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Perspectives: Canard about a clinic

Pitt is not undermining academic freedom at its law school

Monday, November 19, 2001

By James V. Maher

Academic freedom, off-campus learning experiences, hands-on activism and speaking out on tough issues are all hallmarks of faculty and student life at a great American university. In the matter of the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Pittsburgh, none of these is threatened or even at issue.

Recent Post-Gazette articles and letters to the editor have discussed the delicate situation concerning the clinic, an instructional component of Pitt's School of Law.

  James V. Maher is provost of the University of Pittsburgh. 

The authors of the letters and some of those quoted in the articles infer that the university's leadership has wavered in its support for the clinic and thereby infringed upon the academic freedom of the clinic's director and the educational purpose of the clinic. This is simply not true.

On the contrary, the university's administration, under the leadership of Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg and through the course of literally hundreds of meetings, has been active in its support of the Environmental Law Clinic and the benefits the clinic provides to the not-for-profit organizations seeking its legal counsel and to participating law students, who gain a rich educational experience.

This past summer, Pitt's steadfast support of the clinic in the face of demands that the university either exercise inappropriate control of the clinic or take action against those involved in its work caused the General Assembly to insert language into the annual appropriation legislation for the university that prohibits the use of tax dollars to fund the Environmental Law Clinic.

That action, clearly within the Legislature's appropriation authority, forced the university to assess the clinic's budget for indirect expenses for fiscal year 2002 so that the university could assure the General Assembly that no state tax dollars were supporting the clinic.

Like any school of the university, the School of Law sets priorities for the various aspects of its program and aligns its resources in support of those priorities. The loss of commonwealth funding for the clinic is a setback for our program, but the gravity of that setback will depend on the resolution worked out in the School of Law.

One possible scenario that is under discussion within the School of Law is to follow the examples of most other public law schools that have environmental clinics (e.g., the University of Michigan, the University of Oregon and others) by placing the Environmental Law Clinic in a separate not-for-profit entity. That would provide a measure of protection for both the clinic and the university and thus guarantee the autonomy needed to pursue the educational goals of the program. We are confident that private sources could be identified to provide the funding needed to run the clinic under such conditions.

It is important to remember that the General Assembly has helped the university in many ways over several decades, beginning in 1966 when it rescued the university from bankruptcy by passing legislation approving Pitt as a state-related institution. We are proud of all the accomplishments of our partnership with the commonwealth, including significant research contributions to the economic development of our region and the education of a large fraction of the citizens of the region. Sustaining and nurturing our good and productive partnership with the commonwealth is and will continue to be a very high priority for the university.

The General Assembly's decision to withdraw support from our Environmental Law Clinic arose from a concern of many elected representatives about the impact of one Pitt program on their constituents and did not signal a reduction of the commonwealth's commitment to our other programs.

In a similar way, our unwavering commitment to the defense of academic freedom that resulted in our sustaining the withdrawal of commonwealth support from our clinic does not signal any reduction in our commitment to be a good and productive partner to the commonwealth in all ways consistent with our mission as a world-class comprehensive research university.

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