Chancellor search kicks off with sparsely attended town hall


Turnout was sparse for the first in-person town hall about what Pitt should be looking for in a new chancellor, but those in attendance definitely had some thoughts.

The Oct. 3 forum at the Alumni Hall auditorium was led by the search committee’s chair, Eva Tansky Blum, former chair of the Board of Trustees, and vice chair, Anantha Shekhar, senior vice chancellor for health sciences. They were joined by two representatives from the firm Storbeck Search, which is consulting on the process.

Blum, who also chaired the search committee that brought Chancellor Patrick Gallagher to campus in 2014, has said that this year’s search will have to be different than in 2013.

“Ten years ago, we had town hall meetings with 200 people here to hear about where do you think the University is going and what skills should we be looking for? We can't do that anymore,” Blum said after the Sept. 23 Board of Trustees meeting. “So we're adjusting and we're learning from other universities who will be before us in recruiting.”

While the online survey about the chancellor search has received more than 1,000 comments so far, only a dozen or so people turned up for the Oct. 3 forum. Another in-person town hall is planned for 4:30 p.m. Oct. 7 at the University Club, Ballroom B, and the survey is open for anyone to comment until Oct. 14.

The search committee and Storbeck Search will host a virtual forum at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 12 on Zoom. Registration using a email address is required. 

Search committee members also are hosting small group forums throughout the University. Senate President Robin Kear said at the Oct. 6 Faculty Assembly meeting that Larry Feick is planning two forums for the professional schools and libraries on Oct. 10 and 20. "You should see those in your email from your dean or director," Kear said. "Debbie Miller is also working on that for the schools of Health Sciences, excluding the School of Medicine."

Units interested in hosting a forum, can contact

Anyone with specific ideas of people the search firm should approach about the job, can send the names to that same email. Jim Sirianni of Storbeck Search said that it’s OK to recommend people who aren’t currently looking for a new position. The search firm’s job is to convince them why Pitt would be a good fit.

The other search firm representative, Shelly Storbeck, who also consulted on the 2013 search, said there are at least 14 other AAU schools currently searching for leaders, including Harvard, MIT, George Washington and NYU. “It’s the most competitive market I’ve seen in decades,” she said.

With the pressures of the pandemic, enrollment declines and the political environment, “There's just so many reasons people who started in a career for this kind of role 20 to 30 years ago and said, ‘This is my ideal job,’ are just saying, ‘This is not the job I signed up for.’”

Storbeck said in seeking feedback from the Pitt community they are interested in answers to three questions:

  • What about Pitt would be attractive to potential candidates for chancellor?

  • What challenges and opportunities will the next chancellor face?

  • What would be the ideal profile of the next chancellor?

Most of the comments centered around challenges Pitt’s next leader will face and what the ideal profile would be. But Victoria Lancaster, assistant vice chancellor for operational excellence in Business & Operations, said Pittsburgh in itself is an attraction. “Coming from a former steel town, we are growing and developing, yet we still have really wonderful quality of life and the cost of living is great and the community is amazing.”

Lancaster said she’d previously worked at another university in Pittsburgh and found that the people at Pitt are some of the “most creative, brilliant people that I've ever met.”

The ideal profile

Robin Kear, University Senate president and a liaison librarian, shared a list of qualities she hopes the new chancellor will have, starting with: “I think we need a new chancellor who truly cares deeply about this institution and understands our mission as embedded in our region and in our state, and who has a bold vision to move Pitt further in the near-term future.”

Laura Zullo, director of administration in Business & Operations, agreed, saying Pitt needs someone who “respects the institution, respects the history of the institution, but also has that vision for moving forward and building new traditions.”

Kear and others stressed that Pitt needs someone who understands higher education and preferably someone who comes from academia. Storbeck noted that only about 18 percent of sitting university presidents come out of nontraditional roles, and she would include Gallagher in that group. Prior to joining Pitt, he worked in public service for 20 years, including as director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and acting deputy secretary of commerce.

Other qualities Kear listed include:

  • Extraordinary administrative skills, so they can “identify and solve issues to make our work easier and impactful.”

  • Someone who cares about the “great work that we do in all disciplines, not just the medical and research fields in which Pitt excels.”

  • Ability to communicate Pitt’s stories effectively to a variety of external groups, such as city and state lawmakers, alumni and donors.

  • Demonstrated success in recruiting and retaining faculty, staff and students of color, and in retaining mid-career faculty, especially women,

  • A collaborator with shared governance, not a negotiator, “and someone who sees shared governance as an important counsel for them as a partner.”

Someone who can communicate clearly with all members of the University community was another quality cited by Christy Jackson, a staff member in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences and the Staff Council representative on the chancellor search committee.

Challenges and opportunities

One of the key challenges Pitt’s next leader will face is working with the new faculty union and a possible new staff union. Lancaster said there will be issues about how the unions affect shared governance and how the faculty union impacts promotion and tenure. “I think that is going to require an academic,” she said.

“It's really important that we choose a chancellor who really wants to work collaboratively with the new faculty union, as well as being open to working collaboratively with the possibility of other future unions of staff, grad students and postdocs,” said Ben Rottman, an associate professor of psychology.

Rottman said Pitt needs to keep moving to be more efficient and less bureaucratic. “We're spending so much time on just paperwork, for things that seem like they can be easily automated,” he said.

“We have a lot of processes that take many, many steps to get to the end goal, which takes a significant amount of time and effort,” Jackson said.

Hiring and retaining staff also has been a problem, both Jackson and Rottman said. There are issues with the pay scale and, he said, it often takes months to get a position posted.

“We’ve seen across the board that … we don't have as many qualified applicants when we have open positions, and it is increasingly difficult to recruit new staff into the roles that we have,” Jackson said.

Lancaster said the next chancellor should really support and focus Pitt’s research and development work, which could offset some of the challenges that the University faces in getting state funding each year. Pitt struggled to get its funding approved by the state legislature this year, and that problem likely isn’t going away soon.

A new capital campaign also is something a new chancellor will be dealing with. It’s been almost 10 years since the last major capital campaign raised more than $2 billion. Blum, who led the campaign in 2013, said donors will want to know how Pitt’s needs intersect with their passions. This is something Pitt’s next leader will need to be able to articulate.

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at or 724-244-4042.


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