Homecoming Edition: Brown: The next chancellor: Public obligation cannot be overlooked

By Simon Brown / Columnist

The year is 1924. The fresh-faced chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh, John Bowman, announces a plan to erect a monumental “Cathedral of Learning” in the place of a few sparse homes in Frick Acres.  

Critics object to the needless expense of such an architectural undertaking. Some even claim that its considerable height would stand in bizarre contrast to the otherwise low-roofed skyline of the city. Nevertheless, the completed structure garners national recognition and acclaim for the otherwise unknown university of an Appalachian steel town.  

Although Chancellor Bowman made this decision nearly a century ago, it represents a challenge that will confront every chancellor of this University: Should Pitt take great expense to gain national attention and respect, or should it focus to empower the local community and the state? 

In short, should it aim for the heavens, or remember the modest skyline to which it contributes?

A long line of public-university administrators has grappled with this decision, both from Pitt and from across the nation, and Chancellor Nordenberg’s replacement will be no exception. Ultimately, he or she should remember that despite the national prestige which his or her predecessor has worked hard to accomplish, Pitt must focus on its primary obligation as a public trust to uplift those in the community who need it most. 

This obligation is inherent in the mission of any public university. 

Founded as accessible, affordable institutions for the education of a growing middle class in the wake of the Civil War, public universities sprang up across the nation as state governments took a more active responsibility in their citizens’ education. They provided the only alternative to often exclusive and elitist private colleges, which educated a minuscule fraction of the population. 

Though Pitt has survived the majority of its existence as a private college — having only acquired the “state-related” distinction in 1966 — it still shares in these obligations.

Unfortunately, these mutual obligations have only become more and more difficult to maintain in the past three decades, as state governments have withdrawn from their commitment to higher education. Across the nation, states now spend 40 percent less on education as a proportion of state personal income as they did in 1980. 

By that trend, state funding will reach zero by 2059.

Unfortunately, Pennsylvania is by no means bucking this trend, as evidenced by the consistent reductions in state support during the first half of the Corbett administration. 

When the states loosen their tenuous commitment to public universities, public universities loosen their commitments to the public — a trend no more acceptable than the first. 

More and more, state university systems are offering merit-based aid to attract the most accomplished high school students to increase their national prestige and improve their applicant pools. This strategy can be intended in two ways. State universities often use it to attract out-of-state students to raise their reputations as “national universities,” or state governments will fund such programs to prevent “brain drain” out of their states.

This translates to less need-based aid and tuition reduction and, in the first case, more students from out of state, a demographic particularly attractive to universities seeking these students’ higher tuition payments. 

Though Pitt in particular, and Pennsylvania in general, is experiencing the same trend of defunding, that doesn’t mean that the next chancellor should flout his or her responsibility to the middle-income and working families that would suffer from such a change in priorities. 

Trustees and administrators have too often justified their repeated tuition increases by citing the noncommittal Corbett administration and its trademark funding cuts. That argument only shows that the University is increasingly prioritizing the maintenance of its expenditures over the maintenance of an affordable education for low- and middle-income citizens of the state.  

This is evident also in the University’s trend toward admitting more and more out-of-state students. From 2002 to 2012, the percentage of out-of-state students in the incoming class at Pitt has nearly doubled from 17 percent to 35 percent. This parallels a marginal rise in selectivity, from 60 percent of applicants admitted in 2002 to 56 percent in 2013. 

Many cite these figures as glowing reminders of Chancellor Nordenberg’s enviable success at debuting the University on the national stage. And, while it is impossible to dispute that success, it is equally impossible to deny that these numbers attest to a university that is less and less accessible to those whom it ideally serves. 

Representatives of the University regularly recite the same mantra that any more budget cuts will force the University to replicate its neighbor, Carnegie Mellon, by charging higher tuition and admitting fewer Pennsylvanians. Unfortunately, this warning loses legitimacy when the University continues to show its willingness to shift closer and closer to its neighbor across the bridge in these aspects — regardless of the state’s actions. 

The next chancellor ought to be wary of this gradual shift, and should do what he or she can to mitigate the negative consequences that come with the status of a nationally-renowned university — namely, its distance from its surrounding community.

And while the Cathedral of Learning still reminds us of Chancellor Bowman’s impressive accomplishment, it should remind us also of the 97,000 school children from across Pittsburgh who each donated a dime to pay for one brick — all in the hopes that, when they grew up, they could seek an education in such a beautiful building, no matter how much money their parents brought home. 

Write Simon at [email protected]