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August 28, 2014

One on One: Patrick D. Gallagher, 18th chancellor

p4-aPatrick D. Gallagher earned a bachelor’s degree in physics and philosophy at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, in 1985, then taught high school science and math in Missouri before continuing his education at Pitt.

As a graduate student here, Gallagher was a research assistant and earned his PhD in physics in 1991. James V. Maher, now provost emeritus, was his thesis adviser.

Gallagher was awarded an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree and delivered the University’s commencement address in 2013.

He worked as a research associate at Boston University before joining the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in 1993 as a research physicist and instrument scientist at the NIST Center for Neutron Research.

He went on to lead the center’s research facilities operation group, then became center director. Gallagher also served as NIST deputy director before becoming director of NIST in 2009.

President Barack Obama appointed him acting deputy secretary of the Department of Commerce in 2013.

Gallagher was both acting deputy secretary of the commerce department and director of NIST when Pitt’s Board of Trustees elected him chancellor in February.

Gallagher, 51, was born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but has Pittsburgh ties. His mother’s family came to Pittsburgh when she was 12 and Gallagher spent time as a child visiting his maternal grandparents in Carrick.

While at Pitt, he met Karen Abrahamson, whom he married in 1991. She remains in Brookeville, Maryland, while the youngest of their three sons completes high school.


For the first time in nearly two decades, there’s a new leader behind the desk at 107 Cathedral of Learning. Patrick D. Gallagher, who took office as Pitt’s 18th chancellor Aug. 1, spoke with University Times staff writer Kimberly K. Barlow during his first week on campus.


p1-aUNIVERSITY TIMES: You studied here as a grad student. Did you ever foresee returning as chancellor?

Chancellor Gallagher: I’ve never been very good at reading a crystal ball, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that 25 years ago I had no idea what I would be doing.

My life has never unfolded according to a plan. What I found worked better was sort of a receptiveness to opportunity: You know your talents and you want to make a difference. There will be opportunities that come up and if they give you a chance to leverage what you can do to make a difference, those often turn out to be good choices.

p1-bMy whole career has kind of unfolded as an unexpected series of opportunities. … I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It’s been just an amazing journey.

Had you ever been approached to consider a position in higher education?

There have always been feelers — I certainly wasn’t thinking, “I’m going to be in a leadership position at a university.” In fact, I wasn’t looking at all.

What made this opportunity different?

Usually when I got calls like that, I had to immediately say no — government conflict rules are pretty strict and “If you’re not saying no, you’re saying yes” is the way they interpret it.

I got a call and found out that the search was underway. They were pulling together candidates and would I be interested in considering it? In some sense it was closer to a cold call but it was just so compelling. I remember going home that night and instead of saying no automatically, Karen and I talked about it. And what really made a big difference was, this was Pitt.

What came next?

Then it was a journey of mutual discovery. The process unfolds more like dating. What you’re looking for is a case of mutual best fit.

It had to be a fit for me: I had to feel I had the talents and could make a difference. It also had to be the same fit for the institution, that whatever experiences and abilities I had fit the needs.

By the time it was over, I think there was this sense that this really felt good to both sides. While it was a long process, and it was intense, it was very satisfying.

It was a very careful, thoughtful process. The (search) committee really worked hard to have all the diverse viewpoints that are in a university.

There were lots of conversations with individuals, referencing and formal visits — about a half-dozen organized discussions.

p4-bHad you considered working in higher education?

That’s actually what sent me back to grad school — it wasn’t to do research, it was to go into education. What brought me to Pitt to pursue my PhD in physics was a desire to teach.

I had just taught high school for a year. I loved teaching but I felt that teaching at the secondary level, while really gratifying, just didn’t have the professional reward and the independence that you would have teaching at the university or college level.

So what happens, of course, a PhD is about research experience, and so I got into the research.

And that still wasn’t incompatible with teaching because a university position does both. And that’s actually the mindset I had even up to getting my postdoc at Boston University.

I did look at some potential faculty positions, but I had been impressed with NIST through some earlier work. I became very interested in this big-facility science and I ended up going to NIST.

A whole unexpected series of opportunities opened up there. And that was a very satisfying, very rich career experience. But that wasn’t the game plan going in.

Your background is in science; how will you lead the non-science areas of the University?

I was a liberal arts undergraduate. No one person has a direct academic background in every area covered by a university. That would either be an astonishingly narrow university or a superhuman individual. I will never pretend to have direct experience in every area.

