Guest Column by Rep. Eric Nelson (R-Westmoreland)
The University of Pittsburgh’s unprecedented “disenrollment” of students who have not disclosed their vaccination status is another failure by the school’s leadership to honor their own commitments. At a time when communities need consistency, Pitt’s shunning of more than 1,300 students and almost 600 employees is an inappropriate and direct violation of a promise made earlier this year. And unfortunately, it is not the first time Pitt has broken a promise.
On July 24, 2021, Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher publicly announced that the university would not require students to be vaccinated against COVID-19. That was just less than a month after the General Assembly agreed to another annual allocation of state dollars – to the tune of $154 million.
Pitt’s “bait and switch” is a slap in the face to the Legislature and a kick in the stomach to the students. The university’s mandatory vaccination policy, which is even more aggressive than what is being sought by the White House, was first unveiled in November, just days after hosting a crowded and jam-packed parent weekend.
Now, what happens to family tuition payments, federal loans and housing contracts? Are students being offered any alternative to pursue their higher education?
Commitments made should be commitments kept. Unfortunately, this habit appears to be repetitive by Pitt’s leadership.
University officials committed to regional legislators that a program mutually beneficial to Pitt students and local communities would be established. This includes the new “Panthers at Work” (PAW) program to connect student interns with nonprofit organizations, local government entities and private sector firms with partially funded internships in areas surrounding Allegheny County.
Another commitment made was the enhancement of re-entry and education programs at Westmoreland County Prison and the state prison in Fayette County. These were to be modeled after nationally recognized Inside Out programs found highly effective at reducing recidivism and creating gainful employment.
Programs like these could expand the benefits of having an institution like Pitt in our backyard. Programs like these could demonstrate to area residents that Pitt is dedicated to helping our region and not just themselves. Programs like these could provide students with practical experience.
Instead, however, it seems a program like this is an unkept commitment made by the region’s wealthiest university to secure another round of state funding. Instead, Chancellor Gallagher has focused on student lockdowns, employee discipline and disenrollment.
Pitt’s spring semester started with no mention of the PAW program. Soon-to-be graduates will continue to leave Pennsylvania to find work. County reentry programs, small employers and nonprofits will continue their work without the unrealized benefits of a worthwhile program. In June, when the General Assembly is finishing its budget, Pitt officials will continue to have their hands open.
This public policy should end. It is time to phase out taxpayer funding of state-related schools and phase in direct grants to students for use at any college or technical school. That is why I introduced the Pennsylvania College Voucher Program concept. During a five-year transition, the plan would redirect funds from schools like Pitt and make them available to all of Pennsylvania’s young adults.
The University of Pittsburgh has failed to place a larger emphasis on making certain that they have positive impacts on the communities that surround them. They have failed to keep a commitment made to even their own students. It is time that Pennsylvania taxpayers and the General Assembly hold them accountable.
Representative Eric Nelson
57th Legislative District
Pennsylvania House of Representatives
Media Contact: Jordan Frei