Degree of separation
It took Bill Peduto six presidential administrations to finish his college degree, but the city councilman finally got his sheepskin.
“I earned it,” said Peduto, who will officially receive his diploma from Penn State University in May. “I went back, and I completed it. That’s something I should have done years ago, but I’m proud that I was able to do it.”
Peduto, 42, finished his final two courses — a legal writing class and an American history elective course — in December through Penn State’s distance learning program.
That makes him the only person on the nine-member City Council with a bachelor’s degree. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who formerly served as Council President and will face Peduto in May’s mayoral primary, graduated from Washington & Jefferson College in 2002.
Although American business is peppered with success stories of people who never completed a four-year college program — Microsoft CEO Bill Gates and CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite come to mind — a college education carries a certain weight, especially when enrollment in degree-granting institutions is at an all-time national high.
“Personally, I think it is a bit shocking,” George Dougherty Jr., assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, said of the council’s degree ratio.
Pitt political science professor Susan Hansen called the council’s educational make-up “unusual.”
“That puts the city at a disadvantage dealing with other levels of government,” Hansen said. “If they’re raising legal, technical and financial issues, and people don’t have the background or vocabulary to deal with them, then they’re just not going to be credible enough.”
Lew Irwin, associate professor of political science at Duquesne University, said “it’s not just about the book smarts.” Pittsburgh prides itself on its working-class roots, Irwin said, and most of the council members have extensive experience within public administration that can make up for a lack of formal education.
“I don’t really see that being a benefit or advantage being on City Council, whether you have a college degree or not,” Councilman Jim Motznik said. “I think the most important thing a councilman can have is street smarts, and you don’t get that in college.”
In 2005, about 28 percent of American adults older than 25 held at least a bachelor’s degree, according to estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau. In the city of Pittsburgh, 26.2 percent of people older than 25 held bachelor’s degrees, according to the 2000 Census.
The Pittsburgh political culture is quite different from other cities, said Dougherty, who lived in Atlanta and Athens, Ga., before moving here two and a half years ago.
Pittsburgh’s politics seem to be more “egalitarian,” he said.
“This is a working-class city with a strong party-class tradition, and there are other routes to power,” Hansen said.
When Peduto dropped out of Penn State University in 1989, three courses shy of a degree in political science, he went to work as a gofer for current Chief Justice Ralph Cappy’s Supreme Court of Pennsylvania campaign.
“I did everything from fixing the copier to dropping off signs in Beaver County,” Peduto said. He continued working under Cappy, promoted to state-wide field director, and then landed a job in former Mayor Sophie Masloff’s administration.
Masloff, who served as Pittsburgh’s mayor from 1988-94, did not have a college degree herself.
“I don’t think I missed a college degree, because I had a lifetime of experience,” said Masloff, who was on City Council for 12 years before becoming mayor. “The experience you get on the job is equal to what you get in college.”
Political science and public affairs experts, although surprised by the lack of college graduates on City Council, tended to agree that formal education isn’t necessarily related to being a better politician.
“Someone once said they would rather be governed by the first 100 names in the White Pages than the faculty of Harvard, and I tend to agree with it,” said G. Terry Madonna, director for the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College. “In general in life, having a college education is better in life than not having a college degree. But I know a lot of people who are pretty intelligent who never went to college.”
Peduto’s 24-year plan
Bill Peduto began his college stint in 1983 at Carnegie Mellon University after graduating from Chartiers Valley High School with a full Army-ROTC scholarship. Peduto said he left CMU two years later after he lost the scholarship for failing to keep his grade-point average above a 2.0.
In 1986, Peduto transferred to Penn State University. Three years later, Peduto left academics after having started and dropped five majors in six years of academia. He was three classes short of a bachelor’s degree in political science.
“I spent six years in college, and I was ready to start on life,” Peduto said. “I wasn’t willing to go back for another semester to take three courses. I started working three days after taking my last final.”
Peduto, who was the political director for acting Gov. Mark Singel by the age of 28, said the lack of a degree still weighed on his mind.
“When I had the time, I didn’t have the money … and when I had the money, I didn’t have the time,” Peduto said. “I have a completely newfound respect for people who do continuing education while doing their career.”
In 2000, Peduto re-enrolled in one course through the “Penn State World Campus” and finished the final two in December.
“The only difference in feeling when I finished those courses was one of relief that I finally finished, and regret that I didn’t do it before my dad died,” he said. “Most of the important lessons I learned through life and not through a textbook.”
Notables without college degrees
Bill Gates, Microsoft CEO
Jesse Ventura, former governor of Minnesota
Maya Angelou, poet
Barbara Streisand, actress
Walter Cronkite, former anchor for the CBS Evening News
Ted Turner, CNN founder
Quentin Tarantino, director
Debbi Fields, founder of Mrs. Field’s Cookies
Walt Disney, co-founder of the Walt Disney Company
Ernest Hemingway, author
Wayne Huizenga, Blockbuster Video founder and owner of the Miami Dolphins
Frank Lloyd Wright, architect
Wolfgang Puck, chef
Peter Jennings, former anchor of ABC’s World News Tonight