I have always enjoyed working in very diverse organizations. Commerce is one of the smallest government departments, about 40,000 employees. It’s probably the most diverse, going all the way from hard science to weathermen to satellites to fisheries to trade to spectrum management for the country.

In a diverse organization, to succeed you don’t have to be able to do everybody’s job. What you have to do is set the conditions that the best people in their fields want to come work there.

So a lot of the University leadership position, I think, is about setting the conditions where the best faculty want to come work, and the best students want to come study.

What is your management style?

I tend to be a pretty collaborative manager. I think sometimes the organization wants somebody to take accountability for making the hard decisions: I always took the view that I wanted everyone to make me as smart as possible when I had to make those decisions on their behalf.

So I’ve always tried to be very open and very candid about where things are. It’s a little bit of the teacher in me. I always wanted to be able to explain why I was making the decision I was making and what my thought process was.

I’ve tried to err toward a management style where you’re trying to create the conditions where others can thrive and you try to create as many partnerships and collaborations as you can, and then be as good an explainer and communicator as you can, so people know what you’re trying to do.

What is your plan for communicating with faculty and staff?

This is a relationship business and communication is about talking to people and interacting.

The focal point as we’ve laid out for how I spend my time is:  How do I engage with the students and spend time with them? How do I engage with the faculty? How to get out to the different schools? How do I see what they’re excited about? My calendar’s rapidly filling.

Some of them are formal visits, some are joining board of visitors meetings where programs are being assessed or reviewed. Some are casual, where we can meet in less formal settings.

One of my styles is “management by walking around.” I don’t even drink the coffee here in the office. It’s not that they don’t make great coffee, but for me getting a cup of coffee is an excuse to leave the office and go somewhere and run into people.

My style is to be quite open and accessible. The trick, of course, is that in a very large organization, where you are one person, there are just limits to walking around and having the door open and interacting with people.

That’s where we’ll be looking at other ways: whether it’s email or social media, participating in events where the community is getting together. That’s where I’m wide open to ideas. I don’t want to get isolated.

Let’s use the tools that people would find most helpful, but these technology-based tools, in my experience, just can’t substitute for face-to-face. So I want to get out to the regional campuses, get out to the schools and departments, and I want to meet people.

The chancellor search committee held 14 forums to gather input from faculty, staff, students and alumni on the traits and experiences they desired in a successor to Mark A. Nordenberg. A passion for undergraduate education was one of the expressed desires, given that the value of college education is being questioned.

I think it’s more than just “Is the value of a Pitt degree high?” I think that’s important, but it’s also frankly a discussion that the country is having about the value of education.

This “affordability of college” discussion is in front of us. That issue has so many different perspectives: You can look at it as a discussion about the role of government support for education; you can look at it as discussion around financing and affordability: How do you pay for something now that’s going to derive long-term benefit to you over your lifetime?

That’s a cash flow problem in some sense, but it’s a big one. And there’s a trillion dollars of student debt in this country and that’s a lot. It has consequences.

But it’s also impacting the value transaction. What’s interesting is the affordability issue: If I’m paying this much for college now, what do I get for it? And increasingly, what do I get for it now?

Any institution that’s providing education wants that education to be of value and enrich people’s lives. Certainly part of that value is: Can you be a productive citizen afterwards? Can you get a job? Can you support yourself? But it also gives you so many things that are long-term benefits.

If we only focus on the near-term credentialing type education — This education that gets you into the first job — and not on some of the life skills — how do you work with others, and leadership and other experiences — then we will have lost something very precious as well.

And that’s all embedded in this whole discussion.

I don’t think it can be distilled into one thing: I don’t think it just becomes about state support, or just about student-loan funding mechanisms or just about value metrics. It has to be dealt with together.

Certainly part of that is maximizing the value that we manage and provide to our students.

I also think the university community nationally has to work to drive this discussion and not have it driven on us.

We are stewards of an incredible enabler in our society. We want to be in the middle of these discussions about how do we ensure the accessibility of education to everyone who wants to work for it; how do we make sure that the education that people receive has the most value in their lives as possible, and how do we hold ourselves accountable for making sure that that happens.

Partnerships were another key issue.

I think that’s an area that leverages my background really well. My role in the Commerce Department was to engage with the business community and the university community and the nonprofit community quite extensively.

The issues will be different here, but a university, to carry out its mission, has to engage.

