Transcript: TPN’s interview with Provost Cudd


Knox Coulter | Senior Staff Photographer

Provost Ann Cudd speaks at a Student Government Board meeting on Oct. 24, 2018.

By Jon Moss, News Editor

On June 11, The Pitt News sat down with Provost Ann Cudd for about 40 minutes to discuss her first year at Pitt, as well as her goals for the next year and beyond. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

The Pitt News: So, how’d the first year go?

Ann Cudd: The first year was great! It is so, so great to be back in Pittsburgh. I’m an alum, three times over, and I’ve had a great time becoming reacquainted with the University. Of course, it’s changed quite a bit since I left, and I think most of the changes are fantastic and great. The physical infrastructure is in great shape. Of course, we’ve got a new master plan, that’s been rolled out, and I can see how it can get even better. But some of the great things, meeting the students is, you know, [up] there. The students are incredible. You know, when I was here, I was mainly a graduate student, didn’t have that much interaction with the undergraduates, but it’s been great to get to know some people. Especially the Student Government Board, was mainly the way that I got to know students, but I also did some volunteer activities, Pitt Day of Giving, I got to hang out with some students there. I’ve had office hours, I’ve had some students come and visit me through those. I’ve had a Provost Message, so I’ve heard from students through that. I went to Pitt Day in Harrisburg, that was fun. I got to meet some students there, and on the bus, there and back. And then I’ve been able to meet alums, going on the road to give presentations at alumni events in Philadelphia, New York, I’m going to D.C., I’ve also been to Florida, to meet some alums. I’ve actually even been out to California to meet some alums. So, that’s been really, really interesting, and getting to know more about the incredible faculty and the research projects they have going on is really exciting. So I’ve had a great year.

It’s been, of course, had its tragic moments. Tree of Life shooting happened shortly after I got here, in fact on my birthday, which, I’ll never forget that date now — well, wouldn’t have forgotten it anyway — but it’s a sad day. But I was so moved by the event that, really, students put together, helped put together to recognize what happened, to bring the community together. I was moved by the many students and the community leaders that came to talk about it and to stand against hatred, which was great. And some subsequent things that have happened, like the pop-up course on anti-Semitism that happened in [the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences] that was very impressive.

And, on the other side, of the cohesiveness of the community, the way that we’re doing outreach with the community engagement centers. I attended some events and been there. I’m very happy about that and hoping to see more engagement with the community that way. So, I’ve rambled on, let me stop and let you ask a question.

TPN: So those were kind of some of the biggest accomplishments, and a little bit kind of the setbacks during the year.

AC: Well, if we want to talk accomplishments, I would have to talk about the Pitt Success program, because I think that’s a huge accomplishment, has to do with one of my major priorities which is to help make Pitt more affordable, especially for those students who have a very difficult time affording a Pitt education. And also with diversity and inclusion, which is a really big priority for me, that I’ve spoken about a lot of times, but always happy to speak about more, because I’m very passionate about the need for us to reach out to a broad sector of society.

TPN: Got it. And you had mentioned the Pitt Success, there’s the Panthers Forward, the Pell Grant match, all of that type of stuff. Can you go over kind of what motivated that change, and do you think Pitt is doing enough to help support students financially?

AC: Well, what motivated that is I think there’s a national concern, national crisis, going on in terms of student loan debt and also just the cost, the affordability of college. Those two are very much related. The student loan debt is … it proposes difficulties for students going forward, but it also, even as they’re in school, sometimes causes them to say, ‘Maybe I can’t afford this?’ and drop out. Disproportionately that affects low-income students, and so the Pitt Success, the Pell [Grant] match, was aimed specifically at lower-income students who might even think that a Pitt education is out of their reach, and we hope to say, ‘Well, no, this is, we’re going to help you, we’re going to make a difference.’

Well, one of the things that we did shortly after I got here was we looked at what is the amount of unmet need students have, where that’s, you know, a calculation from if you take the cost of attendance and subtract from that whatever family resources a student can bring to bear against the cost, as reflected in the FAFSA, the financial aid form, and subtract from that also the institutional aid, or the federal aid or federal loans that a student could qualify for. You take all that together and what’s left is the unmet need, and we have a lot of students with a pretty high unmet need, and, you know, the ideal number that unmet need should be is zero. But … it is a very large number that we do have, so I think that it would be ideal to aim for zero, in terms of unmet need. The Pitt Success grant and the Panthers Forward are both aimed at lowering that unmet need.

