University and Community

Work, travel, family, life . . . having been away from this blog for a little while, now I'm trying to figure out how to get back on track. Take up the tax abatement issue? I don't think so. Instead, I want to turn back to a question that Sam raised at AntiRust a few days ago: the future of Pitt -- the University of Pittsburgh, that is -- and the future and role of universities in general. For a number of reasons, not least of which is that I spent a couple of days at Harvard last week at a conference on the topic, I think that universities are going to be very, very important institutions in the decades to come. But we are only starting to talk about the roles that universities play (and will play) and why and how they may (and may not) succeed in those roles.

The topic also dovetails with something else I plan to invest in this summer: looking at Pittsburgh in narrative terms. Chris Briem and Harold Miller have the data end of things well in hand. But as they both lament, policy and politics in Pittsburgh (as elsewhere) are often impervious to the facts. Lament, or opportunity? Bearing the risks in mind, I want to explore the positive side of Pittsburgh's myths and stories. I want to take the stories seriously. Past, present, and future.

So here goes. Regarding Pitt and its drive for "national prominence," Sam writes:

To what extent is "national prominence" one of the university's goals? I suspect it is, to be honest. But how do you define that? I think that a lot of small community colleges gain "national prominence" by being innovative and aggressive in pursuit of their goals. That is, one way to get a lot of respect is to "do what you do" very well. Well, what does Pitt do? Is it a school for Pennsylvania students who want a solid, affordable education? Or is it a school for people who want a prestigious degree? Sure, that's a false choice. Blah blah blah. But look around. This is controversial stuff. Look at other "public Ivies" such as the University of Virginia and the University of Michigan. Great schools. But are they serving their states well? Or have they turned too many of their desks over to students from out of state, from out of the U.S.? Do they cost too much? Do they spend too much on prestigious faculty that do little teaching?

Who gains from this "prestige"? Who loses? As the school gets more selective, you have to ask these sorts of questions. If your kid has the grades to get into Harvard, maybe he should just go to Harvard if that's what he wants. Even more interestingly, let's say he does want to stick around here. Is he also the kind of kid who needs/deserves state support for his schooling? That is, does Pitt's strange existence as a "state affiliated" university become even stranger? And what about Penn State? Does that need to be a "public Ivy," too? Why? (According to Wikipedia, it already is one.) Why were eight Ivy League schools enough in the past? Why do we need scores of them now? Does it stop meaning anything if, in addition to every kid in America being above average, every college is, too? And what about Carnegie Mellon? Is that "Ivy" to some extent? How does its presence impact the need for another such institution?

Is "national prominence" really a goal of the University? I think that the answer there is an unambiguous "yes," though it's important to break "the University" down into some subparts; the university's goals have to be understood both in direct terms and indirect terms, and on a unit-by-unit or even department-by-department level. Take, for example, the School of Medicine and the biomedical research enterprise at Pitt generally. There, I doubt that Pitt has a goal of national prominence; those units and that research already *are* nationally prominent -- in reality, are *internationally* prominent. The same must be said for certain academic departments, particularly Philosophy and History and Philosophy of Science. I don't want to or mean to slight any of my faculty colleagues by pointing to these jewels in the crown. I'm well aware that Pitt faculty and Pitt research are top-flight in many areas, though weaker in others. Overall, I'm skeptical of the "public Ivy" designation (in my view, that label is best reserved for places like Michigan, Virginia, and UC Berkeley). Instead, in the years that I've been at Pitt I've come to believe that Pitt aspires to be grouped with several of the Big 10 public research universities, such as Illinois and Ohio State (as well as Michigan). Berkeley and Virginia and Texas are, generally and with some important exceptions, playing in a higher academic league.

That paragraph touches just the tip of the university iceberg. Note that I haven't written much about students, and I haven't written much about what role the university plays or should be expected to play in Pittsburgh or in Western PA. I haven't written much about how the university should adapt to the 21st century (Sam's post was prompted by Pitt's announcement of an expensive renovation to its main library). I haven't written much about the respective weight given to the university's traditional, basic missions (educate students, produce scholarship and research) and its contemporary elaborated missions (engage in ethically challenging collaborations with for-profit interests of various sizes).

