By SUSAN JONES
Anyone who visits Pitt’s Bradford campus in McKean County is likely to come away with one very strong impression — the people who work here are very proud of their school and the education it offers to around 1,000 undergraduates.
An update on the Pitt–Titusville Education and Training Hub
They point out that Bradford’s panther is “the best cat” in the Pitt system. It’s a heroic version of a mountain lion posed atop Cathedral Rock, which is from the same quarry as the foundation stone for the Cathedral of Learning.
But more importantly, President Rick Esch said, “We have as much impact on this region — when you think of the overall demographics of this region — as Pitt does in Allegheny County, because there’s so much dependence on us. It puts a lot of pressure on us to really step up and be able to meet the needs, and we’re doing, I would say, a pretty darn good job with the resources we have meeting the regional needs.”
A former president at the school used to say that Pitt–Bradford serves an area the size of Connecticut, Esch said, which includes the districts of several state lawmakers. Esch said that helps them have an impact in Harrisburg despite their smaller size and may have helped “move the needle” in Pitt’s funding battle with lawmakers this summer.
Long history in Bradford
Esch is new to the president’s job, but has a long history with the region — moving here from Mississippi when he was 6 — and Pitt–Bradford. He got his undergraduate degree in environmental science at the Bradford campus and an MBA from Pitt’s Katz Graduate School of Business. After college, he worked for a variety of vendors who provided food services to several Pitt campuses before being hired by Pitt–Bradford in 1995 as its first director of auxiliary services.
He’s risen through the ranks to chief business and administrative affairs officer and then vice president for business affairs. He added vice president for business affairs at Pitt–Titusville in 2012 and was named interim president of Bradford and Titusville last year, after Catherine Koverola, who served from 2019 to 2021, stepped down abruptly for “personal reasons.” In July, Provost Ann Cudd selected Esch as the permanent president of both campuses.
The job of campus president wasn’t one Esch aspired to, he said. “Many years ago, what was on my radar — long before I went to work for the University — is I’m going to be vice president for business affairs.”
But now that he’s taken over leadership at both campus, Esch said, “Anything that I say I’m going to do, I put 100 percent and more into it. I’m in it to do the absolute best that we can do for our students, our community, our faculty, staff and our surrounding communities.”
Bradford Faculty Senate President Matt Kropf, associate professor of engineering technology, said the faculty are pleased with Esch being the new campus president.
“Many colleagues have commented to me that President Esch’s commitment to our campus and dedication to our broader community makes him uniquely qualified to navigate the challenges our campus, and higher education broadly, currently face,” Kropf said. “At an advisory board meeting recently, I highlighted how special a candidate for campus president has to be in order to earn the full and unanimous support of the faculty body despite not having served in the role of a tenured professor. I can’t imagine anyone but Rick Esch being able to achieve that level of support.”
Provost Cudd complimented Esch and his team for the outstanding work they continue to do on the Bradford and Titusville campuses. “Rick has an unfailing and deep commitment to Pitt–Bradford and Pitt–Titusville’s students, faculty and staff. He also has a firm focus on ensuring that the academic experience on campus is excellent and fulfilling, which comes from his own experience as a proud Pitt alum.”
Esch has seen the campus grow from two academic buildings when he started as an undergraduate in 1979 to around 30 now that are used for classes or as residence halls. A handful of four-year majors in 1979 has grown to around 40 today, along with 45 to 48 minors.
Another change has been the number of students living on campus, which has risen to almost 80 percent. The far-reaching hometowns of those students has driven the move to more living on campus. Esch said 71 percent come from 61 Pennsylvania counties, 15 percent from 35 New York counties and 14 percent from 29 other states and 24 countries.
Among all the students, 42 percent are the first in their families to attend college and 41 percent are Pell eligible. Esch said he thinks the support services and academic programs Pitt–Bradford offers have helped bring students from greater distances.
“I think we have demonstrated that we can provide a transformative experience for our students and get them to where they want to go from coming here as a student to providing the services that they need and then getting them to graduation and beyond,” he said.
All of Pitt’s regional campuses have struggled with declining enrollments, and Bradford is no exception. But Esch said applications for next fall are up so far, and they’ve been deliberate in inviting high schools from the region to bring students to campus for tours now that the pandemic restrictions have eased.
To help increase student numbers, they also are doing some market research, including a funnel survey to look at who applies, who is admitted, and who ends up going to Pitt–Bradford. They also plan to do a marketing and recruiting audit, to see if the school’s brand “still resonates.”
One way they’re attracting students from the 20 New York counties closest to Bradford is through the Go Beyond NYS Award, which offers financial aid to bring tuition down new in-state levels.
New building, new majors
Pitt–Bradford has a very visible symbol of the new direction it’s headed — the new George B. Duke Engineering Technology Building which will open in January on the first day of spring semester classes.
Esch said the engineering technology programs it will house have been in the works for 30 years, but until a few years ago any Pitt student who wanted a four-year engineering degree had to go to the Oakland campus.
“Johnstown was able to get an inroad with engineering technology. And then Provost Cudd supported us moving into engineering technology; Johnstown moved into straight engineering,” he said. “The building started to pick up steam in 2016.”
The mechanical engineering technology and energy engineering technology, which both started this semester on the campus, are more hands-on. The new building will reflect this with a machine shop and a variety of labs.
Two new faculty have already been hired for the programs and another position has been advertised. These hires will join three engineering faculty who were already at Bradford, teaching a two-year program that fed into the Swanson School of Engineering in Oakland.
Esch said a local industry council they created last year has been very supportive of the two new programs. He said they wanted to “gauge their willingness to be internship sites, externships sites, and the response was overwhelming.”
This fall, 18 students enrolled in the programs, even without a building or labs to work in. The plan is to have 20 new students each year per program. “We think that’s conservative but achievable,” Esch said. “So at the end of the fourth year, there’d be approximately 160 between the two programs.”
That would put those programs among the largest majors on campus, along with computer information systems and technology, which also will be consolidated in the new building, and criminal justice, business management, nursing and education.
Another campus improvement coming soon is a new turf field for the soccer and new lacrosse teams. The project, which is slated to start in March and be completed in August 2023, will include stadium lights, bleachers and fencing. Future plans include a press box, concessions, locker rooms and an athletic training room. Bradford currently has 14 Division III sports teams and will be adding lacrosse next year.
Esch said they have data “that our athletes are our best students, our athletes are retained in higher numbers, and our athletes on average have higher GPAs. … Division III, you’re not coming here to be a professional athlete. You’re coming here to be a part of a team. But that discipline, that structure, that wanting to be part of a team and having people that you can rely on — coaches, athletic trainers — those relationships really reinforce student success and support student success.”
Pitt–Bradford also is trying to fill out its leadership team. Esch noted that he’s still providing some support for the business affairs office because the position he once held hasn’t been filled yet. There also is a national search, started in October, for a dean of academic affairs and a director of institutional advancement. He said they are closing in on hiring an assistant dean of academic affairs who would oversee student support services.
Several faculty retirements last spring and this coming spring also have led to searches for 15 new faculty, Esch said.
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-244-4042.
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