Senate Council talks international outreach, financial aid programs


Joy Cao | Staff Photographer

The University Senate Council discussed tuition and international outreach at its first meeting.

By Rebecca Johnson, For The Pitt News

The University Senate Council kicked off its first meeting of the year Wednesday afternoon in Posvar Hall. University officials and student representatives discussed the charged political climate affecting the University’s international outreach and tuition increases, among other topics.

Over the summer, Pitt sent a letter to every student reinforcing the University’s commitment to creating a global university that welcomes international students, but Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said this ideal is difficult to maintain in the current political climate. Pitt recently suspended its Confucius Institute program after experiencing difficulty obtaining visas for 15 Chinese scholars slated to arrive this fall.

“The focus on global has been quite contentious,” Gallagher said. “There’s a lot more headwind today than there used to be. But we have to remember that every international member of the community who’s here at Pitt belongs here.”

Senate Council President Chris Bonneau also expressed the urgency of this situation.

“The issue of foreign influence continues to be on the front burner,” Bonneau said. “Academic freedom in a university context is important — we recently suspended our Confucius Institute in response to guidelines by the federal government. This issue is not going to go away any time soon.”

When asked about the council’s advocacy at the state and national level for visa holders, Gallagher said the University Office of International Services is working with the U.S. State Department to continue the open flow of international scholars to Pitt.

“Visa issues have the potential to disrupt everything. We’re handling this on every level,” Gallagher said. “It’s kind of an everything and the kitchen sink approach.”

Gallagher also announced the University will release the results of a student survey about sexual assault on college campuses in mid-October. This survey is a follow-up to the 2015 Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct. Gallagher said he hopes the survey will draw more attention to this issue at Pitt and other college campuses.

“I think this survey is going to come out and say what is going on in our society. It’s now clear that these things are happening in business, in government,” Gallagher said. “While I think we’ve made great progress, I don’t think we’ll find that we solved anything. We will use this survey to generate new momentum on this issue.”

Gallagher also discussed recent changes made to Pitt’s financial aid programs, as well as the recent tuition hike.

The General Assembly voted in July to increase Pitt’s state funding by 2%, bringing it to a total of $154.85 million. Gallagher said the amount of funding Pitt receives from the state has been rising steadily over the past seven years. Despite the most recent rise in funding, tuition increased for students between 2.75 and 7%, varying depending on the school and individual students’ residential status. 

Gallagher said the University tried to avoid raising tuition for this academic year and instituted new financial aid packages to make up the difference. At the time the hike was announced, Chief Financial Officer Hari Sastry said tuition was raised to cover larger operating costs and that computing and engineering students faced a larger hike due to a higher cost of providing education in those schools.

“I wanted to emphasize to everybody that the last thing we try to do is raise that tuition. It’s the last decision made in the budget process,” Gallagher said. “The increase in tuition was more than offset by the increase in financial aid. In fact, the University produced zero new income from tuition this year. In fact, we lost money.”

Gallagher and Provost Ann Cudd said Pitt students currently have some of the highest levels of unmet financial need among members of the Association of American Universities, which led them to take action to try and lighten students’ loads. The University rolled out two financial programs this spring — the Pitt Success Pell Match Program, in which the University matches federal Pell grants, and Panthers Forward, which provides up to $5,000 in federal student loan relief.

Gallagher added that Commonwealth funding for the next academic year would likely be similar to this year.

“Absent any major surprises the coming year is probably going to be like last year,” Gallagher said. “As far as I know, no major dynamics in Harrisburg has changed the outlook, but there’s still a lot of competing interests by lawmakers in terms of what they fund.”

Gallagher and Cudd mentioned Pitt’s recent rise in the US News & World Report’s Best Colleges ranking — from 70 to 57 — and drew a connection between this ranking and Pitt’s new financial aid programs.

“That goes to show that this access and affordability issue is quite deeply entwined with rankings,” Gallagher said.