We’re not preparing students to thrive just within a university, we’re preparing them to thrive in the whole world —  and what we do is we create experiences for them where they can do that learning hands-on. That’s why we have research activities and internships.

What about research partnerships?

In research, the rate of growth in federal R&D dollars is going to be set by dynamics that are larger than how much people think research is a great thing.

And federal R&D is only about one-third of the total in this country — most R&D in this country is funded by the private sector. Compared to our peers, we don’t do as well there, and there’s some real opportunity to find new ways to form partnerships where we can participate in that activity.

No one knows this better than Pittsburgh: Universities play a key role in driving economic growth, whether it’s the ideas and intellectual property coming out of our work, whether it’s the students coming out with new ideas wanting to start businesses, whether it’s just the attractiveness and people wanting to locate near the University because it provides a source of talent and ideas.

This region has changed so much from the time I visited as a little kid. A lot of that is due to Pitt and CMU and the other universities.

Some of that we’ll do alone; a lot of that is us working together – (Carnegie Mellon President Subra Suresh) and I are past colleagues and already in frequent discussions, looking at ideas where we can work together to both advance our universities but where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Chancellor Gallagher with Clyde B. Jones III, president of the Medical and Health Sciences Foundation.

Chancellor Gallagher with Clyde B. Jones III, president of the Medical and Health Sciences Foundation.

Where do you see opportunities for expanding partnerships?

In some R&D areas it’s very hard for universities to work with a single particular company because you get entangled right away with what the company is trying to do. That’s a place where companies working more broadly by pooling funding into consortia opens up doors that would be very hard to do one-on-one.

On the other hand if you’re trying to provide students with a direct business experience, you’re better off working with particular companies. Does the University have the tools to support people, for example, who want to go start a business and be entrepreneurs? Or faculty who want to come out and do that? Those are unique perspectives as well. And you wouldn’t do that through consortia.

I don’t think the University really has the luxury of just zeroing in on one thing. My experience in partnerships is you’re much more effective if you flex the way of partnering around the thing you’re trying to do rather than try to fit everything you’re trying to do into one way of partnering.

And so you really have to be willing to adapt to what the goal is. It has to be purpose-driven: What are you trying to do?

It’s very hard to be talking about the way of doing something — we should use the following mechanics or the following structure — if you don’t have a clear idea of what success looks like.

It comes back again to: What’s an exciting idea that somebody has or a new program that somebody wants to do? Then what defines success?

Then you work the other way and find out what are the things we can do to make it happen and what is our ability to partner and work with the right people.

How difficult is it for a university to have that flexibility?

Frankly, a lot of those “institutional” things that make things hard sometimes were put there because they’re protecting the organization from disastrous things that probably happened in the past and the lesson was learned.

Some of that bureaucracy is there for a purpose.

On the other hand, it can clearly become self-defeating. Universities are some of the most innovative places that we have in the whole country.

These are some of the few organizations that can be good at both ends of that pendulum.

The magic, I think, is knowing when you want to be the entrepreneurial small element in a university and when you want to be institutional. The capacity to do both really well is here.

Several faculty felt the next chancellor should be someone who was not far removed from the classroom. Do you see that as a hurdle?

I was always somebody who had aspired to be a teacher but I went on a detour ever since, so from that perspective, that desire didn’t play out.

What’s more important is: Can we build a relationship?

I think what’s much more important is willingness to work together and the receptivity.

And in some ways, the advantage of not having that perspective is that I can bring a different perspective to problems.

The truth of the matter is, it’s not my job to have every viewpoint that the University can have. There are so many people here that I can draw on. Many of them will have had that faculty experience: You can believe me, I will be drawing on them. And I will be listening to them and they will have a lot of influence on my thinking. But I will also have the ability to have seen things from a different perspective.

Another desire was commitment to shared governance.

Shared governance is a key part of academic life. The creativity and life of a university is driven by its faculty. That has to be the case.

That’s also where all the great ideas are. You can find out what are the big opportunities we’re facing, what are the most exciting things we should be getting behind. Is there anything I can do to make that dream a reality?

Our job in the administration is to set the conditions where those faculty and those departments and those schools can thrive and be successful.

Some felt a need for a chancellor who would take off the gloves and fight for Pitt, especially on budget issues.

A chancellor represents the University and everybody wants their representative to be an effective and powerful advocate for their interests.

Sometimes that’s fighting. But not very often, I think — unless you’re using “fighting” to mean a strong and strenuous defense in representation.

