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Law clinic a liability for Pitt, chief says

Nordenberg criticizes environmental unit

Thursday, November 08, 2001

By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Citing politically contentious cases taken on by the University of Pittsburgh Environmental Law Clinic, Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg has said it's time to end the clinic's current relationship with the school.

Nordenberg, in a memorandum yesterday to university faculty and administrators that covered a variety of topics, wrote that the clinic has cost the university political goodwill and criticized its director.

"Particularly since our current structure clearly is not working," Nordenberg wrote, "this would seem to be an appropriate time for those most involved with the clinic and interested in its future to carefully consider available alternatives."

One of those alternatives would be for the clinic to operate independently from the university, still providing law students practical experience on environmental cases but providing insulation for the university from political controversies.

State legislators, unhappy that the clinic's client list has included opponents of the Mon-Fayette Expressway project and logging in the Allegheny National Forest, inserted an item into the school's appropriations bill this year stating that no tax money could be used by the clinic. As a result, the university assessed the clinic $62,559 for overhead and administrative expenses.

The clinic is operated with funding from the Heinz Endowments, and has an annual budget of $107,000.

The ongoing assessments for administrative costs would bankrupt the clinic's endowment in 18 months.

Tom Buchelle, the clinic director, said the tone of the chancellor's memo was "nasty and personal" and disputed Nordenberg's contention that there were assurances made when the clinic was established a year ago that it would avoid controversial activities.

On Tuesday, a committee of the University of Pittsburgh's Faculty Assembly reported it is reviewing whether the university's recent assessment of overhead expenses for the clinic is a violation of the school's academic freedom policy.

"We think this issue has profound implications for academic freedom and the university," Dr. Herbert L. Needleman, chairman of the Tenure and Academic Freedom Committee, told the assembly yesterday afternoon.

He said the rights of faculty to pursue their work without political interference is the central issue.

His committee is gathering facts and conducting interviews and will report its findings to the assembly, possibly when it meets again in three weeks.

Meanwhile, a half-dozen environmental groups -- frustrated by what they view as the university's lack of support for the clinic -- have scheduled a rally this morning on the Oakland campus outside the Cathedral of Learning.

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