I first entered the Babcock Room in 2013.
Guided by a friend of a friend, a few other Pitt students and I made our way to the back elevator on the 36th floor of the Cathedral at dusk. Two picked locks later we were there: the 40th floor, practically the top of the world.
We didn’t pay much attention to the plush furnishing or woodwork of the large room. It was the four windows, each facing one side of the room, that captivated us. Pittsburgh, my city and my home, was laid out before me, glowing in the sunset more bare and beautiful than I had ever seen.
Meet the E.V. Babcock Memorial Room, hidden away and locked by those in the Chancellor’s Office — the perfect metaphor for Pitt’s ivory tower. It is purely Pitt, both in its beauty and its prioritization of the elite over the common person.
The Babcock Room stays mostly locked, only opened for the most elite and special gatherings of important Pitt people. But it was finally opened to the public earlier this month, at a price. Pitt Quo Vadis — the student group in charge of the nationality room tours — was allowed to use the room for a two-hour fundraiser. According to Quo Vadis, this is the first time such an event has occurred, and the public interest was overwhelming.
The room illustrates a much bigger issue at Pitt: how administrators and the Board of Trustees have total control over how the University’s assets are distributed. Students have been fighting for decades to increase transparency and have a voice and vote in this process, and the Babcock Room’s history includes this struggle. The room once housed Board of Trustees meetings, until 1969, when 50 students blocked the elevator to the room, demanding that Pitt “disengage itself from the clutches of corporate power” and instate public executive board meetings. Instead of listening to the students, the board moved rooms.
Today, nearly 50 years later, students are still fighting for transparency and inclusion in the decision making process. While organizing with the Fossil Free Pitt Coalition — a group working to have Pitt divest from fossil fuels — I learned firsthand how difficult it is to get any information about the Board of Trustees, who make the most important decisions for the University. We spent months in the library poring over hard copies of board meeting minutes to find out who even had the authority to decide to divest our endowment from fossil fuels.
We learned that the board has no clue which industries Pitt is invested in. Last February we were granted the first official student meeting with the Board of Trustees, a mere four minutes, showing how removed the board still is from the students they serve.
At no time has the lack of regard for students been more obvious to me than during the creation of Pitt’s five-year plan in 2014. The first step to strategic plan development is stakeholder engagement — intentionally involving people who will be affected by a decision in the planning process — and strategic decisions at Pitt greatly impact students. Despite this, students were not engaged in a meaningful way in Pitt’s plan, a fact that outraged me and other students who organized a resistance to demand meaningful student input.
While this forced the University to hold several open forums, students felt that their input was not taken seriously. This planning process showed that students are an afterthought, and that the University is not prioritizing students from the top down. It demonstrates that students must not assume we will be asked for our opinion, but instead, we must actively demand a seat at the table.
Meanwhile, large decisions are made every single day in a process where students have little or no say. And when you attempt to ask questions about this, you will be told that the money stream at the University doesn’t work like that. But you will never be told how it does work. You will hear that Pitt cannot raise the student minimum wage or increase spending from its endowment because it doesn’t want to run out of money.
But you will never hear that Pitt actually spends less from its $3.6 billion endowment each year than most other universities. It annually spends 4.25 percent from its endowment on everything from faculty positions and operational costs to scholarships. Meanwhile, comparable universities such as Penn State University and Carnegie Mellon University spend 5 and 5.5 percent of their endowments, respectively.
Law requires non-profit foundations to spend 5 percent of their annual endowments — meaning Pitt spends even less than them. Pitt could be spending more money on anything from scholarships and student wages to faculty pay, but chooses not to, despite past requests from the Faculty Senate to increase endowment spending. Increasing our endowment payout to 5 percent would free up $27 million, enough to reduce undergraduate tuition by $1,500 per year.
But this information and this money are kept locked away, just like the Babcock Room. I’ve only come to learn about it because of my own experiences working with the administration and lobbying the board.
University spokesperson Susan Rogers declined to respond Friday to the concerns listed in this letter.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Pitt can change. Instead of keeping our greatest room locked away, inaccessible and empty, we should use it as a showpiece for the University by opening it up to the public during business hours, while still allowing it to be reserved for elite events. Let the opening of the Babcock Room represent the dismantling of Pitt’s ivory tower, and the first of many changes.
And Pitt, here’s what to do. Publish information on the Board of Trustees online: let us know who’s on each committee, how decisions are made and details about its bylines. Become transparent about what is happening to our money, including where our tuition dollars go, what we are invested in, how much Pitt spends on different events or endeavours and where donations are coming from.
And then, most importantly, give students, faculty and staff input representation on the board and in the administration. This will create a new culture where the University cares about each student and employee as much as donors and board members. A culture where Pitt operates as a University, not a capital-accumulating business in the “clutches of corporate power.”
Security has been upgraded since my twilight escapade, and now even a skilled lockpicker cannot open the doors. And four years after that illegal visit to the Babcock Room, I now say farewell to Pitt.
I leave knowing that through student power and organizing, my alma mater will someday hopefully stop investing in locks and start opening doors instead.
This piece is an op-ed submitted by Sage Lincoln, a senior at the University of Pittsburgh. Write to Sage at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story stated that the Babcock Room is locked by the Chancellor, when a vice chancellor is the one who oversees the room. The story has been updated to reflect this. The Pitt News regrets this error.