What makes politics contentious, when we’re talking about state funding or federal funding, is that there are so many advocates; so just being aggressive isn’t enough.

What’s important is an ability to engage and to show the value of what you’re trying to do so that you can develop positive support, not just the negative support of keeping bad things from happening.

I’ve spent most of my government career doing that: working with Congress, working with other agencies, not just doing the lowest common denominator consensus, but shaping an environment where what you’re trying to do is something that others want to do as well.

So, building supporters in some cases is much more important than fighting enemies.

You have to have both: You have to have a backbone and you have to be willing to engage and articulate the case for the organization that you represent.

I think I can do that. But I think what you really want to do is you want to be armed with the best ideas and a case that’s exciting — a proactive case. And once in a while you have to be willing to fight as well.

Chancellor Nordenberg cited stamina and the ability to manage stress as important factors in his success as chancellor. How do you handle stress?

You have to have something that centers you. For me it’s always been family.

I’ve gotten good at changing mental gears and going into work mode and out of work mode. So when I’m at work, I’m all in, and when I go home I really try to disengage.

I find physical activity helps: I never do as much as I want. I’m not the world’s greatest athlete but I love biking, I love swimming and walking.

And I like doing things with my hands. I’ve always enjoyed it, whether it’s woodwork or house projects or cooking. I just find that to be very satisfying.

What’s your specialty in the kitchen?

Southwestern cooking, although that may be more nostalgia from my Albuquerque roots; recently it’s been more the grillmaster — smoked salmon and grilling. I’m much more likely to fire up the smoker on the weekend, so I left it in Maryland. I’ll be in commuting mode this year.

The physicist in me is fascinated with the modernist cuisine — it’s almost the chemistry lab taken into the kitchen. That touches very directly on a lot of the experimental techniques that I used to use in the lab.

Some members of the University community asked the committee to clone Chancellor Nordenberg. Are you a match?

You don’t want a carbon copy. You want someone who can leverage what they’re good at and draw on other folks to cover the other things … That’s why it’s always a team sport.

Mark has been such a successful chancellor and he’s made such a difference to this University. I think one of the things that made him so successful was his ability to leverage all the things that he was so good at and use them in a way that derived great benefit to the University.

It would be an enormous mistake for me to try to copy that if those weren’t my strengths. My job is to leverage my experiences and strengths and do as much as I can for the University.

There’s always both the downside of a change and the disruptiveness of it, and trauma, if you will. But there’s also the opportunity to try new things.

Because it’s a different person leveraging different strengths, it provides the institution (opportunity) to try some things and focus on things that might not have been there before.

What do you view as your strengths?

I certainly have a lot of experience on the federal research front: it’s not in universities, but we worked so extensively with universities, and I think I can be a great advocate for the University in strengthening our perspective there.

Another is in economic development in the community. Partnering with business is something I think we should be doing even more than we are. I think there are so many opportunities there: How do we set up those partnerships? How do we work with the city and state? I think that’s an area where I have some ideas and some experience that can be leveraged.

I’ve always been passionate about teaching and education —and even though I haven’t been a teacher in a university, aside from my two semesters of being a TA, I think that’s one of the most critical missions you can have.

It’s something that’s been a passion of mine my whole life, even though my career hasn’t touched on it in a teaching way.

I’m excited by — maybe it’s more just enthusiasm and excitement than it is experience — but I really think we are at an interesting time where we’ve got new understanding about how learning happens. Pitt has played a major role there. You have new technologies that are opening up new possibilities and I just think that maybe we can make a real difference in forging what education looks like going forward — which gets right back to that value discussion.

What priorities have the University trustees set for you?

The board’s priorities are the same ones they gave to Mark Nordenberg: excellence in education, research, community development, international competitiveness, high value: These haven’t changed.

I think the issue is: How do those goals look to us based on the strong position we’re at right now, plus both the opportunities and headwinds that we’re going to face in the coming years?

I will expect to be working with the faculty and staff and administrators of the University in terms of refreshing our thinking about our goals going forward. The board, I think, is receptive to doing that.

That kind of very natural goal-setting will be a priority for us. It’s a very natural thing to do when a new leader comes in; it’s a good excuse to take a fresh look.

What are your own priorities as Pitt’s new leader?

My immediate priority is to engage and to listen: To talk to the students and to talk to the faculty and the staff and the leadership of the schools.

It’s both listening to them and getting a sense of what’s most important and where those priorities are. And also, what can I do to make a difference?

