By SHANNON O. WELLS
On a crisp late afternoon at the start of Pitt’s Homecoming weekend, about a dozen people — primarily Pitt faculty, staff and a few visiting alums — turned up at the University Club to listen and share thoughts on the University’s ongoing search for a new chancellor to replace the outgoing Patrick Gallagher.
The forum on Oct. 7 was led by Eva Tansky Blum, search committee chair and former Board of Trustees chair; Anantha Shekhar, senior vice chancellor for health sciences; John Gismondi, Board of Trustees member, and Geovette Washington, Pitt’s chief legal officer.
Summarizing the process the search committee has taken so far, Blum, who also chaired the committee that brought Gallagher to campus in 2014, said much has changed since that last search.
“There are about 14 universities, many (Association of American Universities-affiliated) universities whose presidents or chancellors have said that they are leaving after this year,” she noted. “This is an incredibly crowded market. Our search firm tells us that they’ve never seen a situation like this before, so there’s a lot of competition out there. And we really are in the business of selling Pitt and really making sure that everybody understands how fabulous it would be to be the chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh.”
Some of the similar-sized universities to Pitt currently seeking fill chancellor or president roles include: Boston University, Columbia, Florida International, George Washington, Harvard, New York University, Ohio University, Tufts, University of Arkansas, Florida, Louisville, and Massachusetts-Amherst.
As at earlier search forums, the panel sought feedback and discussion based on three primary questions/categories:
What about Pitt would be attractive to potential candidates for chancellor?
What challenges and opportunities will the next chancellor face? and
What would be the ideal profile of the next chancellor?
The pluses of Pitt
The first audience member who spoke, Bibiana Boerio, chair of Katz Graduate School of Business Board of Visitors, referred to Gallagher’s address just before the forum, which emphasized the strong integration between Pitt and its surrounding city and region.
“So it’s not like you’re coming into town where there’s a poor relationship,” she said. “The University is recognized as playing an important role in that region. It also is well respected (in the business community).”
Dan’Talisha Deans, Pitt’s new development director for diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging in the Division of Philanthropic & Alumni Engagement, called the University “a place of real academic excellence.”
“Actually I have some skin in the game, but … (Pitt) is a place of opportunity and access and (there is) a lack of pretense here,” he observed, adding that the culture and support from faculty and alumni are among the unique elements that “drive disciplinary innovation” in medicine and the sciences.
“As much as it is about the future, it’s also about the past, because I think there may be 21 universities in the country that are older than Pitt,” he noted. “The city of Pittsburgh has a great history and tradition built during the industrial era … but there is this real resurgence of fortunes of the two (that) are so intertwined with the future.”
Doug McCullough, vice chancellor of individual giving, emphasized the sense of pride many feel about the reinvention of Pittsburgh from an industrial hub to academic powerhouse. “People believe that they’re part of something that’s essential, as opposed to stagnation,” he said. “That’s a psychological boost.”
Continuing that theme, another participant pointed out the opportunities Pittsburgh offers to a chancellor’s spouse or partner “to be employed so that you don’t have someone who wants to stay in another place. They can live in the city,” she said.
Pitt, she added, has an opportunity to bring together advances in artificial intelligence, health care and cyber security. “I think the challenge in the search committee is to find someone who can bring the vision and experience in complex different parts of academic, athletic and campus life, but do it in a personal way,” she said. “Because I think the chancellors need to feel like they belong is really, really important.”
Among challenges discussed to finding the right chancellor candidates for Pitt were state funding difficulties and shifts in demographics that could negatively affect college and university enrollment across the board.
“One of the other big challenges in my mind surrounds the state support,” one participant said, “because it’s very hard to sort of have an overall security to create community and build the vision toward the master plan of the future while (having to) concentrate an incredible amount of energy to make sure that that funding structure stays full.”
John Gismondi ominously noted what he called the “demographic cliff,” an anticipated dramatic drop in the traditional, college-age population and enrollment pool in the U.S.
“Everybody’s been talking about it, and it is a challenge, in supply and demand terms, that a lot of schools are facing,” he said. “(Pitt’s) better positioned than some to withstand it in order to attract our share of the buyers out there in the market, but it’s (going to be) a challenge.”
Some skills and experience those at the forum would like to see in a new chancellor include the abilities to:
Set priorities and make decisions and realize “they can’t be all things to all people.”
Make investments and set realistic yet ambitious fundraising goals.
Work well with local and regional businesses and leaders.
Operate deftly both within and without academia and the ability to adjust to changing climates and circumstances.
“And it’s not just like, ‘Hey, you were successful in turning the ship and then everyone fell off because you turned it so fast,’” noted Chris Gassman, senior associate director of Pitt’s Center for Sustainable Business. “Thinking about, when times are changing, we need to adapt. ‘How do we upgrade the experience for the students? … It’s not just that I made the change, but that (the) change stuck, and the organization was better off because of that transformation.’”
Thanking those who showed up to share their thoughts and opinions, Blum noted the success of the search’s online survey, which had already garnered 1,400 respondents as of Oct. 7.
“Our search firm tells us that is unprecedented,” she said,
The team’s goal is to develop a finalized “leadership profile” by late October, which will be shared with the Board of Trustees, the entity that will ultimately choose Pitt’s next chancellor by spring 2023.
“We’re reaching people. We’re getting their thoughts,” Blum said. “We’ll be pulling things together, and it absolutely will help us as we help evaluate candidates (recommended to) the Board of Trustees.”
Shannon O. Wells is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at email@example.com.
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