By SUSAN JONES
There’s much about Pitt-Greensburg that was attractive to its new president, Robert Gregerson — from the size to the setting to the people who work on campus.
But the icing on the cake came when he first walked into the stately president’s office.
“This is everything I sort of fantasized about what a president’s office ought to look like,” he says. “Maybe I’m harkening back to the 19th century or the early 20th century, but this is what I think about — a big room with lots of wood, beautiful furnishings. I walked in here and looked up at the ceiling and at the leaded windows, and I just said, ‘Boy, I’m going to enjoy being here.’ ”
About a month into his tenure in late July, Gregerson still had some boxes to unpack, but had already found a home for a framed drawing of “Bill the Cat,” the slightly repulsive and irreverent, but still lovable, cartoon character from 1980s comic strip “Bloom County.”
Gregerson has a long history in academia, and he’s happy to have landed at Pitt–Greensburg, where he started on July 1. He comes to Pitt’s second-largest branch campus from Florida Gulf Coast University where he served as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and as acting provost, vice president for academic affairs and senior advisor to the provost. His was a professor of biology and department head at Armstrong State University in Georgia, before becoming dean of the College of Science and Technology; assistant professor of biology and chair of the science division at Lyon College in Arkansas and research geneticist with the University of Minnesota/U.S. Department of Agriculture.
He earned his Ph.D. in molecular genetics from the University of Georgia, as well as a bachelor of arts degree in biology and a minor in German from Wabash College in his home state of Indiana.
He sat down for an interview with the University Times this summer. The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
What brought you to Pitt–Greensburg?
I was a dean, previously, of a large college of arts and sciences. Great job, really loved it. What I loved about it was all the different types of programs and disciplines that I got to work with and people. Arts and sciences is a big mix of disparate disciplines. And I had decided that I either wanted to remain in that role, because it was really well suited for me, or to become a president of a small public university, because there are a lot of parallels there — the diversity of disciplines, the different kinds of ways of looking at the world. I started looking for those types of opportunities. And this one really stood out to me, because it combines the strengths of a major research university with the setting of this small, personal-scale university. That’s what interested me in Pitt–Greensburg. And I’m just ecstatic that I got to this point and get to sit in this comfy chair.
You came here from Florida and you’ve been in all sorts of climates in your career. Where are you from originally?
I grew up in small-town Indiana; in the cornfields of Indiana, not even in a town. I was a Midwestern, small rural guy who grew up in the type environment where you know everybody and everybody knows you. And that was wonderful. I’ve been lots of different places. And we have really enjoyed every place we’ve been, there’s not been a place where I’ve gone ‘Oh, boy, I wish we didn’t have to live here.’ Every place has been enjoyable, mostly because of the people. I think it’s all about the people and the relationships that you develop that make any place nice and special. I think we’ve been really fortunate to live in some wonderful places with some great people.
What are your first impressions of Pitt–Greensburg?
I met people and I was really impressed with the attitude that everybody I met had. I think everyone I’ve met has been not just friendly, but really focused on making this a better place — real focused on students and their success. … I haven’t had a conversation, where something about that type of attitude of — ‘We’re here to serve students’ — didn’t come up. And again, that’s why I wanted to come to this type of place. The size allows you to really be focused, and it’s education on a personal scale. I think that’s important. I think that’s why people — whether they’re staff, faculty — that’s why they come to this place. They want to be involved in something that’s more intimate; that’s more centered on personal relationships. That’s what I hoped to find, and that’s what I found.
And what are your first impressions of Greensburg?
I really like it. When I interviewed here, my wife came and we rented a car. She spent all the time when I was on campus interviewing driving around town. And when we got back together that evening at the hotel, she said ‘I really like this town.’ … We’ve lived in big cities and small towns, prefer small towns, but not too small. Big enough that there are amenities and there are things to do in town. We’ve been impressed with what’s available in Greensburg. It’s just a beautiful town. After living for 12 years in places that are flat as a pancake, it’s nice to see those verdant, rolling hills covered with green trees. In just a couple of minutes, you can be outside of town in the countryside. Any direction you go in the countryside is just beautiful. So far, we really like Greensburg. I can’t say we know it really, really well. But I think from what we’ve seen, it looks like a nice place to settle down.
What are some of your goals here in the first year?
