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July 11, 2013

Nordenberg reflects on 18 years

In declaring at the June 28 Board of Trustees meeting his intent to step down, Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg reiterated his commitment to the University and the community.

nordenberg“My heart is here. My future is here. I intend to stay in Pittsburgh and at Pitt,” he said.

“I expect that there will be a portfolio of varied assignments: some supporting the University and my successor, if he or she wishes that help; a return to teaching, and the continued engagement in civic initiatives that are designed to make this region, which now has been my home for 36 years, a better place.”

In an announcement laced with expressions of gratitude intertwined with self-deprecating humor, Nordenberg said: “What you do learn as you move forward in life is that even good things come to an end. And sometimes when you hold positions and no one else seems inclined to end your service in them, that you have a responsibility to act yourself.

“We have moved through a really tough period: And I look back on the last five years or so, and there really wasn’t an opportunity for me to leave or for you to search for a worthy successor.

“We have reached a level of relative stability. I think it is in the best interests of the University to begin looking for leadership that can successfully guide the institution for a longer period of time than is left for me. And therefore I have advised the chairman of the board that it is my desire to step down as chancellor Aug. 1 of 2014, which gives you 13 months to find a successor.”

Nordenberg quickly added: “I think we want to approach it with a typical Pitt attitude. It’s a better University, you ought to be able to find a better chancellor.”

Board chairperson Stephen R. Tritch said, “The University of Pittsburgh is extremely fortunate to have been led by Chancellor Mark Nordenberg for the last 18 years. During this period, our University has made tremendous progress in almost every measurable way.

“This includes the increased size and dramatically improved academic credentials of each successive freshman class, the extraordinary growth in the size and impact of our research programs, and the enormous contributions that Pitt has made to the economic strength and social vibrancy of all its home communities.

“I know everyone who cares about Pitt always will be grateful for the contributions you have made to our University,” he told the chancellor.


nordenberg1In his report to the trustees, Nordenberg said, “With an overarching commitment to quality and strong management, in both academic and administrative areas, we have been able to deal effectively with essentially every challenge that has come our way.”  He noted a significant shift from the early- to mid-1990s, when “many of our problems were internal and really did relate to things that we should have been doing or things that we should have been doing better ourselves.

“That no longer is true,” he said. “Having committed to quality, having accepted the need to make difficult decisions, and having made advancing the good of the entire University, rather than pieces of it, our goal, we have positioned ourselves to contend with challenges that once would have done us grievous harm.

“Pride, appreciation, humility sit at the heart of my feelings about our 226-year-old version of the University of Pittsburgh. It would be difficult for anyone who has contributed in any way to our progress not to feel proud of what we have accomplished together in elevating the University of Pittsburgh into the top ranks of this country’s research universities.

“Participating in that work also has left me with a deep sense of appreciation for the human qualities that are regularly on display in alumni, in faculty, in students and in staff and of course within this Board of Trustees. That, too, is something that has brought us to this point and has made the journey all the more satisfying.

“I remain humbled by the fact that you have permitted me to play such a central role in this journey.”


nordenberg2“I doubt that there is anyone who has a deeper sense of appreciation for the ways in which this University has added richness and purpose to my life,” Nordenberg said at the board meeting, outlining the milestones in his Pitt career with self-deprecating humor.

“My arrival to assume a faculty position 36 years ago this summer was not greeted with fanfare,” he said.

“I had been offered a nine-month appointment as a visiting assistant professor of law — some might say one of the lowliest forms of academic life. And the nine-month term on my contract suggests something about how much the institution thought it should invest in me,” Nordenberg said, adding, “There are times when I think my greatest accomplishment is that 36 years later I’m still here. There was a big group hired with me in the fall of 1977 — and I’m the only one who’s still here.”

He went on: “When in 1985 I became interim dean of the law school, that was a decision grounded in something other than high levels of faith by then-chancellor (Wesley) Posvar and then-provost (Roger) Benjamin indeed. I had become an associate dean three months earlier and I occupied the office next to the dean’s office, and I think that probably led them to say, ‘Well, why don’t we make him the guy?’”

Nordenberg served as interim provost 1993-94 and chaired the search committee for the senior vice chancellor for the Health Sciences in 1994-95.

“Then (board chair J.W.) Connolly approached me about being the interim chancellor more than 18 years ago. I think that maybe he was looking at what he considered to be a field of one,” the chancellor said.

“One year later, again the time-limiting adjective that had been part of my life — interim, interim, interim — was removed and here I am, still holding what I consider to be the greatest job in the world.

“Certainly it has been the greatest job for me. I believe in Pitt. I owe Pitt. I feel good every time I do something to advance its important mission and obviously, also, this gives me countless opportunities to work with so many talented, creative, committed people from the faculty, from the staff, from the student body, from the board — and really, I’m grateful for the support that I have received from the broader community. Pitt occupies a very special place in western Pennsylvania these days, and so the interactions of this leader with people beyond the boundaries of the five campuses are frequent and often rewarded.”


Following the board meeting, Nordenberg said, “A lot of mixed emotions come on a day like today. I’ve loved being chancellor of the University. I look forward to serving in that position for another year. At the same time, there now is an end in sight. I do think that it’s good for the University to begin the process of finding someone who can lead it for a longer period of time.”

Nordenberg said he chose to step into leadership roles in the University due in part to his commitment to Pitt.

“I had a history of never turning down assignments when they came my way,” noting that he twice set aside sabbatical plans  — once to serve as interim provost and again to chair the search for a senior vice chancellor for the Health Sciences — at the request of then-chancellor J. Dennis O’Connor.

“I didn’t think anybody said no to the chancellor back then. Now I know people do it with some ease,” he quipped.

