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August 30, 2001

Wesley Posvar, 15th chancellor of University, dies

Wesley Wentz Posvar, who served as Pitt's chancellor for nearly 24 years beginning in 1967, died July 27, 2001, of a heart attack. He was 75.

In addition to being Pitt's 15th chancellor, Posvar was a brigadier general in the U.S. Air Force, a Rhodes scholar and a seasoned combat pilot. He is credited with helping to pull Pitt from fiscal ruin into solvency during the University's transition to state-related status, which began just prior to his chancellorship. He was equally at home in the military world, in national and international affairs and in academia.

Posvar held the titles president emeritus and professor of international politics at the time of his death. (The University changed his title from chancellor to president in October 1984 at Posvar's request.) Posvar inherited a significant debt at Pitt, more than $27 million, which he retired within 10 years. He presided over the University during the turbulent Vietnam War era, which was characterized by anti-war protests, challenges to authority and the growth of the civil rights and women's rights movements.

He also oversaw the establishment of the relationship between Pitt and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, now UMPC Health System.

Promising "a new era of public involvement of the university" in his June 1967 inauguration speech, Posvar said, "I refer to an unprecedented and qualitative change in the role of the university, a role that will relate to a fundamental transformation of the human condition in this country during the next 30 years."

He continued, "The university … will become the creative eye for the new society — for its communication systems, its social patterns and its political and economic structure."

Early on as chancellor, Posvar placed all academic programs under the direction of the provost. He replaced the School of Liberal Arts with the College of Arts and Sciences, combining the social sciences, natural sciences and humanities under a single dean. He combined the offices of dean of men and dean of women under one assistant chancellor for Student Affairs.

During the first 10 years of Posvar's tenure as chancellor, Pitt doubled its enrollment to 35,000-plus students; awarded close to 56,000 degrees; increased the full-time faculty from 1,580 to 2,200; increased its library holdings by more than 1.6 million volumes to a total of 3.5 million, and attracted some $325 million in sponsored research dollars.

In 1975, Pitt joined the Association of American Universities, a by-invitation-only group of North America's top research universities. Pitt also became a founding member of the Urban Public Universities group, which pushes for educational support from federal grants.

In 1976, Pitt's Annual Giving Fund topped the $1 million mark for the first time, with a then-record 20,000 donors. That year, Pitt also paid off debts incurred during previous administrations, and, in a symbolic gesture, Posvar burned the mortgage certificate held on Pitt's buildings, which was paid off as well.

Between 1967 and 1976, Pitt added about 2 million gross square feet of usable space, bringing its holdings to 8 million square feet. New buildings during that time included: Forbes Quadrangle (renamed Wesley W. Posvar Hall in May 2000), Benedum Hall of Engineering, the Learning Research and Development Center, the Chemistry Building (now Chevron Science Center) and the Law Building.

Later in the Posvar era came Mervis Hall, the Biomedical Science Tower and renovation of the William Pitt Union (formerly the Schenley Hotel).

In the 1980s, Posvar was the first U.S. university leader to visit Cuba in 25 years. He returned from Cuba with a preliminary agreement with the University of Havana for an exchange program.

During the '80s, Pitt signed a deal with AT&T to build a campus-wide telecommunications network — dubbed the Campus of the Future — that was described as "the underpinning of the forthcoming information revolution."

In 1985, Posvar directed the University to perform a thorough self-evaluation, to study the structure, budgetary system, academic quality and mission of every unit. That year, he also brokered a transfer to Pitt of research facilities owned by Gulf Oil, coined "the $100,000,000 gift." The Gulf Oil site in Harmarville — 54 buildings on 85 acres — became the University of Pittsburgh Applied Research Center.

By the time of Posvar's retirement in 1991, the University's operating funds had increased seven-fold, from $90 million in fiscal year 1968 to $630 million in FY 1990, and the University's endowment had increased three-fold, from $81 million to $257 million.

A number of academic units were created during Posvar's tenure, including the Honors Program (later named the Honors College), the School of Health Related Professions (now the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences), the University Center for International Studies, the Center for the Philosophy of Science and the University Center for Social and Urban Research.

At the time of his retirement, Posvar was the longest continuously serving president among the AAU member institutions. He continued to teach in the Department of Political Science until his death.

The Posvar era was not without controversy. In the last months of his tenure, chairpersons of departments in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences gave him a vote of no confidence, charging the president with ignoring faculty requests for a more open management style.

He was vilified both on campus and by the state legislature for accepting a $3.3 million retirement package when the University and the state were facing financial crunches.

