By SUSAN JONES
In 2013, Pat Gallagher told Pitt’s graduating class that the highest compliment we can pay is, “You made a difference.”
Less than a year later, Gallagher would be named Pitt’s 18th chancellor. As he prepares to exit that role sometime next year — after his successor is found — he echoes that sentiment from 2013.
“I think when you’re serving an institution, you want to leave it better than you found it,” Gallagher said this week in an interview with the University Times. “And whatever that is, I hope that’s the case.”
For Gallagher, the decision to announce his coming departure didn’t come overnight.
“My goal was always to not wait until it was obvious that I needed to go,” he said. “It’s always better to leave when people want you to stay and not stay when people want you to leave.”
The last two years navigating all the ups and downs of the pandemic have been difficult, but for Gallagher, one of the most draining aspects of the job has been the growing attacks on the value of higher education.
“I worry that the United States is losing its mojo about higher education,” he said. “Since the end of World War II, we’ve had this national consensus about the importance of educational attainment — that getting a college degree is the pathway to the middle class, that the research activities and knowledge that come out of our universities can fuel our economy and protect our country. And it’s kind of ironic to me at a time when the rest of the world is doing everything in their power to copy the U.S. We’re somehow questioning the whole premise.”
Some skeptics, he said, start from the premise that maybe a college education isn’t even worth getting. And even if it is, they want to know, “Are you teaching what I want you to teach?” This has led to more erosion of institutional autonomy, particularly at public colleges.
Right now, Pitt and the other state-related universities are continuing to fight for their annual state appropriation as some House Republicans are using unrelated issues — such as concerns about curriculum and masking and vaccine policies — as an argument to cut or abandon funding altogether. The chancellor has been urging the Pitt community to remind their lawmakers that the state funding all goes toward reducing tuition for in-state students.
What happens for the next year?
Gallagher said he’s eager to get back to work after a week dealing with the fallout from his announcement.
Making the decision now to step down next year will give the University “the time to do a very thoughtful and complete process and to do it at its own pace,” he said.
In the meantime, he will move ahead to implement the Plan for Pitt — the five-year strategic roadmap that was completed last year — and making sure the University moves in the right direction after two years of difficult, abnormal operations because of the pandemic.
He said the opportunities Pitt faces are extraordinary, including a demand in the national market that led to the largest-ever number of applicants for the incoming first-year class in fall 2022. “This wouldn’t happen if we weren’t recognized as a great university with a national brand and a huge opportunity,” he said.
In addition, the Pittsburgh region “is poised on some really exciting economic opportunities that really do flow from what the universities do best.” These include life sciences projects, such as the work Pitt is planning at Hazelwood Green, and clean energy research.
“I think the economy’s coming out of these post-pandemic jolts and hiccups, but I think it’s exciting to see how much momentum is building there and continue to do that,” he said. “I think we’re going to actually have a really busy year and a half, which is kind of fun.”
The next chancellor
The chancellor’s only advice on who should replace him is, “not a clone of Pat Gallagher. You never want to do that. I think this is always an opportunity to look forward and think about where the University is going and not where it’s been.”
“I think the best group of people to define the future of the University of Pittsburgh is the University of Pittsburgh community,” he said. “So I hope this really includes a lot of dialogue with the community before it gets going. Defining that profile is probably the most important part of any search.”
Gallagher came to Pitt from the federal government, where he had served as director of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology and as acting deputy secretary of Commerce. He succeeded Mark Nordenberg, who served as chancellor from 1996 to 2014.
Hiring someone from outside or inside academia has benefits and risks, Gallagher said. The worry from someone outside is they won’t have an appreciation for what universities are doing, he said, “I hope that wasn’t true in my case.” But somebody who has spent their entire career in academia probably hasn’t had other experiences.
“I think it’s really the University looking at what it wants its future to be, where it thinks it’s going. … It’s matchmaking, right? It’s like dating and trying to find somebody who can match that and move forward.”
When Gallagher succeeded Nordenberg, who he says was “such an iconic leader for such a long period of time,” people kept saying, “Those are big shoes to fill, and I said I hope I’m not wearing his shoes because it’s more like a relay race. You want to take the baton. You appreciate where he brought the University to, and my job was to try to advance it some more, and I think the next person’s job is to take it from where it is when I turn it over and do even better.”
The next chancellor will have three new deans — pharmacy, business and nursing — who are expected to be named later this year. Since Gallagher started, almost all the deans and other senior leaders have been replaced.
Gallagher said he thinks this is just a matter of timing. He knew when he started that many of the deanships would soon be open because of a cluster in terms of age and experience. This same cyclical change is likely when deans who have started in the past several years start to retire.
What’s next for him?
Gallagher has a Ph.D. in physics from Pitt. He plans to transition to teaching as a professor in Department of Physics and Astronomy, although he hasn’t taught in a college classroom since he was a teaching assistant, except for some guest lectures.
“You’re talking to a newbie, which is actually kind of exciting,” he said. “Having watched all the faculty at Pitt sort of have to relearn their craft because of the pandemic, that’s hard to do when you’ve been doing something well for a long time and then you’re forced to change.”
When Gallagher came to Pitt for his doctorate after teaching high school physics for a year, his goal was to teach at the college level. He’s been telling some of the students he’ll be the rustiest new professor they’ve had, but he’ll have lots of enthusiasm.
“It’s also kind of exciting to come in at a time when there’s a lot of innovation in education and evidence-based education,” he said. “Our physics department has led in some of that. I think joining some of that effort is really exciting.”
He said it won’t be difficult to step back from the inner workings of the University. Mark Nordenberg has been a great example to follow, in that respect.
“If you really care about the institution, whether or not you’re in the role leading it — and I think this has been true for Mark, too — you always want to do what is best for the institution,” Gallagher said. “And it’s not good for an institution to have a former leader getting in the way. So I hope I do as well as Mark did.”
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at email@example.com or 724-244-4042.
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