On those questions, some quick hits, with more to come later:

On the undergraduate side, Pitt (like lots of universities and colleges) is benefitting because of the extraordinary expense and selectivity associated with Ivy League schools and their peers. When 20,000 kids apply to Harvard each year, lots of supremely talented 18-year-olds go elsewhere to college. Some of them, inevitably, will land at Pitt. Moreover, any given university exists in the overall ecology of higher education. As Pitt's undergraduate student body improves, the question is not just what Pitt wants to be, but also what other colleges and universities in the region want to be? There's a challenge ahead for Pitt, but also challenges and opportunities for all of the colleges and universities in the region. (I'll leave graduate and professional education to the side for now.)

On the regional role question, it will be a mistake for the university to see itself solely in functional terms, and then solely in terms of its own students and faculty and staff and alumni. Pitt is the largest university and one of the largest non-profit institutions in the region. Function is important, but symbolism is important, too. Great cities thrive not just on commerce, but also on spirit, and Pitt can be -- if it chooses to be -- a powerful supplier of intangible energy to the city of Pittsburgh and to the region at large. I wrote above about indirect goals, and here is where that thought comes into focus: Pitt football (over the last couple of years, anyway) and men's basketball (and soon, perhaps, women's basketball) are tremendous regional resources. Whatever his success on the field, and despite the heroic amount of money that Division I football coaches command these days, kudos to Dave Wannstedt for getting much of Pittsburgh behind Pitt football again.

And on the corporatization of the university: As an IP lawyer, I spend much of my professional energy thinking about the interface between market institutions (corporate America, for example) and nonmarket institutions (the university, for example). Like a lot of people, I respect the fact that the university houses a lot of valuable research and needs to find effective ways to move that into the development pipeline; like a lot of people, I worry that when the administration's eyes focus too much on the bottom line (startups, licensing revenue), the university loses track of its historic and special role as a home for intellectual inquiry mostly free from the pressures of price and profits. Pittsburgh has plenty of big corporate interests; the University of Pittsburgh doesn't need to become another one.

This is a long and complex topic, and Carnegie Mellon and Duquesne (to take two other local examples) work their way into this story in different ways. More soon.


2 Responses to "University and Community"

Anonymous said... 6/05/2007 7:24 PM


I'll be really interested to see where this leads.

I am also particularly interested in the "narrative" of this whole transformation. When I graduated from high school way back in 1991, a certain kind of person went to Pitt. And now that I am teaching there, I can see that has changed. Or at least I think it has. I wonder how and why that happened? How much of it was organic? How much by design?

I also go back to the question of state funding. Because a lot of these questions have can have different answers if you ask them in different ways. "What should Pitt do?" Or, "What should Pitt, which receives X percent of its operation and capital budget from Harrisburg, do?" To what extent is that funding a liberating force? To what extent an albatross? (I am not suggesting some sort of secession. Just wondering.) What happens if the university faces a situation in which it seems like it has to choose between serving "Pittsburgh" or serving "the state"? What if "the state" doesn't give a crap about start-ups in Pittsburgh? What if it wants them to start up in Philly? (I know that is posed in overly crude fashion, but I hope you get my point.)

And by the way, how has the Ivy League managed to function without Big Name sports?

Either way, like I said, I'll be interested to see where you take it.

Jefferson Provost said... 6/05/2007 8:44 PM

Function is important, but symbolism is important, too. Great cities thrive not just on commerce, but also on spirit, and Pitt can be -- if it chooses to be -- a powerful supplier of intangible energy to the city of Pittsburgh and to the region at large.

I think this thought every day when I walk by the Cathedral and see the soot coming off as the powerwashers on their platforms work their way down the building. The cleaned parts really look amazing, and I can't wait til the whole building is done. I keep hoping it will be some kind of watershed symbolic event, spurring the city to clean itself of the complacency and fatalism left over from the decline of its sooty former self and dedicate itself to excellence instead of "almost good enough."

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Updated September 2020:

Pittsblog 2.0 was written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, from January 2004 through December 2011.

Since then, Pittsburgh-themed essays have appeared from time to time at, on law and technology, and in some of Pittsburgh's classier professional media venues.

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