In response to public criticism, Posvar said shortly after retiring, "Virtually all of my reported benefits are my own life savings, my own money, put away and wisely invested in TIAA-CREF, compounded over a quarter of a century." He added that Pitt's contributions to a second, noncontributory, TIAA-CREF fund were in lieu of salary raises during his tenure as Pitt's leader.

But in September 1991, Posvar agreed to a trimmed-down annual salary for life of $146,600. He also agreed to pay back a low interest mortgage loan he was not required to reimburse and to donate the cash value from a life insurance policy Pitt had purchased for him.

Despite some problems at the end, Posvar's long tenure was viewed as a positive time in Pitt's history.

Current Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg said, "Wes Posvar was an extraordinary university leader, an absolutely devoted champion of western Pennsylvania and a warm and caring human being. He will be sorely missed by his many friends and admirers all over the world. But his passing will be marked with particular sorrow within the University of Pittsburgh family.

"During his tenure as Pitt's chancellor, Dr. Posvar took an institution on the verge of bankruptcy and led it to a position of leadership among American universities," Nordenberg continued. "Among other things, he always will be remembered for his contributions to the advancement of medical research and for his early recognition of the importance of international studies. He was known, more broadly, for his overarching commitment to excellence in all academic disciplines.

"Wes Posvar also believed in this region and worked effectively to advance it through a period of difficult economic transformation," Nordenberg added.

Posvar was the founding chairman both of the Federal Emergency Management Advisory Board, where he served for 12 years, and the National Advisory Council on Environmental Policy and Technology, where he served as a principal adviser to the Environmental Protection Agency.

He headed a special commission on the West Point honor code, and advised the U.S. government on foreign intelligence, civil aviation and national emergency telecommunications.

Posvar was former president of the World Society for Ekistics (the study of human settlements), headquartered in Athens, Greece. He was the initiator, founding chairman and a trustee of the Prague-based Czech Management Center, a postgraduate business school. He was a trustee of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the U.S. Space Foundation, and he was president and co-founder of the International Studies Association, a group of university professors worldwide.

In addition, he was an adviser and director of many mutual funds associated with Federated Investors, Inc., as well as an advisory trustee of the Rand Corporation, a director of Eastern Air Lines and an advisory director of Volvo AG. He had long served on the boards of various cultural and economic development organizations.

Posvar was born in Topeka, Kansas, on Sept. 14, 1925, and spent most of his childhood in Cleveland, Ohio.

He was graduated first in his class from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1946, achieving one of the highest averages in the academy's history in the largest class (875 men) ever graduated from that institution. His B.S. degree in engineering was the first of five academic degrees he would earn.

Posvar was an aircraft project officer and fighter aircraft test pilot at the Air Force Proving Grounds in Florida from 1946 to 1948 and became a command pilot licensed to fly 27 different types of aircraft. He was the first Air Force officer to win a Rhodes Scholarship, earning B.A. and M.A. degrees at Oxford University (1948-1951) in philosophy, politics and economics. He spent a midterm two-week vacation from Oxford as co-pilot of a C-54 in the Berlin Airlift.

Posvar's first teaching post was as an assistant professor of social sciences at West Point from 1951 to 1954, and he served as a member of the Long-Range Objectives and Program Group for the Directorate of Plans at Air Force headquarters in Washington.

He became a professor of political science at the Air Force Academy in 1957 at age 32 — the youngest full professor at any of the service academies — and later was appointed chairman of the Division of Social Sciences, the youngest division head in the history of the academy. In 1980, an endowed chair was established in his name at the Air Force Academy.

Posvar was a Littauer Fellow in the Graduate School of Public Administration at Harvard University from 1962 to 1964, earning the M.P.A. degree and a Ph.D. in political science. His doctoral dissertation was on the effect of military expertise on national defense policy in the United States.

He served a tour of duty in Southeast Asia in 1965 as a combat pilot and consultant in the areas of political-military relations and economic development.

He was editor of the book "American Defense Policy" (1964) and a contributor to numerous journals.

Posvar is survived by his wife of 51 years, internationally renowned opera and concert mezzo-soprano Mildred Miller, formerly a featured artist at the Metropolitan, Vienna State, Berlin, Stuttgart and San Francisco operas, whom he met when both were students at West High School in Cleveland; their three children, Wesley William Posvar, Marina Green and Lisa Rossi; seven grandsons, Wesley Fishwick Posvar, Winston Blair Posvar, Brian Benjamin Green, Derek Wentz Green, Christopher Posvar Rossi, Nicholas William Rossi and Gian Marco Rossi, and a half-brother, Jan Posvar.

Memorial contributions may be made to the University Honors College or to the Matthew B. Ridgway Center for International Security Studies.

–Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 34 Issue 1

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