Exclusive: Gallagher says Pitt must take state funding battle seriously


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Chancellor Patrick Gallagher.

By Jon Moss, Allison Radziwon, and Colm Slevin

Pitt’s state funding and resulting tuition discount for Pennsylvania students is in doubt, according to Chancellor Patrick Gallagher.

Gallagher spoke exclusively on Wednesday afternoon with The Pitt News about his concerns surrounding the funding, which Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed to be $159 million for the upcoming budget cycle. The chancellor said the potentially bumpy road is not because of an issue with the state budget itself, but instead what he described as “leverage.”

“It’s a variety of other issues where they’re trying to basically use the funding to express discontent or concern about some unrelated activity. My concern is they don’t understand what that funding provides,” Gallagher said. “That’s really why we went all out, saying you’re dealing with something that has been a successful partnership for almost 60 years, and you’re trying to send signals with something that’s going to hurt people.”

Pitt is one of four state-related universities in Pennsylvania — the others being Penn State, Temple and Lincoln — which receive funding each year from the state legislature. The state House of Representatives and Senate vote on a separate bill for each university, and must receive two-thirds support from each chamber in order to pass.

The University also pays for a large part of the in-state discount — about $117 million, roughly 43% of the total — from its own budget.

Pa. House Republicans raised fetal tissue research connected to Pitt as an issue during the 2019 budget cycle, the same year that the federal government under then-president Donald Trump announced it would cut back federally funded fetal tissue research. Several Republicans have cited pro-life stances while denouncing the research and voting against Pitt’s funding.

The University hired the Washington-based law firm Hyman, Phelps & McNamara last fall for an independent review of its fetal tissue research to ensure compliance with federal and state regulations. The firm said in a report released last December that Pitt was fully compliant.

Jason Gottesman, a spokesperson for the state House Republicans, said the budget process is “in its infancy” and added that “speculation by outside groups and stakeholders” is “not warranted” at this point.

“Discussions continue about funding for all education needs and the final decision about any spending will be made by the caucus and then the body as a whole,” Gottesman said. “As always, we are and will continue to be supportive of the students and families of Pitt. Any decisions about whether or not to provide or keep in-state tuition discounts is made by the University of Pittsburgh, not the General Assembly.”

Pitt only uses its state funding to provide a tuition discount for Pennsylvania students, which Gallagher described as “essentially passthrough funding,” adding that he believes this makes “these other issues” become “extraneous.”

State Rep. Dan Frankel — a Democrat who represents the 23rd state House district, which includes parts of Oakland — said he couldn’t remember the annual vote ever being “an issue” until last year.

“We haven’t seen anything legislatively, although last year during our appropriations discussions in our final vote, we had — for the first time in my memory — a significant number of Republican members voting against its appropriation,” Frankel, who has served in the House since 1999, said.

Frankel added that as application and enrollment rates have increased in recent years, it’s important to keep Pitt as an affordable option for Pennsylvania students.

“Pitt has become a very desirable school for students in our state and across the country, and I think it’s very important for us to maintain the ability to provide in-state tuition for Pennsylvania students,” Frankel said. “It’s important for Pennsylvania, it’s important for our communities that we keep talented students here and this helps incentivize them.”

House votes on Pitt’s funding haven’t always been contentious. A Pitt News analysis of funding decisions since 2007 showed the tallies for Penn State, Temple, Lincoln and Pitt used to never be separated by more than a handful of votes.

Pitt’s funding passed the House in 2019 with about half the margin of its fellow state-related universities — 35 votes above the two-thirds threshold, compared with the three other universities in the high 60s.

Fetal tissue research again became an issue during the 2021 budget cycle. Several Republicans said from the House floor that they would vote against Pitt’s funding because of the research. Stan Saylor, the Republican who chairs the appropriations committee, said in response that the vote was solely about “educating students, not about anything else.”

“We are talking about funding students. Let us quit making an issue out of something that is not truthfully what this is about,” said Saylor, who described himself as a “pro-life voter” on every bill during his time in Harrisburg.

Gallagher said higher education has become “a little bit of a wedge issue” across the country, noting some conservative opposition to policies meant to stop the spread of COVID-19, as well as the University’s anti-Black racism course. Chancellor Emeritus Mark Nordenberg has also attracted attention for his role chairing the Legislative Apportionment Commission, which redrew the state’s legislative maps over the past year.

“I think the concerns [about fetal tissue research] are caused by what we view as a misinformation campaign that’s been sort of externally funded at a national level, that exaggerates and sort of sensationalizes this. It implies that Pitt is doing things improperly, and that’s raised concern within members of [the right-to-life] caucus,” Gallagher said. “I think it’s still a very difficult political issue, and that’s certainly one of the main ones we’re hearing about.”

Bill Yates, Pitt’s vice chancellor for research protections, argued in a recent op-ed published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that fetal tissue research is “invaluable” for the advancement of medicine. Such research has helped develop the polio vaccine, new treatments for cancer and more. Yates argued that opinions on abortion and fetal tissue research need to be kept separate.

“Much of the controversy linked to fetal tissue research is rooted in objections to abortion,” Yates wrote. “I do not dismiss these opinions, but I do want to be clear: Having a medical procedure and donating the tissue obtained from it for research are two totally separate decisions.”

Gallagher said while Pitt appears to be “singled out” right now, the same non-preferred funding process applies to all four state-related universities. Each legislative chamber typically votes on the four funding bills at around the same time, or even one after another.

“The senate and the governor have historically, and we think in this case, would keep those bills together. So clearly a problem for Pitt is going to be a problem for the other schools,” Gallagher said. “We maintain that connection and work very closely with them.”

Gallagher added that while some lawmakers want to hear directly from University leaders, there’s “nothing like a direct communication from a constituent” to try and get a lawmaker’s ear.

“What you do in a democracy is you convince the members that are going to vote that this is in their interest,” Gallagher said. “I think what enables opposition sometimes to do this is failing to stop and think about the consequences of that action. Our primary objective is to remind them very clearly what exactly this support is doing.”

Frankel said he expects a fierce fight on the issue as the budget cycle begins in earnest. 

“I expect a significant debate and battle to get Pitt’s nonpreferred appropriation,” Frankel said. “And my view would be a significant penalty to the families and students in Pennsylvania that rely on that nonpreferred appropriations to subsidize otherwise very expensive tuition.”

Gallagher said he is “cautiously optimistic” about Pitt’s funding bill passing this summer, though with a “big dose of caution.”

“I am always optimistic going into these things, but … sometimes crazy things happen,” Gallagher said. “If we don’t take this seriously, if we kind of take it for granted that this too shall pass, then I think what happens is this belief that nothing really will happen if this bill fails to pass could actually allow that to happen.”