TPN: Got it. And while you’re increasing financial aid, tuition is also going up. For next year, uh, if the University gets more money from the state, tuition will be going up 3% in-state, 5% out-of-state.

AC: Those are not fixed numbers yet. 

TPN: So that’s what Pitt had sent to the state way back when. They also asked for an increase in appropriations from the state. It’s unclear what’s going on with the budget bills right now, they’re still at the appropriations committee…Do you think the University is doing enough to keep tuition as low as possible?

AC: I think we’re doing what we can do at this point to keep tuition low and also meet the needs of students. As many students as we can, yes.

TPN: Got it. Okay. We spoke a little bit about some of the accomplishments, can you talk about some of the challenges from the first year?

AC: Challenges. Well, of course, we talked about the Tree of Life, and I think that the resilience of the community was pretty amazing to bounce back from that. I think that it’s always a challenge to make sure that our faculty and staff feel like they’re properly rewarded and incentivized and all of that — that’s just the natural course of things. So working hard on all of those things, working with the Senate Council to address concerns. As far as the students go, there were a number of, we had some bad weather days, for example, that were challenging. Challenging for the students and challenging for our facilities group, although they certainly stepped up and kept the streets clear and the buses running and all of those things very well. And so mostly within the normal range of things, I would say. The challenge, though, of meeting students’ needs in terms of making Pitt affordable enough so that they can concentrate on their studies and get through is one of the major challenges that I’m thinking about. Also, the challenge of making sure we continue to reach out to and hire a diverse, excellent faculty. That’s, that’s a challenge that I am really eager to grapple with.

TPN: Got it. So for the next academic year, you had put out a message back a few weeks ago that it’s going to be the ‘Year of Creativity.’ Can you talk a little bit about what that means in terms of programming and what it means on campus?

AC: So I think that creativity is one of those things that we as a University community really want to inspire in our students, and want to encourage — in not only our students, but our faculty as well — after all, research and discovery depends on creativity. Creativity is a virtue across all of the different disciplines and enables us to think in new ways and make new discoveries and come together in new ways to collaborate, to make new things. So I’m really excited about creativity as something that all of the different disciplines and schools and student groups can embrace as something that would, you know … play a part in and like to enhance. So … we have a Center for Creativity, which is relatively new, but it’s fantastically led by Jeanne Marie Laskas and Kit Ayars, and so I asked them to co-chair this ‘Year of Creativity.’ We are charging the committee tomorrow with coming together and finding projects, inspiring projects that they can then support and bring together. So, I’m not sure exactly what they’re going to be doing, but I do know that they’re interested in finding both convocation and commencement speakers who will be related to the theme of creativity. We have some incredible people on the committee — we have a new person coming, Nicole Mitchell, who’s getting a lot of fanfare, who’s going to be directing Jazz Studies. She’s a world— nationally-, internationally-acclaimed flutist, and I’m excited to bring her onboard to be one of the creative people who will be coming. She’s somebody you should definitely do a story on, as well. She’s excited about the ‘Year of’ idea, as well.

TPN: Very cool. Can you talk a little bit, kind of like, where that comes from? I guess the idea is to have, kind of one message going into the year and stuff?

AC: A theme. That’s right. A theme we can all think about and move forward. The previous years’ themes were all things that galvanized a whole set of projects and in some cases led to something, to things that are ongoing. So, for example, Pitt Global, there’s a global hub that’s about to open in the fall that I’m very excited about, and many other great things happened under that ‘Year of Global.’

TPN: Got it. In a Message from the Provost you sent out in January, you said that students and everyone on campus, and now I’m going to quote from the message, “can look forward to the creation of new underrepresented minority hiring and diversity-oriented student recruitment initiatives.” You said you’d be announcing “details of strategies … in the weeks and months ahead.” Do you have any status update on this?

AC: So I regard the Pitt Success program as certainly one aimed at bringing a more diverse student body. But as far as faculty go … we are about to announce a new cluster hiring idea. I don’t want to pre-announce the announcement, so, but that’s coming forward very soon. And deans are already at work, thinking about how to collaborate with one of our vice provosts to, to work on that. And that’ll be a multi-year effort. We’ve also offered deans certain, I guess you could call it, seed funding, for targeted hires of underrepresented minorities. And … that’s basically the strategy, those two strategies. We’re continuing the strategies of looking at ways we can change our hiring processes themselves. So, for instance, we have a checklist of best practices of hiring practices that we ask every dean to present when they make the request to actually finalize a hire. And … that helps to guide them through a whole set of best practices for hiring diverse faculty.

