Pitt's Nordenberg urges state to proceed cautiously on adding more state-related schools

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University of Pittsburgh chancellor Mark Nordenberg Friday said state officials should engage in “a lot of thought” before allowing a state-owned university to join the ranks of Pennsylvania’s state-related schools.

The chancellor, who has run one of the four state-related universities for nearly two decades, offered his reaction to a plan by two state senators to introduce legislation that would allow prosperous schools among the 14-member State System of Higher Education to gain more autonomy or to secede from the system altogether.

In response to questions following Pitt’s board of trustees meeting, Mr. Nordenberg said he only learned of the potential legislation in the last few days and has not closely studied the workings of state system schools.

But he said the current state-related system “is the part of higher education in Pennsylvania that makes the most sense.”

He noted the even geographic distribution of three of the state-related schools that are also major research universities — Pitt in the southwest, Penn State University in the state’s center and Temple University in Philadelphia in the state’s southeast.

He said Lincoln University, a historically black institution, also has an important and distinct mission.

“We do have complementary strengths and missions,” he said. “So I do think a lot of thought would have to be given to changing that by adding additional members.”

State Sen. Andy Dinniman, D-Chester, ranking Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, has mentioned West Chester University in suburban Philadelphia as one state-owned school that could benefit from the legislation he and fellow state Sen. Robert Tomlinson, R-Bucks County, plan to sponsor.

During Pitt’s board meeting, Mr. Nordenberg noted that after recent cuts, his 35,000-student university receives a state appropriation of $144.3 million, a level lower than any year since 1995.

Asked if he believes there is enough potential for the state to support additional state-related schools, Mr. Nordenberg said: “I think that obviously that would depend upon funding flows — whether they would be increased, if there were additional members.”

Mr. Dinniman has said West Chester is a keen example of a growing university that would be even more so if it were, among other things, freer to react quickly to shifts in academic demand by rolling out new programs more rapidly than it can do through the State System.

Also during Pitt’s board meeting, trustees approved an updated statement of the university’s aspirations and strategic priorities, a document intended to build on gains made by the university since the 1990s under Mr. Nordenberg, who has announced he is stepping down Aug. 1.

Bill Schackner: bschackner@post-gazette.com, (412) 263-1977 and @BschacknerPG First Published February 28, 2014 2:29 PM

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