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February 5, 2004

Unpleasant memories: A former provost writes about his time at Pitt

mostlyaboutmeAs an arts and sciences dean at Northwestern during the 1970s and 1980s, Rudolph H. Weingartner occasionally would try to hire professors away from the University of Pittsburgh or woo someone that Pitt also was trying to hire.

Sometimes Northwestern won these skirmishes, sometimes Pitt won. Either way, they left Weingartner impressed by Pitt’s ability to attract and retain high-quality faculty members.

He gained even greater respect for Pitt’s faculty after he began coming here as a member of the Pitt Faculty of Arts and Sciences Board of Visitors. Weingartner also grew to admire Pittsburgh itself as a visually beautiful city with excellent cultural institutions.

So, when a search committee asked Weingartner in 1986 whether he would be interested in becoming Pitt’s next provost, he said “yes.” After three trips to Pittsburgh for interviews and house hunting, he was offered the job in April 1987.

“I made the tacit inference that if the faculty is good, the administration must be good,” Weingartner told the University Times recently. “That reasoning turned out to be unsound.”

As he recounts in his recently published autobiography, “Mostly About Me: A Path Through Different Worlds” (1st Books Library), Weingartner quickly grew disillusioned in the job defined, then and now, as the University’s chief academic officer and No. 2-ranking administrator. In 1989, after 18 frustrating months as provost, Weingartner resigned. He served as a professor and chairperson of Pitt’s philosophy department before retiring as an emeritus professor in 1994.

“Mostly About Me” covers the 77-year-old Weingartner’s personal and professional lives from his boyhood in pre-Hitler Heidelberg, Germany, to the present. But Weingartner’s chapter about his Pitt experiences is the one most likely to interest faculty and staff who remember the administrations of Pitt Chancellor Wesley W. Posvar and his ill-fated successor, J. Dennis O’Connor.

In recalling Pitt during the late 1980s and early 1990s, Weingartner writes of a bureaucracy-mired institution where business managers out-ranked and out-maneuvered academicians, where good teaching came a distant second to the quest for external research funding, and where a sprawling medical complex essentially ruled itself.

Weingartner depicts Posvar, who died in 2001, as being eccentric and socially awkward yet “exceedingly intelligent,” with a good record on issues of academic freedom and social justice, but also as a man obsessed with traveling around the world on largely self-assigned missions of dubious value to Pitt. “For him, the university simply was an arena that enabled him to be notable, something of a star, where, within limits, he could do what he wanted when he wanted,” Weingartner writes. “In short, Pitt was Wesley W. Posvar’s giant playpen.”

Like Posvar, who was Pitt’s chancellor from 1967 until his retirement in 1991, most of Posvar’s top aides remained in office year after year. But unlike their chief — who was not bureaucratic by nature, Weingartner believes — these aides had a vested interest in enforcing rigid procedures and reporting lines, according to Weingartner, who says he butted heads against this bureaucracy whenever he attempted academic reforms.

“To an onlooker, it was fairly obvious that there was considerable room for improvement in the undergraduate education offered at Pitt, a fact that was conceded by many an honest Pitt faculty member,” Weingartner writes. (Pitt trustees, too, would later concede that fact. During the mid-1990s, they declared the improvement of undergraduate education to be Pitt’s highest priority, paving the way for ongoing reforms and initiatives, including redistribution of University funds from administrative units to academic ones.)

Of Posvar’s successor as chancellor, Weingartner writes: “Very tall and handsome, O’Connor would never have gotten the job had he been a foot shorter.” Weingartner portrays O’Connor as a lazy, unresponsive administrator more interested in his daily workouts at the Pittsburgh Athletic Association than in leading the University.

In 1995, O’Connor resigned under pressure from a dominant faction of Pitt trustees whose opinion of O’Connor was at least as low as Weingartner’s.

When he resigned as Pitt provost, Weingartner — like his immediate predecessor, Roger Benjamin — cited frustration at having been shut out of Pitt budget-making. “No forum exists in which the provost can argue the case for an allocation to academic functions versus an allocation for another purpose,” he complained in his March 20, 1989, resignation letter to the Pitt faculty.