“When you really do love a place — and I owe the University of Pittsburgh so much — it would have taken extraordinary circumstances for me to say no to something I was asked to do if I thought I could do a reasonable job at it,” Nordenberg said.

“The opportunity to be the chancellor, of course, was something that I never imagined would be part of my life,” he said. “I came as a not-very-sought-after draft choice to the faculty and now someone is saying, ‘Would you take the highest position of leadership in the institution?’ And there, I had the advantage of being asked to do it for a year. And if I had concluded based on that experience that this was not for me, that I didn’t think I could do a job that was worthy of the institution, I had a chance to step away without the University risking much and without me risking much.”

Two decades ago, “many people thought that the institution was drifting. It didn’t have a clear sense of direction,” Nordenberg said. “Things weren’t looking up.”

Having served as a dean, as interim provost and on the health sciences senior vice chancellor search committee, among other roles, Nordenberg said, “Maybe it was blind faith, but I do think that I had seen enough of the institution — the good things and the not-so-good things — that I was able to assess opportunities in a pretty informed way. … And I did see the potential looking in many directions that had not yet been tapped and that I thought if we could mobilize people in the right way there was progress to be made here.”

Nordenberg said being chancellor “was a lot of work, but it was new work. And it was exciting. And you get exposed to the breadth of an institution that you thought you knew, but that you didn’t really know that well.

“In every corner of this institution there are people doing interesting work that matters, which means that every day in this job — almost every day — I meet somebody different whose work, whose issues, whose priorities, whose problems really are of interest to me. You don’t get that in many other places.”

He commended the Board of Trustees for its support and oversight, and for its engagement in the process of setting the University’s direction in 1995-96.

Early on, he and his leadership team “needed to prove that we could get things done. And we needed to prove to the campus community that we could make this a better place in ways that mattered to them. Once you show that you are capable, then people are much more willing to come along with you,” Nordenberg said.

“I did have the real privilege of putting together almost a complete leadership team and was able to recruit people who were so good at what they did that it was a pleasure to sit in meetings with them and talk about where we were going to go next,” he said.

“I do also think that from the very start we said we were going to talk about the good things that were happening at Pitt. Sometimes there’s a tendency to fear highlighting good examples because someone may be upset that they’re left out, and then say not much of anything.

“There’s nothing more inspiring than a good example of high achievement and impact, particularly when it’s from within your own institution. And I think people began to realize that the bar was being raised here,” he said.

“The accomplishment that I’m most proud of is being part of creating a different culture at the University of Pittsburgh — one that is characterized by high ambition, a real commitment to the strength and future of the institution and high levels of respect for each other. Once that was in place, I think it did make dealing with almost anything that came our way easier.”

In his final year as chancellor, Nordenberg said, “There are plenty of things left to be done. My only hope is that the list is not added to in unexpected ways.”


In a June 28 University Update (, the chancellor stated he had been discussing with board chairpersons “for many years” ideal departure dates, “not wanting either to outlive my effectiveness or to overstay my welcome,” he said.

“There are times when it really would be destructive to step down — when the institution is contending with the ravages of a world-wide recession or seeking to avoid draconian funding cuts would be two clear examples from our recent past,” he said.

“There probably is no perfect time to leave a position like this one, since there always will be a steady flow of new challenges to meet and of new opportunities to pursue.

“However, I have come to believe that there are better times to step away, and further believe that, for Pitt and for me, this is one of those times.

“Together, we have met an extraordinary succession of challenges in recent years. Dealing effectively and collectively with those challenges added strength to our community, and perhaps somewhat remarkably, those challenges did little to slow our momentum. Instead, we found ways to deal with even large problems while continuing to forge an amazing record of progress.

“That is the condition of the University that I always have wanted to leave to my successor, and to all who care about Pitt — an institution that is markedly better than the one that I inherited and an institution clearly heading in the right direction. And because I know how directly our successes have been driven by the tireless and inspired efforts of the absolutely outstanding senior management team that I have been privileged to assemble and lead, I also have wanted to leave my successor a strong team that can be re-shaped by him or her over the natural course of time.”


Reactions of faculty & staff leaders

Staff Association Council President J.P. Matychak told the University Times: “Chancellor Nordenberg is an inspirational leader and provided the University of Pittsburgh with a vision for the future. His leadership motivated all of us to do our best to move the University of Pittsburgh to its current status. He is a champion of staff, faculty, students and all of those who are a part of the Pitt community. He is a shepherd of innovation, a steward of community involvement and his legacy as chancellor will be felt for generations to come.”

University Senate President Michael Spring said he was both saddened and pleased to learn of the chancellor’s decision to retire — “… saddened in the loss of a great leader who is a compassionate and thoughtful person, pleased in the hope that he will now have some well-deserved time with family and friends. Eighteen years on the job, especially with the last three or four, must have been incredibly draining, even for such a positive and energetic man. I wish him and his wife time to be with their children and grandchildren without the welfare of the University making constant demands on them.”

Spring said that as incoming Senate president, he was invited to its monthly executive committee meeting with the chancellor and senior University leaders and found it to be “cordial, open, frank and constructive — all hallmarks of this chancellor’s tenure.

“Chancellor Nordenberg and his team have rebuilt the image and the reality of the University of Pittsburgh. He has made enormous contributions, which are well documented,” Spring said, adding that he will remember the chancellor for less well-known kindnesses as well. “He is, in addition to his leadership qualities, a genuinely nice person,” Spring said, citing as an example the retirement of a grounds crew member several years ago. The chancellor shook the man’s hand and said goodbye on the employee’s last day. “About two weeks later, the employee received a package in the mail. It was a Pitt football jersey with his name and the number of years he had been on the grounds crew at Pitt, signed with thanks from Chancellor Nordenberg.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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