Nordenberg talks Institute of Politics at March 15 Chamber Breakfast

Mark Nordenberg, the former Chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh, told the audience at the African American Chamber of Commerce’s March 15 PowerBreakfast meeting he’s pretty much always followed its President and CEO Doris Carson Williams’ lead. He explained why with a photo of a 1977 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

“Here you see Doris in the paper having just lost an election,” he said. “At the time, I was just starting as an assistant professor at Pitt’s law school—the lowest form of academic life there is.”

Nordenberg, who stepped down as chancellor in 2014, now chairs the university’s Institute of Politics, and said he was pleased to head Williams’ request to give the Chamber an overview of the institute and some of its initiatives.

The Institute grew from an idea he said his predecessor, Wesley Posvar, had to see how the university could help its civic partners bring politicians, corporate leaders, educators and others together to improve the region.

“It was launched 30 years ago, and Moe Coleman was its founding director, who said about the job, ‘I found myself having to ignore my personal views and act as a mediator because that role was often unfilled,’” said Nordenberg. “You can look at the Institute as an extension of that philosophy—we are more educators than advocates.”

The Institute, he explained, has eight policy committees on environment, economic development, education, fiscal policy, health and human services, infrastructure, public safety and workforce development. It has the Richard Thornburg Forum to examine national issues and the Elsie Hillman Forum aimed at bringing university students together with community leaders to increase civic engagement.

“We also respond to political leaders who want to take a deeper look at specific issues, but who don’t have the resources or expertise to do it,” he said. “One of our current initiatives is Criminal Justice Reform—there were issues like mandatory minimums and the bail trap—where people risk losing jobs, housing, (or) children before they are even tried for a crime because they don’t have $500 bail money.”

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald asked if the Institute could look at the county specifically to see how to increase fairness and lower costs without sacrificing public safety. Last year, it released a report from the Criminal Justice Progress Panel that found the county spends the equivalent of 42 cents of every property tax dollar received on the criminal justice system. It also found Black men were being incarcerated at twice the national rate—which itself is six times the national rate for Whites. Blacks account for 13 percent of the county population, but 48 percent of the jail population, and 75 percent of the inmates have drug or mental health issues, 48 have both.

It recommended reducing the use of money bonds, making a deliberate effort to have public defenders provide support at the arraignment stage, and diverting more people to treatment.

“Going forward we’re looking at how diversity, inclusion and even jail redesign might address these racial disparities,” he said. “But it’s not easy, especially when you can’t really walk into a place and say, ‘Hi I’m from the IOP and I’m here to help you do your job better,’ even though that’s exactly what you’re doing.”

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