Today, Weingartner spends his days sculpting, reading philosophy, listening to music, traveling, enjoying time with his family and writing. “Mostly About Me” is the third book he’s produced since leaving Pitt. He lives in the same Squirrel Hill house he moved into upon becoming Pitt’s provost, but says he isn’t involved much with the University these days, although he did visit Pitt’s Book Center on Jan. 29 to sign copies of “Mostly About Me.”

Based on what he calls his “peripheral” observations of Pitt and what he reads and hears about the University, Weingartner senses that the institution is in good hands.

Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg and Provost James V. Maher seem to be “very competent” and “not horribly bureaucratically minded,” he says. Maher wields “much more” budgetary power than previous provosts did, Weingartner observes. “Pitt has become a normal university in that regard. The changes that I was asking for, such as having the admissions office and the registrar report to the provost, were turned down flat by Posvar and his senior aides. But they have since been implemented.”

Weingartner says that, in writing critically about former colleagues, he tried to be honest but not brutal. “I don’t know whether I succeeded. Other people must judge that. One thing I very much regret is that Posvar couldn’t read this book because I did not want to write what I wrote about him behind his back. At the same time, I didn’t think that I should write something positive about him just because he was dead.”

Among the living Pitt people Weingartner deprecates are former arts and sciences dean Peter Koehler and Adolf Grünbaum, who is Pitt’s Andrew Mellon Professor of Philosophy of Science, research professor of psychiatry and chairperson of the Center for Philosophy of Science.

“Peter Koehler, when he reported to me, was intelligent, conscientious, well-intentioned, unimaginative, and excruciatingly slow,” Weingartner writes. (Koehler, currently a professor of physics, chuckled after that description was read to him over the telephone and said, “I don’t think I care to say anything in response to that.”)

In his book, Weingartner calls Grünbaum a self-righteous has-been, “insatiably greedy for recognition and money” and “a pain in the neck, attacking anyone…who did not see the world from his point of view. Since Adolf threatened to sue me if I labeled him as paranoid, I cautiously venture that some of his behavior merely resembled someone so afflicted.”

According to Weingartner, Grünbaum executed an end run around the provost’s office in convincing Chancellor Posvar to award him lifetime tenure as a Mellon professor, at a time when federal law did not yet forbid mandatory retirement ages for faculty.

Grünbaum told the University Times: “I don’t want to dignify [Weingartner’s] statements with a reply,” although Grünbaum gave the Times copies of documents from Posvar as well as current Chancellor Nordenberg and Provost Maher, among others, citing his value to Pitt and praising his scholarly achievements, including his emergence as the world’s foremost critic of psychoanalysis. (In “Mostly About Me,” Weingartner dismisses Grünbaum’s anti-Freudian criticism as “beating a dead horse.”)

Despite their mutual contempt, Weingartner and Grünbaum share some biographical features. Besides winding up in the same philosophy department, both are German-born Jews whose families fled to America to escape Nazi persecution.

Weingartner writes in “Mostly About Me” about his happy boyhood in Heidelberg, the growing Nazi menace and his family’s eventual flight to New York City. He recalls his studies at Columbia University, where he earned a Ph.D. in philosophy, and his career teaching philosophy and serving as an academic administrator at Columbia, San Francisco State University, Vassar and Northwestern before coming to Pitt.

Weingartner also recounts his joyous 42-year partnership with his first wife, Fannia, which ended with shocking suddenness when she died of a stroke just 36 hours after coming through (“very smoothly,” her doctors reported) non-emergency surgery to repair a heart valve. And Weingartner tells how he recovered from that tragedy — thanks largely to a second marriage, in 1997, to his current wife, Gissa, who had been a friend of Fannia’s.

“For a long time, I hesitated in attempting an autobiography because I mistrusted my memory,” says Weingartner. “But the interesting phenomenon is that as you focus on some particular period of your life, things come back to you that you had forgotten all about. Sometimes, quite startling things.”

“Mostly About Me” is available at the Pitt Book Center and at Caliban Book Shop, 410 Craig St. in Squirrel Hill. It also can be ordered by phone (1-888-280-7715) or online at:

— Bruce Steele

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