Middle States reaccreditation team applauds University of Pittsburgh in report

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An evaluation team representing the Middle States Commission on Higher Education got to see firsthand how University of Pittsburgh officials planned and assessed emergency situations. When the team visited the campus for two days in April, it experienced two evacuations from bomb threats against university buildings, including one at the chancellor's residence where a team dinner was planned.

What Pitt officials didn't know was that the Middle States team, which evaluates universities for reaccreditation, would include its personal experiences with the bomb threats in its final report, commending Pitt for its planning and assessment practices that allowed it to react efficiently during the crisis. During both evacuations, the team was relocated quickly to another facility.

"The team observed the benefits in real time, as the university coped with a series of bomb threats during the team's visit," according to the accreditation report.

"Staff, from the chancellor to the football coach, reassured students evacuated from their residence halls late at night; shelters were prepared in case of such evacuations in keeping with earlier planning exercises; the [Middle States] team was moved from one threatened building to a backup site for meetings already prepared in case it was necessary. Without advanced emergency planning, the university could not have functioned as well as it was doing as the semester was coming to a close," according to the report.

The Middle States association granted Pitt its reaccreditation, which was expected, and the evaluation team wrote a report lauding the university for its assessment and planning processes, its strong leadership and its advances since the mid-1990s.

"Over the past 15 years, the University of Pittsburgh's reputation as a world-class research university has been advancing steadily. By any measure, this reputational advance reflects reality," the report said.

Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg talked with Post-Gazette editorial writers last week about the accreditation report along with Pitt's growth and success since its last reaccreditation in 2002 -- and since a 1996 external report that criticized the university on, among other things, its quality and number of students, fundraising and weak administration.

"Since 1996 we've invested a lot in trying to turn this around," Mr. Nordenberg said.

The Middle States accreditation report, along with an internal university self-evaluation and annual report, document the improvements.

From 1995 to 2011, the midpoint of freshman SAT scores rose from 1100 to 1280, and the number of freshmen in the top 10 percent of their high school graduating class has increased from 22 percent to 59 percent. The 1996 report, created by a study panel that included university presidents in Virginia and Minnesota and other administration and fundraising experts, showed the acceptance rate of freshmen applicants at 76 percent, a number that became more competitive to 56 percent in 2011.

The accreditation report notes that the improvements came during a time when state funding was drastically reduced. It said that in 2001, the state provided about 16 percent of Pitt's annual budget, a level that dropped to 10 percent in 2011. Mr. Nordenberg said he was not surprised the funding decline was mentioned since almost all of the members of the evaluation team came from public universities. "The funding crisis for public universities is a matter of discussion now," he said.

Most universities receive accreditation after their 10-year reviews, said Richard Pokrass, a Middle States spokesman. Universities must be accredited in order for their students to receive federal financial aid.

But last month, Penn State University was warned its accreditation is in jeopardy because of issues associated with the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal -- severe financial sanctions issued by the NCAA, pending financial settlements with victims and standards in such areas as institutional governance, integrity and adherence to the school's mission.

Pitt's reaccreditation follows one of the most challenging semesters of Mr. Nordenberg's 17-year tenure. On March 8, a gunman committed a fatal shooting on campus at UPMC's Western Psychiatric Institute & Clinic. Between Feb. 12 and April 21, the university received 46 bomb threats against multiple buildings.

The Western Psych gunman was killed by Pitt police, who were the first on the scene. Mr. Nordenberg noted that every officer on the force had been trained to react to an active shooter. Just two weeks before that shooting, the board of trustees' risk and compliance committee, which includes faculty, staff and students, had held a discussion session on how to deal with an active shooter on campus.

Last month, federal officials announced the indictment of a 64-year-old man in Dublin for emailing 40 bomb threats.

The Middle States Commission team was led by John Sexton, president of New York University, and included five other university administrators from New York and Maryland.

education - neigh_city

Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com; 412-263-1590.


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