TPN: Is that something you’re looking to change and improve, maybe, in the future? Create some sort of committee to look more into this? Like, what can students and faculty look forward to like, one or two years from now in terms of improvements on this?

AC: I think probably what we’ll be doing is taking stock of how well this has worked and then tweaking it as, as we go forward. That’s basically all the answer I have right now for that question.

TPN: So beyond next year and the ‘Year of Creativity,’ what are, kind of, your longer-term goals for your tenure here at Pitt? Are there, like, some kind of big ticket items you want to get done?

AC: We will be … the year 2020 is when the Plan for Pitt is … that’s how long it was supposed to last, right. So we will be moving into strategic planning over the next year or so for the University as a whole. And at that point, I expect there to be a pretty massive effort across the University to think hard about what is our mission and what are our goals and how are we going to achieve those. So I look forward to a lot of collaborative work on that. But for me … there’s a few priorities that I’ve talked about in many different situations that I really highlight. One has to do with the building out the master plan in terms of capital, so the student rec center will become a reality. Looking forward to that. That’s something that Kenyon Bonner is working with students on an advisory basis to finalize the programming for that building. I’m building for the School of Computing and Information and other related areas, the Bigelow One [One Bigelow] project as it’s sometimes called, looking forward to building that out. Additional student housing. And then there are some other projects that we hope will also take shape, they require some fundraising, but for engineering and for business, as well as a place to house the writing center. A student academic support center is what we’re calling it. So those are some of the capital things.

And then, of course, continuing our push for more diversity and inclusion efforts on all of the different campuses and in ways that I’ve already mentioned. And pushing forward the personalized education initiative as well. So Pathways, the advising platform, will be rolled out, and I look forward to having that be one of the ways we help to improve the graduation rate and eliminate the gaps in achievement between … various groups, sub-groups, of our students.

TPN: Got it. And since you brought up the master plan, just to continue on that thread a little bit. First, with the student rec center, that’s to be built on O’Hara Street, the parking garage and the building right next door, the LRDC, will be going away. I had written, previously, a story about the rec center. Is there any update about where the offices for the LRDC are moving? That’s like nine or 10 floors of people — that’s going to be pretty tough to find 10 floors of office space for people.

AC: Well, we have some preliminary plans, at this point. One of the places where we have, where there will be some space, that we do want to make sure we have a serious presence in, is the PAA [Pittsburgh Athletic Association]. So that could be the place, but that’s not finalized. But in any case, we do want to make sure that the PAA is space that we use, it’ll be ‘premo’ space, wonderful space, so we have a variety of projects that might fill in there, and one of the things could be the LRDC.

TPN: Okay. Do you know what else might be filling into the PAA space?

AC: Well, we’re looking forward to some international collaboration kind of spaces.

TPN: And, also, along the lines of the master plan, there’s the department of music building, right on the corner of Fifth and Bellefield. There’s been some issues —

AC: — continual issues —

TPN: — that have come up with that, about whether that building is going to be demolished, or whether it’s going to be slightly refurbished, stay as is. Is there any update on what’s going on what with that? Because that struck a lot of chords with students and that faculty.

AC: Right, right, I know. And this is really a better question right now for Greg Scott, our senior vice chancellor for business and operations, because he, right now, it’s seen as a sort of facilities problem, kind of issue. And he’s got some different solutions, as opposed to a clear plan from the master plan perspective. But it’s something he and I talk about a lot, because it is we recognize that this is, this is one of the places where we need better space for a whole unit and for students who want to practice. Practice spaces are also really needed, so we’re working to try to find a good solution to that, whether it’s upgrading the facilities that exist right now or moving them to other facilities.

TPN: Got it. I just wanted to circle back, I had forgotten to mention this. Along … so there was Tree of Life in October … but also only a few months later, there was the verdict from the Rosfeld trial, that had significant impact on the City of Pittsburgh. Rosfeld was a former Pitt police officer. Yourself, Chancellor Gallagher, Dean of Students Bonner all sent out emails to students regarding the trial. Along, like, the same lines of Tree of Life, can you describe what effect the trial had on the students and how the University responded, how maybe they could have responded better or worse?

