Pitt officials dispute lawmaker’s complaint about ‘collar county’ investments


Pitt ought to provide a million dollars in research funding yearly to Westmoreland and surrounding counties, especially for improving the education of kids who “are falling behind,” Republican state Rep. Eric Nelson of Greensburg told the University Senate’s Governmental Relations Committee on March 4.

In the meantime, he said he would still be pushing his proposal to remove the state’s annual appropriation for the four state-related universities (Pitt, Penn State, Temple and Lincoln), which goes exclusively to support lower in-state tuition levels, and instead give $8,000 yearly vouchers to high-school seniors to spend at any post-secondary school in Pennsylvania, from private colleges to career schools leading to health-care jobs or commercial driver’s licenses.

Pitt officials countered that the University recently received a record number of applications from across the state; that support for public education allows for the community mission of Pitt (including regional campuses, which aren’t found at private schools); and that $8,000 vouchers would cause every school in the Commonwealth to increase their tuition anyway.

Nelson stressed that he had mostly been a yes vote for Pitt’s state appropriation in recent years, but said that “postsecondary universities should be providing” help to small local businesses.

“Partnership from our university,” he said, would “help cross over and address some of our societal issues” and industries, from extracting rare earth elements from coal and developing green energy technologies to a Pitt–Greensburg program that helps young people now in the criminal justice system to re-enter society productively.

Pitt is not investing enough in Westmoreland County, he contended, and this has been “a growing dispute. It’s a sore spot coming into the (state) budget because of the absence of an enhanced positive working relationship with the Oakland campus …

“Our collar counties and our branch campuses are not being supported to our expectations … for the last several years,” he said, referring to the GOP caucus in the state legislature.

“I do strenuously disagree with the characterization,” said Paul Supowitz, vice chancellor of Community & Governmental Relations.

“It may just be more a failure to communicate,” he added, saying that his office’s new outreach and engagement map shows the many places Pitt has helped the community, past and present.

“I don’t disagree with a lot of what you are saying — we see a lot of good” from Pitt, Nelson allowed. But he still pressed for more “tangible investments. … There is a divide right now and the divide is very real. We don’t feel that commitment is being met.”

He also said that his voucher proposal is “a few years off” from turning into legislation, “but I think the power of choice … is gaining” momentum.

Supowitz contended that any voucher “would not make up nearly what the current state tuition discount (does). Pennsylvania students are flocking to us. We are one of the hottest schools” in terms of attracting applications, even from the southeastern part of the state. “Pennsylvania students and their families value the University of Pittsburgh. They value the in-state tuition,” with its lower costs, that the annual state appropriation allows.

But “we are committed to addressing” Nelson’s concerns, he said.

The real problem, Nelson said, is the declining number of children in Pennsylvania, which lowers the pool of young people entering higher education of any sort, resulting in the consolidation of some state-owned universities and the proposed merger of others.

“We all hope,” said Charles McLaughlin, director of commonwealth relations for Pitt, “that you would invest the state’s money … in what works and what pays the highest dividend.” He noted that, unlike the state-owned universities with declining student populations, Pitt is getting record application levels. “The people of the Commonwealth are speaking loudly with their feet and their dollars. … The industries that you want to flourish in Western Pennsylvania” are the ones that require Pitt-educated employees.

“That is outstanding and in no way do I disagree,” Nelson said, but added: “There is not a question that the University is achieving its goals. But there is a question of equity in how we spend taxpayers’ money,” with some state residents wishing tax dollars would go to private institutions such as St. Vincent, Duquesne or Seton Hill, he said. “That voucher would cover a lot of opportunities,” and potentially keep even more Western Pennsylvania students here for jobs after school.

“Every state makes the investment in public education,” McLaughlin countered. “We’re actually a national brand. We bring in kids who stay here.

“As a public school, we have a very public mission,” he continued — from community dental clinics to the Community Engagement Centers. “What private schools also don’t do is have regional campuses in places like Greensburg and Bradford. You don’t see CMU or Drexel or Penn with regional campuses. It’s not the business model and they couldn’t sustain it.”

“If we’re no longer public, that impacts our ability to grow,” Supowitz added.

Sitting in on the committee meeting, Pitt–Greensburg faculty member Frank Wilson told Nelson: “You’re not asking for any more money for higher education, you’re just asking to take it from one place and give it to another.”

He also criticized Nelson for his co-sponsorship of a Republican state bill that would require K-12 school districts (and “could” require universities, Nelson allowed) to post their school curriculums online so that parents can see whether anyone is teaching critical race theory or anything else to which they might want to object.

Pointing out that Pennsylvania is lower on the list of state funding for higher education than many others, Wilson suggested that the legislature should instead increase the overall higher education budget. “That,” Wilson said, would be “meaningful.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.


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