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April 16, 1998

Comfort to retire from role of advocate for part-time students

"After 29 years of fighting the same battles over and over, I thought it was time for a change," said Bob Comfort, 61, explaining his decision to retire July 1 as associate dean of the College of General Studies (CGS).

What battles? "Well, CGS — or any evening college or school that caters primarily to non-traditional students — always functions in this in-between role," Comfort replied. "We don't have our own faculty. We always have to rely on someone else to provide our courses and instruction. We're kind of in a beggar's role. We depend on the good graces of other deans and department chairs who have their own priorities. And CGS may not always be one of those priorities." John Bolvin, CGS dean from 1983 to 1994, recalled: "Bob was always a fighter, in a positive sense, on behalf of part-time and evening students. He was extremely desirous that CGS students received good advising services, including employment services. Because while most of our students were employed, many wanted to change jobs; that's why they were going to CGS for a degree.

"Bob also would fight with other deans to make sure CGS got its share of regular, full-time faculty so our kids wouldn't graduate without studying under some regular faculty." And Comfort would always stick around the CGS offices on the first night of a new term so that if instructors failed to show up, students would have someone to go to for help, Bolvin noted.

Comfort said he'll leave Pitt "with very good feelings about the college and the University, and I'm proud of what I've been able to contribute. On the other hand, I don't think CGS has reached its fullest potential yet." According to Comfort, one of the best things that ever happened to CGS was the appointment last fall of Vice Provost Jack Daniel as interim CGS dean.

"Jack's appointment has created a much better understanding in the Provost's office of CGS, its values, its needs, its problems. The next three-to-five years will be critical for the college, and we're going to need support from the Provost's office. I think Jack's dual relationship has been great for us and for our students," Comfort said.

Reminded that he's seven weeks from retirement and doesn't need to toady to his boss, Comfort laughed and said, "I know. I don't have to say it, but I've said the same thing to Jack and to our staff and students. It's not bullshit. Jack has been a real catalyst for change since last fall." Since then, the Office of University Summer Sessions and Continuing Education has been merged into CGS, with office director Darlene Zellers Semelko appointed as a CGS associate dean. Daniel also recently named Kevin J. Altomari as CGS associate dean for Student Affairs and Services, a new position that incorporates most of Comfort's duties.

Also since last fall, the college submitted its long overdue, long-range plan to Provost James Maher, who has tentatively approved it.

The plan calls for CGS to continue offering degrees in programs distinctive to the college, develop new programs aimed at evening and weekend students, pursue distance education opportunities and expand non-credit offerings through units such as the Computer Learning Center and Pitt's Informal Program.

Failing to come up with a plan acceptable to Provost Maher was largely the undoing of former CGS Dean Robert L. Carter, who resigned Sept. 1 after one year at Pitt to return to Wayne State University.

"Carter was expected to come in and establish a strategic plan, to tell the provost and his staff how CGS should function," Comfort recalled. "This is a tough culture, it's a large, complex institution, and Carter wasn't able to develop an acceptable plan. I'm not sure many people from the outside could have come in and done it." Comfort himself was one of three finalists in a 1993 CGS dean search, but Pitt senior administrators called off that search on the grounds that none of the finalists merited tenure, a requirement for the job. Comfort then served as interim dean from 1994 until Carter's hiring in summer 1996.

These days, Comfort the long-time Pitt insider can hardly wait to become an outsider. "I'm anxious to leave not because I'm unhappy here," he said, "but because I'm ready to do some new things," including volunteer work, enjoying the South Fayette Township home he and his wife Donna bought a year and a half ago, and pursuing his two main hobbies: designing toys and furniture.

"I've got seven grandsons, and I've created a special toy out of wood for each of them. My wife keeps asking me when I'm finally going to make something for her." With the rash of forced resignations among Pitt administrators in recent months, Comfort knows his retirement announcement raised eyebrows among some colleagues. "Just the other day, someone said to me, 'Well, I won't ask you whether you're leaving voluntarily…'." But Comfort insists it was his idea to retire. "I initiated the discussion and pushed the issue," he said. "The University has what I consider to be a fantastic retirement plan, the stock market has done well, and I figured it's time to start a new phase of my life." Comfort said Pitt will never be far from his thoughts. "My house is 17 miles from campus, but I can see the top of the Cathedral of Learning from my backyard. They say, 'out of sight, out of mind.' Well, I'll see the Cathedral every time I walk into my backyard, so I'm never going to feel that far away from the University of Pittsburgh."

— Bruce Steele

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