Brian O'Neill: Why envy Pittsburgh? Take an educated guess.
January 5, 2017 12:00 AM
The Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh.
By Brian O'Neill / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Why are Detroit and Pittsburgh so different?
Thus began an editorial at a newspaper for which I worked for most of the 1980s, The Roanoke (Va.) Times. An old friend pointed it out and pretty soon I was on the phone with the man who both posed the question and offered an answer.
The difference between the two cities, according to Brad Fenwick, is this:
“Henry Ford did not give Detroit a great university. Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon gave Pittsburgh two great universities.”
We can quibble at the edges of that explanation. Carnegie Mellon University certainly is the product of those two industrialists’ largesse; their names are on the label. But the University of Pittsburgh began long before them. Its timeline stretches to the Pittsburgh Academy on the American frontier in 1787.
That said, Andrew W. Mellon personally paid off Pitt’s $600,000 debt in 1921 (equal to nearly $8.1 million today), and the Mellon family and its trusts contributed tens of millions of dollars more in the 1950s. A school doesn’t build a $3.5 billion endowment like Pitt’s — said to be the 27th largest in the world — without the backing of heavy hitters.
(If you’re scoring at home, CMU’s endowment is less than half of Pitt’s at $1.6 billion and is ranked only 58th — not that anyone should be putting an “only” anywhere near $1.6 billion.)
Regardless of how and why the universities grew, Mr. Fenwick’s central point is that it’s better to put millions into universities than into short-term corporate welfare that lures a factory that might not last. Pittsburgh’s brain power had it in a better position than Detroit to make the transition from the industrial age to the information age.
Mr. Fenwick made that argument to a conference of the national association of university-based economic officials last October in Roanoke, an audience pretty much designed to be receptive.
“You can look around the world and it’s hard to find an example of a great city without a great university,” he told me.
I told him that having eds and meds as the engines of the regional economy can be a double-edged sword for the host city. It means Pittsburgh’s largest employers mostly escape paying payroll and property taxes. And one can almost guarantee the first local comment below any positive Pittsburgh press will be from someone pointing out the population that isn’t growing and the city has been officially designated one of the state’s distressed municipalities since 2004.
Ah, but Mr. Fenwick is talking about modern regional economies, not the century-old political boundaries that have left Pittsburgh a freakishly small city inside a county that’s split 130 ways.
“If it wasn’t for the universities,” he asked, “what would the city’s economy be like?”
It would surely be more like Detroit’s.
Mr. Fenwick is senior vice president for global strategic alliances at Elsevier, “the biggest information technology company you’ve never heard of,’’ but before that he was a university research executive.
Some cities think they have great universities, but don’t. He didn’t want to be quoted disparaging other towns, but there are bigger cities that don’t have anything close to a CMU or a Pitt.
“From an academic point of view, they’re gems.”
Mr. Fenwick’s time in academia included a five-year stint at Virginia Tech, 50 minutes down the road from Roanoke in Blacksburg. Pittsburgh is due north, on the longitudinal line between these Appalachian towns, and if you could fire a rifle shot through West Virginia you might puncture a tire on the road between Roanoke and Blacksburg.
I mention that because Virginia has put some money into shortening the route between the two. Why? This bit from the Roanoke Times editorial should sound familiar to Pittsburghers:
“If we want to build a knowledge economy, we need to persuade more Virginia Tech students — and students at all our other local colleges — to stay in the region after graduation.’’
Pittsburgh has built a knowledge economy, which brings problems of its own, but there are places that only wish they had such problems.
Brian O’Neill: email@example.com or 412-263-1947 or on Twitter @brotheroneill
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