AC: Yeah … it is a tragedy. The shooting was a tragedy … the acquittal of the officers [officer] was very difficult for the City and for the families, and for the black community more generally, especially. And so, I think our position was to support students in their … grieving, in their protest of the City, of the laws of the state of Pennsylvania which made it possible for the jury to acquit the officer, and I think that was the right, you know, way to support. And we continue to support, especially African-American men who feel like society is stacked against them, the police are, they’re in a difficult situation. I think we’ve been appropriately supporting our students. I’m not sure that I would say anything went wrong, in those terms. Clearly there was a tragic situation that was then exacerbated by the acquittal of the police officer. And it’s difficult for us to say much more than that, since, after all, Rosfeld was no longer employed by the University of Pittsburgh. So there wasn’t much for us to say beyond that.

TPN: Okay. And just to continue on this thread a little bit longer, you had Tree of Life and then you had the Rosfeld trial, basically one right after another. Can you go over what is … some students may feel, this is now two large minority groups, you have Jews and you have African-Americans, who may not, maybe, feel safe in Pittsburgh or in Oakland. Can you go over what the University is doing to make sure that everybody feels like they have a place here in Oakland?

AC: I think generally speaking, that our police, the Pitt police, are really wanting to be very proactive in talking with student groups, and they’ve done that. They’ve met with— the Chief has met with groups of African-American students, and I think that’s been positive. Also, you know, you didn’t mention there were those … the hoax, that was then spread by social media —

TPN: — Oh yeah, all the stuff on Atwood Street. That was very difficult —

AC: — but it did create concern and fear among the students. So, you know, our police chief, and his supervisor [Associate Vice Chancellor of Public Safety and Emergency Management Ted Fritz], have been thinking about ways in which social media, or the SMS system, can be used better to alert students, but also not to make them panicked. And that’s a very fine line that has to be drawn, as well. So I think we’re doing what we can, in terms of responding to these issues, but we, we appreciate, I mean, I appreciate, when the students bring up issues of their concern, so that we can respond. That’s a really important thing for the students to do, and for Student Government Board to represent the students and to bring issues to the attention of the Chancellor, myself, the chief of police. Those are great, great things the students can do to help us to help them feel safe.

TPN: To kind of switch gears a little bit, as you know, there have been two campaigns to unionize at Pitt recently. There’s the grad student union campaign and the faculty union campaign. The Pitt News was the first news outlet to report that between — over three fiscal years, 2016, 2017 and 2018 — the University had spent almost a quarter of a million dollars with a law firm named Ballard Spahr based out of Philadelphia. They advertise they are “union avoidance” law firm. I have a few questions related to that. First, do you believe that cost was warranted, that amount of money?

AC: Well, we hire that firm to do a lot of different work for us, in terms of employee-employer relations and HR and things like that. So, I think they’re a great firm. They’ve been serving us well. That we spend a lot of money on different kinds of consulting services that we outsource, and this is one of them, and it’s a good use of our funds.

TPN: Do you believe, some students have argued, that the University is paying a firm that advertises they work in “union avoidance” while tuition has gone up, and some students say that’s not fair. Do you agree with that position, do you think that should change?

AC: You know, our position with respect to the union is based on what we think best serves the interests of students. Insofar as we are serving the best interests of students, this seems like a reasonable way for us to use our funds.

TPN: So, to continue on this a little longer, the policy of the previous Provost, Pat Beeson, had [been to] come out against the unionization campaigns. That was policy set before you came here. You had, in April, the election with the grad students, that they voted against unionization by a very slim margin, only 37 votes. The faculty union organizers submitted their cards. The PLRB ruled they did not reach the 30% margin. The faculty say the University inflated the list. So you have both of these things that are at the Board right now to be decided. Are you okay with the University’s approach to these campaigns, that they aren’t voluntarily recognizing the unions and you instead have to resort to these long battles with … at the Board, back and forth, all of these different cases that have to be brought up?

AC: Well, this is inevitably a legal matter to decide, you know. Was the … is the election certifiable? And, you know, I hope that it is certified soon, and that’s an issue, though, that has to play out through the PLRB. But there’s not really much for us to do in the meantime. So we’re just waiting for them to make a decision on that, a hearing has been made. I would prefer, you know, sooner rather than later for sure, and I do believe that we will find, that the matter was, the election was fairly conducted. And, as for the other one, you say faculty, but the issue is whether in fact whether there is a faculty interest in having a union election, and it’s not clear that there is. If in fact there aren’t even 30% of the faculty who want to even vote, let alone vote for, sounds to me like there might not be much faculty interest in that.

TPN: Do you believe Pitt has done any foul play in either of these campaigns, —

AC: — Absolutely not —

TPN: — that they’ve played by the rules?

