The G-20 and Other News—the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
September 29, 2009
The University has just moved through what has to have been one of the most difficult and action-filled weeks in its history. Unfortunately, that week not only brought some very high points but also some very low points. Let me provide an overview of each.
The G-20: the Good. By virtually all accounts tied to customary measures, the G-20's Pittsburgh Summit was a big success. The participating leaders seemed to forge higher levels of agreement regarding joint steps that might be taken to strengthen and protect the still-suffering global economy and also used the occasion to speak out on other important international issues. Unlike past summits in other cities, property damage was limited and there appear to have been few, if any, serious injuries.
The Pittsburgh region was showcased in ways that generated very positive attention around the world. The single most prominent theme was the rebirth of this region's economy, with its current foundation firmly grounded in higher education and health services. This led to a further focus on the principal drivers of that sector—Pitt, UPMC, and CMU. Our joint impact—a stunning story that sometimes may be taken for granted here at home—commanded considerable attention in G-20 coverage around the world.
As we had anticipated, the presence of the Summit also brought special educational opportunities. Some of that programming—such as the Katz School and College of Business Administration's Pitt Business G-20 World Tour—was organized by individual academic units and spread over a more extended period of time. Last Thursday, then, brought what had to have been an historic first for Pitt—two world leaders appearing on campus in the same afternoon.
The first of those leaders was José Manuel Barroso, the President of the European Commission. President Barroso has been a strong supporter of trans-Atlantic educational programs, and this was his second visit to Pitt. He delivered an Alumni Hall address entitled "Opening a New Era for Global Europe" to a mixed group of students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends, as well as representatives of the media. This was a very substantive presentation that received significant subsequent attention from the national and international press.
Our second distinguished visitor was Dmitry Medvedev, the President of the Russian Federation. His visit occurred on the 50th anniversary, to the day, of a well-publicized "Cold War era" visit to Pitt by Nikita Khrushchev, then the Premier of the Soviet Union. President Medvedev first met with a class in contemporary Russian literature, taught in Russian in the Russian Nationality Room. He then moved to a larger event, involving a student-dominated audience, in the Commons Room of the Cathedral of Learning. Following brief introductory remarks, the President essentially opened himself up to questions for nearly an hour. It would be difficult to judge whether the student questions—many posed in Russian and covering a wide range of critical issues—or President Medvedev's responses to them were more impressive. Four Russian television networks visited Pitt to film pre-program features, and the program itself was broadcast live on Russian television and carried by satellite in other parts of the world.
In addition to the general visibility generated by programs of this type, they presented unique opportunities to advance some of our own academic priorities. Pitt has long been known for its strengths in international education, and our University Center for International Studies is viewed as a model by many other fine institutions. The programs of last week were carefully coordinated with our European Commission-funded European Union Center of Excellence and our federally funded Russian and East European Studies Center, which has been designated a national resource center by the U.S. Department of Education.
The G-20: the Bad and the Ugly. If the week had ended at about 6 p.m. on Thursday, then, our G-20 experiences would have been entirely positive. However, life became markedly more complicated and much less positive, with the arrival in Oakland of large numbers of protesters and police that evening. Those complications remained through much of the weekend, and troubling images of a campus not of our making—including the deliberate destruction of property, a massive police presence, and numbers of arrested students—will remain even longer.
Though we were not positioned to predict precisely what would happen, we did expect that demonstrations would be one by-product of the G-20 Summit. The announcement that the opening dinner for participating heads-of-state would be held at the Phipps Conservatory, which is located almost immediately adjacent to campus, required some security-related adjustments, most notably the closing of the Frick Fine Arts Center for that entire day. The selection of that dinner site also essentially guaranteed a protest-presence in Oakland, though the actual work of the Summit would occur at the Convention Center on the following day.
In advance of the G-20, our Office of Student Affairs implemented a pre-Summit educational program, spanning several days and featuring flyers, Pitt News placements, and Web-based messages. Those messages alerted students to the fact that the Summit would bring atypical activities to the campus and nearby areas, urged students to use common sense and avoid potentially dangerous situations, and provided a list of more specific safety tips. In a message that was deliberately non-directive, students were urged to be even more attentive to their circumstances than usual, though we obviously hope that they are attentive at all times.
Our dealings with both the U.S. Secret Service and a Russian advance team provided some sense of the security precautions taken to ensure the safety of just one leader. Those demands obviously are greatly magnified when a large group of world leaders meets in a single place. Given those concerns and the high levels of destruction that had marred earlier summits in cities such as Seattle and London, a large security force—numbering more than 3,000 and drawn from police departments all over the country—was assembled and deputized as City officers.