Well, a couple of things. One is we’ve got to get ourselves completely focused on retention of our students. We had a retreat that was focused on student retention and we had some wonderful conversations. As I was looking at the University from a distance via the internet, one thing that stood out to me was that we need to help more of our students be successful. And retention is a big part of that. We’re going to spend a little bit of time, and we have been spending a little time, looking at everything we do and how it impacts students and their success. And then implement some of the best ideas to help our students be more successful and keep more of our students here.
What is the retention rate?
Last year, it was 72 percent. We’d like it to move toward 80 percent.
Are you looking to grow programs that have been developed here, like nursing?
Yes, absolutely. There’s a critical need for nurses everywhere. Most recently the Pennsylvania Bureau of Labor Relations showed that in Western Pa. registered nurses are the number one job opportunity going forward, and of course, they command good salaries. … It’s always a challenge to get a new program up and running. In a place like Pitt–Greensburg, I think something like nursing is an especially big challenge, because there was nothing like it. If it was a place that already had several clinical health professions programs, and you’re adding one in, that would be a lot easier. … That program pretty much was a starting from scratch situation. … I think it’s in a healthy situation, and we need to continue to grow it.
Consistent or coincident with that, when you asked about big goals, are some capital projects, And the nursing program is a piece of that. We need some new science and health professions facilities. That’s going to be a big goal of mine — getting that in place. We need a new residence hall. And we’re working on both of those projects. We need some upgrades to our athletic facilities.
I think the most important thing to consider when you’re thinking about capital projects, though, is they are a means to an end. We don’t try to put together money and financing to build buildings because we want shiny, new buildings. It’s a means to an end for students to be successful. You need the kinds of modern facilities that students can flourish in to get their studies completed. Athletic facilities need to be the best they can be for our student-athletes to accomplish what they need to accomplish. And so on. I think sometimes we get lost in ‘Let’s build a pretty new building, for the sake of having something that’s attractive.’ When it’s really what happens in that building that’s critical.
In regard to the residence hall, do you have more students who want to live on campus?
We have been inching up in terms of resident students. We’re at our max. But we also have some older facilities we would trade out for new one and add some new beds at the same time
So how many students live on campus?
It’s in the low 600s. There’s always a little bit of wiggle room in terms of number of beds, because you can put one more bed in this type of room. But our capacity is somewhere around 650. Approximately 40 percent of our students live on campus and 60 percent commute.
What do you see as some of the strengths and weaknesses of Pitt–Greensburg?
I’ll go right back to the people. You have faculty and staff who came specifically to this campus because they wanted to be a part of this type of environment. I think that’s critical. That’s why I’m here. Everybody that I’ve talked to, that’s what brought them here — to be at a place where it’s small enough that people know each other, people work collaboratively, more effectively. And I think the real strength of the institution is that you’ve got people who are committed to making this place and students be successful.
As far as weaknesses, I’ll go back to some of the physical attributes that we have that need refreshing. We need some more space. And we’re working very hard to make that happen.
Is there untapped land on this campus?
We do have buildable land. We are in this little valley, and so you’re looking at hillside building. There are potentially challenges associated with that, but it’s worked out really well — residence halls that fit neatly into the hillside. And then our next space is between two of the residence halls.
We’re also looking at the feasibility of putting a living community on campus for active learning adults and retirees. That’s in its infancy. We don’t know whether it will happen or not, because there’s a lot study to be done. But that remains a possibility for the future.
How do you see the relationship between Pitt–Greensburg and the Oakland campus?
Access to this amazing AAU university and the resources that exist there is a real strength. I think that’s something that I will be working through and understanding for quite a while, because there are so many pieces. We have to tap into the resources that are present in Pittsburgh. We have our own admissions office and group, but they work closely with the admissions folks in Pittsburgh. We have HR here, but they work very closely with the folks in Pittsburgh and on and on. I think maximizing the efficiency of all those relationships is something we have to keep working toward.
There’s some physical distance between us. But the phone and the internet or in the mail is easy to work with. But I think, for everybody, not just myself, (we need to) learn how do we work most effectively with the folks in Oakland? We’re all still figuring that out. I think every day something comes up. And you ask yourself, who do I talk to about this particular issue? Who do I talk to about another particular issue? I think it’s a fascinating relationship. I think it’s tremendously beneficial to Pitt–Greensburg to have that association. But it’s always going to be an ongoing learning process. And I’m looking forward to that.
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at email@example.com or 412-648-4294.
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