AC: Absolutely we have. And, in fact, making sure that we know what the rules are, which is complicated. It’s part of the reason why we need legal help. These are very complicated legal matters that we’re getting advice from our lawyers as to ‘What are the rules?,’ ‘What can we and can we not do with respect to when there’s a period like now, when we’re in so-called status quo?’ Actually, that’s, that’s a legal question, too. Is it status quo when there’s been an election but it hasn’t yet been certified? Or there’s been a determination, but there’s an appeal of the determination? So those are all questions we can’t easily answer, and we don’t run afoul of the law or the guidelines or the rules.

TPN: Just to kind of circle back again, do you believe it would have been easier to have voluntarily come out in favor of the unions, instead of having to fight all of these battles, going back and forth with the Board? Do you think that would have been the route to go?

AC: We can’t, that wouldn’t have been a responsible position for us to take. After all, it seems like the students … it would appear that the students do not want a union to stand between them and their professors and the administration. It would appear that the faculty don’t, in fact, want a union to come between their exercise of their faculty governance rights and the administration. So I think it would have been irresponsible for us, as an administration, to invite the union to take … to be the bargaining unit, when, in fact, it seems like our students and our faculty, as a whole, don’t particularly want that.

TPN: So to change gears again, you had appointed Dean Audrey Murrell of the College of Business Administration to be the acting dean of the Honors College. Current Dean Primack will be departing, do you believe her to be confirmed to be the permanent dean? Are you conducting a search at all for Primack’s follow-on?

AC: So, for now, I’ve named her the acting dean. Right at this moment, we’re going from one model for the Honors College to a brand new model. I think it needs some stability for a little while, but on the other hand, a national search is usually the normal way … that we would replace one dean with another. So what I want to do is to have an acting dean in place for at least two years before I want to, you know, have a new dean come in, so that there’s some stability for the students and the faculty, as they build out the new model.

TPN: Got it. And you think she’ll be here for the full two years to serve in that role?

AC: Yes.

TPN: Do you expect her to be confirmed as the permanent dean? Or not ready for that call yet?

AC: It’s way too soon to make that call. But I think she’s going to do a great job. She did an outstanding job at the College of Business Administration, so I’m really confident that she’ll do a great job in this role.

TPN: Along the lines of the Honors College, the model is changing. Now, instead, it was kind of like there was no ‘card-carrying,’ is how I’ve heard people describe it. That’s changing now to you have to be admitted into the college. Can you kind of go over, kinda, why you wanted to make this change, and what effect you think it’ll have going forward?

AC: Right. So this was very much the idea and the vision of Brian Primack, but I agreed with his arguments. The major part of the argument is that there is now a national organization of honors colleges and to be a part of that organization, to sort of benchmark yourself against the others, you need to have a model in which the students are, as you say, card-carrying members of the Honors College. The membership model, as they call it. And, so, we thought we would try that. That seems like the right thing to do. We know that we have an outstanding Honors College, and we would like to able to showcase that and to be benchmarked against our peers, so we’re adopting that model, and I think it’ll be good. It’ll also allow the students to develop a cohort, a sense of belonging to that organization, something that students often want. So I’m excited to try it out and see … see where we can get. I think that Pitt will turn out to be ranked among the very top of these honors colleges.

TPN: And then just one last question. Pitt is growing, obviously, we need more student housing on campus, that’s been an issue. The Honors College is changing its model. Lots of students say lots of things are changing at Pitt … there’s a rise in the number of applications, the school’s become more selective. Can you describe how you keep that Pitt culture the same even as the institution is growing and changing?

AC: So, I actually, I don’t think we’ve really been growing in terms of numbers of students in the undergraduate body for 10 years or something like that. So we’ve been pretty stable. And I agree that the selectivity in admissions has naturally gone up as the number of applications has gone up, and I think that’s good, it’s very competitive. So the Honors College model is changing, it’s just providing another sort of learning community for students to be a part of and to belong to. I think that’s a good thing, sort of a best practice in higher education for undergraduate students. So we are trying to make the quality of Pitt education better and better every year, and I think this is just one way that we’ve done that. And we’re getting fantastic students who are eager to engage in the classes. I hear from professors all the time that they are so impressed by the undergraduate students, and they are really eager to teach them, and to challenge and be challenged by them. So it’s a great atmosphere to be a student and to be a professor these days, I think.

TPN: That’s all I had, I’m not sure if you had anything you wanted to close on.

AC: Nah … I’m really happy to be here! It’s an awesome place. Students are making me proud everyday, and also the faculty, they are constantly surprising with their accomplishments and achievements, and I just want to keep that going.

TPN: Perfect. Thank you so much.