Today's Post-Gazette has an editorial urging the University of Pittsburgh to replace rather than renovate Hillman Library. The reason?
Pitt is planning to spend $52 million to repair Hillman Library, the largest of its 17 libraries and its flagship resource center. But if the university wants to chart a course toward academic excellence and national prominence, it should rethink the project and opt for replacement instead of renovation.
...Clearly under Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, Pitt has been striving to reach a higher plateau. ... Those who built the Cathedral of Learning dreamed big, and today the university can revel in the attention it gets as one of the rising "public Ivies."
This is a topic worth discussing. 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?
Pitt is not alone in this. Take a look at the University of Maryland. It has gotten incredibly expensive. And incredibly selective. Does it serve its original purpose anymore?
Full disclosure, to those of you who don't know: I teach at Pitt. But I have only been there for two years. And I suspect that the faculty has been having this discussion for a while now. And I am certainly not opposed to making the school the best it can be. I just wonder what that means in terms of cost and selectivity. It'll be interesting to see how things play out.
Again, I am not sure where I stand on this. I haven't thought about it enough. Thoughts?