Grad programs now more nimble in changing markets, Urban says


As of July 1, Pitt’s Vice Provost for Graduate Studies Nathan Urban will officially become provost of Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. But he’ll probably still be working out of his Western Pennsylvania home for a while.

“The eastern part of the state has many more (COVID-19) cases than here, and real estate is not operational,” Urban said from his box-filled house. “Probably what July 1 means is I switch from Pitt-based Zoom meetings to Lehigh-based Zoom meetings.”

He’ll be working pretty hard at Pitt right up until June 30, trying to help with the pandemic response and planning for how the University will operate in the fall. He co-chairs the Graduate Studies and Research Working Group under the Reimagining Pitt Education task force.

Early on in the pandemic, Urban said the focus was on graduate student research and ways to support graduate students through the various emergency funds, especially international graduate students. He said they’re working on making sure graduate and professional students get the educational opportunities they need, including clinical and lab work and internships.

In planning for the fall, the Graduate Studies working group has a goal of providing recommendations for graduate education by the end of May.

One big issue is if international students can return to the U.S. in the fall. “We’re both monitoring that situation and also trying to figure out what are some alternatives that we might be able to put in place. How could we educate students in an online format while they’re still in their home country for the first half of the semester or the first semester,” he said.

He also co-chairs the Planning for Pitt 2025 Steering Committee, which hopes to get its recommendations to Provost Ann Cudd and Hari Sastry, chief financial officer, by the end of June.

But there’s been much more to Urban’s jobs in the provost’s office over the past five years than the most recent crisis. He started in 2015 as vice provost for Special Projects, during which he spent a third of his time on provost-related work and the rest on his teaching and research as professor and associate chair in the Department of Neurobiology and associate director of Pitt’s Brain Institute. In 2017, he was appointed vice provost for Graduate Studies and Strategic Initiatives, which is a 50/50 split with his medical school duties.

Changing landscape

When he first started in his current job in the provost’s office, Urban said he realized that graduate education was changing very rapidly, with some areas in high demand — particularly anything data or information science-related — while others struggled for enrollment.

He said his office has “worked hard to put some things in place so that we as a university could be somewhat more nimble and somewhat more responsive to those changes.”

Since then, an infrastructure has been built to “try and facilitate and expedite the approval of new graduate programs … and at the same time provide schools with resources that would help them to identify what are some of the areas of greatest need and identify what are some of the ways in which we can do a better job of recruiting students into our programs.

“We’ve been able to assemble a lot of good tools to provide data about our current programs and about the outcomes of students in our programs. I think that’s something that had to move relatively rapidly because I think we had some catching up to do,” he said.

Unionization issues

Another “very important and significant challenge” during his three years in this role has been the graduate student unionization effort, which has been ongoing since 2018. Urban has been at the center of this process — from holding information sessions about unionization to being cited for an email he sent during a union election in April 2019 that union organizers said constituted unfair labor practices.

A Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board hearing examiner upheld this and two other charges of unfair labor practices, but that decision is under review by a three-person board. An in-person hearing had been planned for later this month, but Urban said the PLRB has opted to forgo that hearing because of the pandemic and will issue a ruling at some point. (See related story.)

Giving grad students a seat

Urban said one of his successes has been getting graduate and postdoctoral students more recognition at the top levels of the University, including having representation in shared governance groups like the University Senate and Board of Trustees committees.

Student Affairs, he said, also is paying more attention to graduate and professional students. A new lounge in the William Pitt Union and dissertation writing rooms added during the Hillman Library renovations are physical manifestations of this.

“There’s been much better communication between the provost’s office and graduate students and vice versa,” Urban said. “And I think that we’re able to have a better sense of what the concerns of graduate students are and to do our best to be responsive to those concerns.”

His successor needs to engage with graduate students and take their lead from the issues they raise, he said, “and those issues will change. COVID introduced a new set of issues, and when there were potential changes to immigration law in the form of executive orders, that introduced new concerns for graduate students in different ways.”

His office also worked with Pitt’s governmental relations staff when a federal tax reform bill proposed eliminating the tax exemption on tuition waivers for graduate students.

“I think it’s very important for the person in this role to take the perspective of how this is going to influence our graduate students and our ability to recruit and educate the best population of students that we can,” Urban said.

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at or 412-648-4294.


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