It’s also about building those relationships so that we can work effectively together.

We haven’t mapped out what the strategic process will formally look like yet. When you plan, you’re gathering as much input as possible. Different ways of gathering information work better for some people, so if you only pick one style and walk around informally, you’re going to miss input because some people are waiting for a formal chance to engage. If you only do meetings and do it formally, you’re going to miss the kind of give-and-take that is sometimes better.

Initially I want to embrace the things that are there: Visiting schools, working with the Senate and the faculty leadership and the administrative leadership and also getting out informally and meeting folks.

Planning never stops: Those discussions have to be ongoing.

You’re trying to build, not a one-time set of communications, you’re trying to build a pattern of talking to each other because we’re going to learn things as we try to do things.

If you only talk once in a while those things don’t happen.

What changes do you think are needed at the University?

It certainly feels more like an evolutionary involvement, not a revolutionary involvement.

I think the areas that I would be looking at are not stemming from weakness per se, as much as opportunities and shifts that are happening.

I think this value discussion that we’re having as a country — What does higher education mean? — is going to have an impact on how we operate as a university, in all aspects.

What does that undergraduate education mean if this value discussion is pointing more towards near-term employability? It may be playing a more active role in making sure we’re nurturing students all the way through. Most students are not coming through at the front end knowing that they want to come out with “this” job. I didn’t. Most of them are undergoing self-discovery. And that’s great. That’s part of the university experience — trying all these things. In the end, you don’t want them to go through that discovery and get lost.

We may have a greater stewardship role in supporting that journey because they don’t have the luxury of going five, six, seven, eight years. That’s one of the impacts of this affordability (issue). Our accountability to making sure that we support that is higher. It also means maybe engaging more with the prospective employers on the relevancy of what we’re teaching.

It doesn’t mean that we only teach… we’re not just doing workplace training. We have a broader obligation to produce well-rounded graduates, but we also don’t want to be deaf to what people are saying. It wouldn’t do any good to be producing a lot of students with great skills that no one finds of value.

So, I think that some of the evolution does come into this partnership, and looking at what we’re doing to help students through this process.

I think the same thing is happening in research: Pitt has done so well, and has clearly grown since I left, particularly in the biomedical area.

That was a period of time when NIH was doubled in funding and we were perfectly positioned … I don’t see — at least over the next four to five years — any prospect of major growth on the federal side.

That raises questions on how do you have a sustainable program of graduate education in that environment, when such a big part of that education is often doing research?

It certainly includes advocating and finding ways to attract more research funding, but there’s also the discussion: Does it have an impact on how we think about training graduate students as well?

It’s evolution but it’s taking the strengths we have and using them for the challenges that we see going forward.

Your predecessor, Mark Nordenberg, and your graduate school adviser, Provost Emeritus James V. Maher, aren’t far away, in offices on the Cathedral of Learning’s 6th floor. How will you leverage their presence?

Whenever I need it. They’ve both been fabulous and gracious.

Jim was such a powerful mentor in my life as a role model: his approach and his integrity and his honesty. More than he probably knows, those have molded me for the last 25 years. He’s a great friend and somebody that I will reach out to. He’s played such a big role in the University and knows much of it so well.

Mark’s the same way. It’s been a real partnership. I think Mark understands how important a change of leadership is to a university; he understands how traumatic it is.

He also understands that he has great value. And he and I have forged, I think, a real, effective, trust-based relationship where we can reach out to each other. I expect that to continue.

I like working with Mark and I think I’d be crazy to neglect such an asset sitting just six floors away.

What vision do you have for your own legacy at Pitt?

Ultimately, the final yardstick for success has to be the difference we make in the lives of the students who have come through Pitt.

We’re in such a strong position right now. If I look back 25 years ago, when I was here: We were a good school, but we now have an emerging national reputation as one of the leading public universities in the country. I think that can be cemented, not just to have the bragging rights but because this would be a go-to place where students want to come, all across the country, to get a great education.

This is where the best researchers and faculty in the country want to come and practice, the place where businesses want to work with us and we’re known as a great partner. I think we’re in a position where all that can be true.

The final test is: Are the students going out and making a difference? I think our success is mirrored in theirs.

If people looked back and said I played a role in helping make that happen or set the conditions where people could be successful, then I would feel great.

Chancellor Gallagher addresses freshman convocation Aug. 20.

Chancellor Gallagher addresses freshman convocation Aug. 20.

Filed under: Feature,Volume 47 Issue 1