From reading editorials in other cities’ newspapers, I have concluded that the Post-Gazette’s editors are particularly prone to snide and smug statements. For example, in the Sept. 11 editorial about SAT scores, the Post-Gazette pointed out that, for the current year, 10 percent of the freshman scores were not reflected in the SAT average, but that 18 percent had not been included 10 years earlier. The editorial referred to this difference with the words, “10 years ago it was worse.” I could see the use of the term “greater,” but the term “worse” suggests that leaving the 10 percent of the students out was bad, and not defensible, and that when 18 percent were not included it was even more misleading. One might have expected the author of the editorial to treat the reduction of the student scores excluded now as an improvement and a positive development.

Several faculty members asked me whether I knew that the University had adjusted the SAT average score. I was not aware of the practice, but knew that there were a variety of special admission categories. All the faculty members with whom I talked indicated that they had no knowledge of the practice, although one said that he had talked with another faculty member who was aware of it. If only a relatively small number of faculty know about a practice that is defensible or, even better, sound, why was it not more widely known, since it apparently was in effect since the 1960s? Did the fact that the practice was not well-known indicate that those responsible for creating and maintaining it believed that, if known, it might diminish the positive meaning the reported average score would have?

This question leads to a larger concern: Who determines which information is to be made widely available to the public, which information is to be held closely, and which criteria are applied in the decision-making process?

There is a tendency at the University of Pittsburgh to be somewhat obsessive about maintaining the secrecy of information, unless it is clearly positive in nature, such as the award and size of a research grant, or an achievement of the chancellor or another University leader. In fact, both at the University level and the unit level, the idea of sharing information seems at times quite foreign. One possible reason for the University to hold information closely is bad experiences with media coverage. From my own experience as a member of the Senate athletic committee during a previous administration, it appeared the athletic department was paranoid about the press, which frequently criticized the department’s decisions and was seen by the department leadership as hostile to it and the University.

Perhaps, at some meeting of the upper echelon of the University administration, a session might be devoted to the pros and cons of being more open with the University community and the general public. I believe the University has more to gain than to lose by increased openness. Regarding the average freshman SAT score, if each time it had been reported to the University board, or otherwise made known, the score had been accompanied by a footnote explaining the exclusions, the entire brouhaha might well have been avoided. Experience suggests that when media learn a fact that appears to have been kept secret, it seizes upon the opportunity to portray the fact in the worst possible light. Reporters know they are much more likely to win a Pulitzer for writing about frailties of a person or an institution than for a story about good works. Potential critics can be disarmed by the University being forthcoming from the outset. Even a good defense is just a defense.

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