As I write this letter, everyone has recently returned from Thanksgiving weekend, and the campus is in that unique, pre-winter break mode: intensely studying for finals, preparing for the end of the semester, and getting ready for the holidays. This time between Thanksgiving and the New Year also seems like an appropriate time to reflect on the past year and look forward to the next.
By almost any measure, this was a year of change in a dynamic environment. As I start my second year, the University has a new leadership team joining me with many new faces in key roles. The Board of Trustees elected its first woman, Eva Tansky Blum, to serve as chair. Through Eva’s strong leadership, the board has focused its attention on its oversight and fiduciary responsibilities, while creating plans for each committee that will serve as road maps for their work in the coming year. Another first was Frank Wilson’s election as Pitt’s Senate president, the first from one of our regional campuses.
One of the key challenges we faced this year was tremendous budget uncertainty, with stopgap federal funding, threats of government shutdown, and a continuing budget impasse in Harrisburg that affects more than $140 million of funding for Pitt, thereby preventing us from having a final budget for this year.
We have also seen widespread unrest and protest over important questions of race and justice sweep across the country and onto university campuses. We saw new data confirming that sexual assault and harassment are a part of the college environment for far too many of our students. And we have seen shocking stories of terror and violence occurring around the world and in our country.
In our role as a great University, Pitt cannot stand by as society considers some of the great challenges and issues before us. The major societal questions that have engrossed our country on race, gender, sexual safety, and economic equality are issues for us, too. They are important to society and to our University community. This year, we did come together to take important steps toward improving the diversity and inclusivity of our University, and ensuring that it is free from sexual assault and harassment for those who work and study here. While there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done in all these areas, I am very proud of the way that Pitt has begun to tackle these tough issues with a spirit of collaboration and with an urgent focus on problem solving.
Even in the face of all this change and so much potential disruption, Pitt has had a remarkable year of achievement. This fall we welcomed one of our most accomplished and diverse classes of new freshmen. Our research faculty have been so successful competing for federal research funding that we actually experienced an increase in research funding despite the fact that there was less money available. Our students have continued to earn high recognition for their achievements, including: another year winning a top number of Fulbright scholarships; being named Udall, Goldwater, Jackson, and Boren scholars as well as Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Junior and Whitaker International fellows; and winning a wide variety of other important fellowships and scholarships.
Our faculty have achieved prestigious recognition in their areas of scholarship, including winning the Polymer Physics Prize, the Baltes Distinguished Research Achievement Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, McKnight Scholar Awards, the American Surgical Association Medallion for Scientific Achievement, and a National Security Science and Engineering Faculty Fellowship; and being named one of Popular Science’s “Brilliant 10” as well as being included included on CNN’s Top 10 Heroes list, and many more.
And our institution’s reputation has continued to grow. Publications like The Princeton Review, Thomson Reuters, USA Today, and others have recognized the remarkable education we provide, ranking Pitt as having the second best philosophy department in the world, being the best place to study health sciences, and being a top value university in Pennsylvania. Pitt is also considered to be one of the best institutions for undergraduate education, one of the most innovative universities, and we are a top global, scholarship, and green university, among many other honors. All of these “bests,” “mosts,” and “tops” are gratifying, but more importantly, they recognize Pitt as a high quality place to learn, do research, and make a difference.
We have achieved all of this without a state appropriation or an operating budget for the University, which has affected our ability to approve salary levels for our faculty and staff. Nevertheless, we do expect stronger state support when the final budget is passed, which is why we approved the lowest in-state tuition increases in 40 years, including a tuition freeze for our regional campuses. It will be important to see significant growth in state support to achieve real and lasting control over tuition increases, but this is a key first step in reversing a painful period of cost shifting to students due to reduced public support for Pitt. In the meantime, we are doing everything we can to minimize the impact on our students, faculty, and staff who are affected by the budget delay. The fact that Pitt is thriving is a remarkable testament to your dedication and commitment.
Looking forward, we have also come together, in the midst of a very busy year, to create a vision for Pitt that builds upon our success and momentum. Our vision defines a university that makes a difference through leadership in education, research, and service, and one that is more diverse, more global, and more focused on impacting our world. It is a very exciting collective vision that was defined and refined with broad input and support from across the community and that is now being translated into action by planning activities across the campus. The “Plan for Pitt” offers a powerful vision for how we can strengthen our vital mission as a University and thrive in a dynamic and rapidly changing world.
I want to thank everyone who has worked so thoughtfully and enthusiastically to help develop this plan. Our success, of course, will depend on how we turn that vision into reality, and I am very eager to work with all of you to make that happen. I believe that next year promises to be even more exciting!
I wish everyone a successful finish to the semester, and please accept my warmest wishes to you and your families for the holiday season.