On Thursday afternoon, demonstrations in other parts of the City became something other than peaceful protests, with destruction of property occurring as close as the Baum Boulevard-Centre Avenue corridor, where certain University facilities are located. On Thursday evening, property damage spread to Oakland and extended to both our Pitt Shop and police mini-station on Forbes Avenue. Each of those facilities was attacked by hammer-wielding demonstrators. Among a much larger number of affected businesses, damage was inflicted on such locally-owned concerns as Pamela's on Forbes Avenue and Lulu's Noodles and the Irish Design Center on Craig Street. There also were reports of demonstrators attacking bystanders in the areas of Fifth Avenue and Craig Street and Forbes Avenue and Atwood Street.
As the events of the evening progressed, police directed the large crowd that had assembled at Schenley Plaza to disperse. That group, by all accounts, included a combination of curious onlookers and peaceful protesters, as well as demonstrators bent on destruction. Distinguishing between those subgroups was difficult. In fact, at one point during that evening, black-clad anarchists retreated to an area near the Cathedral to change into collegiate attire so that they would blend in with our students. When repeated orders to disperse were ignored, the police utilized smoke canisters and other crowd-dispersal techniques and began making arrests.
A similar pattern of activity occurred on Friday night at what had been profanely promoted—by non-students, we believe—as an anti-police rally in Schenley Plaza. Prior to that demonstration and after discussions with student leaders, a "secure zone," located in the residence hall quadrangle off Fifth Avenue and controlled by University police, was created. That zone was designed to give students seeking to disperse in response to police orders a safe destination, which we believed had been a problem for some students on the prior night.
On Friday evening, the University's emergency notification system also was employed on two separate occasions. At about 7:30 p.m., all subscribers to that system received the message, "G-20 Disturbances May Continue Tonight. Be Careful. Exercise Good Judgment. Safety Tips at My.Pitt.Edu." Shortly after 10 p.m., when it became clear that a problematic situation was developing, a second message was sent. It stated: "Conditions May Be Deteriorating In Oakland. Students Are Advised To Remain Near Their Residences." On Friday night, property damage was greatly reduced, if not eliminated entirely. However, an even larger number of people were arrested, principally for failure to disperse or disorderly conduct. On Saturday evening, a much smaller, but similarly promoted, anti-police protest ended peacefully, with no property damage and with no arrests. The emergency notification system also was used on that evening.
To acknowledge the truly serious challenges that existed, of course, does not mean that every effort to meet those challenges was conducted in the most appropriate way. The City, which had authority over the security force (subject, almost certainly, to national direction and advice with respect to the safety of Summit delegates), has said that it will assess the policing practices employed in Oakland as a part of its overall review of the Summit. Those wishing to file complaints have been invited to do so with the Citizen's Police Review Board.
Representatives of the City have expressed a further desire to work with Pitt to ensure that our students, particularly those caught up in crowds and unable to disperse as ordered, are treated fairly in the legal process. That is a joint undertaking that we welcome. Similarly, it is the University's intention to employ its own judicial processes judiciously, given the unique set of circumstances facing students last week, circumstances that almost certainly never will recur.
Two Other Matters. Fortunately, our experiences with H1N1 have been manageable to date. The number of students with influenza-like symptoms is stable, symptoms have remained relatively mild, and recovery has been comparatively quick. The fact that a vaccine soon will be available and the knowledge that a single vaccine dose will provide protection are encouraging.
However, two recent developments are a cause for some concern. First, we now have reported cases of influenza-like symptoms on all four of our regional campuses, so this problem no longer is limited to Oakland. Second, we also have an influenza case diagnosed as "possible H1N1" in which the symptoms are more severe and have required hospitalization. In light of that case, we have reviewed our practices with the Allegheny County Health Department, which has concluded that no changes need to be made. However, because the student in question had neither visited the Student Health Service nor called Pitt's flu hot line [412-624-2222], it is important to remind everyone of those services and to encourage all members of the University community to continue following health practices that will limit the spread of the disease.
An agreement on the Commonwealth budget was announced more than one week ago, 80 days after the constitutional deadline. There has been little reported progress in moving that agreement to formal enactment since then. The absence of a state budget does mean, of course, that no Pitt appropriation has been approved and that no appropriated funds have been paid to Pitt. It also means that the University continues to advance about $10 million in PHEAA awards that we expect ultimately will be made available to our students. Obviously, we have two related hopes—that the budget will be approved soon and that our appropriation will be fair.
My annual report for 2008-2009, which was delivered orally to the Board of Trustees in late June and which is about to be distributed in its printed form, has a somewhat different tone than past reports. Given both our ambitions and our circumstances, our shared life at Pitt always has been challenging. However, the problems of the past year—including the global economic crisis, mid-year appropriation cuts, the Westridge fraud, post-Super Bowl destruction, and the untimely deaths of two outstanding Board Chairs—seemed both more intense and wider ranging. Still, we moved forward on many important fronts.
I closed that report with a quote from Epicurus, who said, "The greater the difficulty, the more glory in surmounting it." Looking at the problems of the past week and the obstacles that still lie ahead, that seems to be a thought worth repeating. Though our challenges are significant, we have the collective power to meet and move beyond them.