New Trustees’ chair forming ad hoc committee on fossil fuel investments


Much of Friday’s Board of Trustees annual meeting was taken up by welcoming new members and honoring departing trustees and administrators.

The only substantial piece of news to come out of the meeting is that new board Chairman Thomas Richards said he is forming an ad hoc committee of the board to look at the University’s investments in fossil fuels. Student and alumni groups have long advocated for the University to divest from fossil fuels.

The committee will be chaired by Dawne Hickton, president of the aerospace company Jacobs Engineering Group.

Earlier in the meeting, Richards, who is the retired CEO and current executive chairman of the board of directors for CDW, was confirmed by the board as the new chairman. In accepting the position, he said, “Clearly we are heading into a challenging time for the University, not the least of which is dealing with COVID and its impact, but also helping the University move forward in areas of social justice.”

Chancellor Patrick Gallagher in his remarks said the University is moving into a much more organized planning and execution phase of dealing with the pandemic’s impact.

He said Geovette Washington, the University’s chief legal officer, is heading a steering committee that is “to say working overtime is an understatement, pulling together the hundreds of different planning activities related to transforming the University so that it can operate and not just operate but maximize its mission in the face of the risk associated with this pandemic.”

One of the key principles in this planning, Gallagher said, is making sure the University can remain responsive in the face of a resurgence of the virus, particularly across the Southeast. “Our planning has to be adjustable, and it does support multiple operating postures,” he said.

Gallagher said he understands the Pitt community’s frustration and desire to know more about what will happen in the fall. “I am not asking for patience so much as understanding that this is going to be an incredibly difficult task. We are trying to improve the communications, both about the plan itself and what the expectations are for everybody in the University, but also to provide the resources and support.”

He made it clear that working from home will continue to be the University’s “preferred posture,” for those where it is feasible.

On the questions of race and social justice, Gallagher said, “What we’re dealing with is the long-standing problem of systemic racism. bias and injustice against African Americans and it’s driving a major civic movement demanding real change. We have to live up to this demand for change. … What we’re specifically looking at when we talk about this from an institutional perspective is dealing with the systems, the powers, the authorities, the processes that can sustain racism or sustain biases in our society and in our institutions. Pitt is not immune from this.”

After the meeting, the chancellor said that his administration has met with Black student leaders who had sent a list of more than 20 demands last week, and they are already scheduling a followup meeting.

“We have talked about this as not just about not being racist, but about being actively anti-racist,” he said at the board meeting. “Being proactive, acknowledging that we have to move deliberately as an institution to seek out those things that support or cause underrepresentation or injustice or inequality and seek to actively change those. We need to tackle this directly. These are tough, and for many people very uncomfortable, discussions, so we need to become more comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

Gallagher said the University doesn’t have the luxury of tackling the issues raised by the pandemic and the calls for social justice separately.

“It’s going to have to tap our spirit of innovation,” he said. “We can’t be afraid to fail. We will fail, we will make mistakes. And I think it’s going to be really important for the University to be OK with that, and let people take chances try things out. If they don’t work, fine we move on and we try something else. I think that’s what universities can be best at.”

Committee reports

Four of the board’s committees gave reports at the meeting of actions that have already been reported, including:

Nominating and governance committee: Put forward new and emeritus status trustees and sought approval for Richards as chairman and for the nominees to the UPMC board. See details here.

Investment Committee: Chair Ed Grefenstet said the committee had agreed on distributions from the consolidated endowment fund and reported that the fund performance over the past year, as of March 31, was -1.36 percent, while the return over 10 years was 6.99 percent.

Property and Facilities: The committee agreed on June 25 to lease space in area hotels to de-densify student housing at a cost of $22 million (see related story). It also voted to sell the 21,977 square foot “D Wing” of UPMC Presbyterian Hospital and a 13,617 square foot, L-shaped parcel of land located near Lothrop Hall to UPMC for a total of $18.7 million.

Academic Affairs/Libraries Committee: On June 25, the committee agree to new faculty titles for “appoint-stream” (see story here).

Honoring departing leaders

The board was shown a tribute video for Eva Tansky Blum, who was completing her final meeting as board chair. She was the Pitt’s first female Board of Trustee chair. A resolution was read by a rotating group of trustees and praise was heaped on her from all sides for her work over the past five years.

Another tribute video was shown for Arthur Levine, who stepped down as senior vice chancellor for Health Science and dean of the School of Medicine at the beginning of June.

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


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