Pittsburgh’s Stealth Renaissance

With “eds and meds,” Pittsburgh is building an international reputation and a strong future
Illustration by George Schill Pittsburgh’s Stealth Renaissance
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When it was announced 12 years ago that Jared Cohon would become president of Carnegie Mellon, he returned to his Yale office to find a bouquet of flowers. The name on the card read Mark Nordenberg, chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh.

It was the beginning of a relationship between Cohon, Nordenberg and UPMC President and CEO Jeffrey Romoff that would become a unique partnership destined to transform Pittsburgh.

That was a wonderful gesture,” says Cohon, “and in short order a friendship developed between the two of us. Considering how much the universities do together now, there are so many opportunities for tensions and conflicts to arise. But the three leaders [of these institutions] make a point of setting the tone at the top, and I give Mark Nordenberg great credit in this regard.”

Nordenberg believes that the three Oakland “eds and meds” institutions exhibit strengths that are complementary not competitive. Pitt’s academic research and UPMC’s clinical work; CMU’s information and technology strengths and Pitt’s and UPMC’s bio– medical expertise; a large, public university and a mid-​sized private one. It all makes Pittsburgh — specifically Oakland— one of the country’s most formidable locations for education and medicine.

As soon as Dr. Cohon came to town,” says Nordenberg, Pitt made a conscious decision that “partnering with CMU should be a high priority. We look around at our institutions and their strengths. When combined, they become a truly distinctive asset for the city. Only one other neighborhood in America exceeds us — Cambridge, Massachusetts, with Harvard and MIT. So, obviously, we should harvest that potential.”

UPMC’s Romoff puts a finer point on it. “Pittsburgh, with UPMC and Pitt and CMU, is positioned to be the city of the future. In the life sciences and healthcare, we’re at the forefront of one of the most important and biggest industries in the world. And CMU’s computer science and robotics is the future of mankind. So, just as Pittsburgh was, in the 1930s and early 1940s, the major producer of steel and other manufactured goods essential for industrialization, today we’re producing this new set of futuristic products. In most major cities, the competitive sense of the major institutions can indirectly do harm. But here we root for one another.”

And this latest Pittsburgh renaissance isn’t waiting beyond the horizon. According to Romoff, it’s here and already paying off. “Based on the data, it seems that this [eds and meds industry] has protected Pittsburgh somewhat from the recent recession.”

The numbers show how important eds and meds — and specifically the three Oakland powerhouses — are to Pittsburgh. Pitt, UPMC and CMU account for close to 90,000 regional jobs. UPMC is the region’s largest employer, paying $2.7 billion in annual salaries, benefits and other fees; Pitt adds another $1.3 billion.

CMU and Pitt bring nearly $1 billion in sponsored research, and Pitt spends over $1 billion on regional goods and services — the university’s construction alone has created more than 1,300 jobs over the past three years.

But the economic importance of the big three exceeds their spending. Since 1994, CMU faculty, staff, and students have created more than 200 spinoff companies. And one of the most important contributions is that of attracting world-​class faculty, staff and students to Pittsburgh. This, in turn, is spawning a diverse and adaptable local economy.

It’s helped to make the economy more dynamic, and that’s something that we’re proud of,” says Cohon. “CMU changed the way we did technology transfer to make the creation of companies easier and faster, and therefore we’re seeing more companies created. And it positions Pittsburgh to create the jobs of the future. There’s a vibrancy to the start-​up sectors that didn’t exist a decade ago.”

Nordenberg agrees. “Every year, we’re drawing into the community thousands of students who are going to be developing new ideas, some of which will take root here. And with the combined strengths of Pitt, UPMC and CMU, we’ve positioned the region to do a much more effective job of attracting fully developed talent, too. We recruit accomplished faculty members from the country’s best institutions. They look at Pittsburgh and see a place where they have the opportunity to advance their own ambitious agendas. These initiatives are developing industries that are going to be important to this region for generations to come.”

While the Big Three and their complementary relationships are vitally important to the region, their leadership recognizes that their institutions’ success also partially depends on the region’s success. In this year’s “Saviors of Our Cities” survey by researcher Evan Dobelle, Pitt and CMU were among America’s top 20 schools in “their positive impact on their urban communities,” with No. 2 Pitt being the top-​ranked public university, a position Nordenberg relishes.

We’ve made this kind of outreach a real priority, and to have someone from outside look in and say we’re making a difference is so important,” says Nordenberg. “To the extent that we can be involved in strengthening the schools, enhancing the impact of other nonprofits, making our neighborhoods more attractive — we’re doing the right thing, but it’s also simply a good [business decision] for Pitt.”

Likewise at CMU, Cohon says. “CMU stands out among private research universities for having adopted hometown success as an institutional priority. We identified Pittsburgh’s success as one of five priorities, and we did so out of institutional self-​interest. A successful Pittsburgh is essential to a successful CMU.”

For UPMC, the imperative to “do the right thing” is inexorably tied to the institution’s success, Romoff explains, because the institution’s size means it must have a world-​class local workforce.

UPMC employs 50,000 people in Pittsburgh, and that workforce — their quality, their integrity — that’s never something I have to worry about here. But those people go home each night and are sensitive to all the slings and arrows of life in the city. So these kinds of issues become absolutely vital to the success of UPMC, creating an environment in which UPMC can thrive.”

Maintaining that top-​quality workforce is one reason UPMC helped create the Pittsburgh Promise with an initial 2007 grant of $100 million, 90 percent of which is a matching challenge grant. Within the next four years, every Pittsburgh Public Schools graduate who gets into a Pennsylvania post-​secondary program will receive up to $10,000 per year in scholarship.

Romoff credits Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, Superintendent of Schools Mark Roosevelt, and the UPMC board. “One of the big advantages is it asserts a brand-​new value system that’s in keeping with the eds and meds [renaissance]. And that value system is: get educated, get smart, because that’s the most important thing with the future of the city — competing because you’re smart, not only because you’re strong and hard working.”

With an environment where this kind of collaboration can flourish, and with programs such as the Pittsburgh Promise, the educational future looks bright for the city’s students, workers and institutions.

A city’s culture — a city’s sense of itself — is vitally important to the way it competes,” says Romoff. “It’s an intangible thing, but it’s vivid, and it dominates the psyche and perception from afar of the city. People in Pittsburgh don’t yet ‘feel’ eds and meds, but that’s changing. We’re changing the whole priority, putting education front and center. And those issues are vital to these institutions’ success in creating an environment in which we can thrive.”

Justin Hopper

Journalist and author Justin Hopper focuses his work on two disparate places: his adopted hometown of Pittsburgh, PA, and the rolling hills of Southern England. Covering the former, Hopper has won Keystone and Golden Quill awards for his writing about music and the arts, and recently published Making the Connections, a book about community projects enacted as a part of Pittsburghs 250th anniversary. For the latter, he has written for publications such as Paste and Spin magazines, and is currently finishing a book on the 100-​mile-​long South Downs Way.

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