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Nordenberg proud of foundation he cultivated

| Saturday, June 14, 2014, 10:00 p.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg in his office in the Cathedral of Learning at the university's Oakland campus on Wednesday, June 11, 2014. Nordenberg is stepping aside as chancellor after 19 years at the helm of the university that has grown from a regional commuter school into one of the nation's leading research universities.

University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg ran long distances before it became fashionable.

Nordenberg, 65, insists he got it out of his system more than 40 years ago. But he still appears to be in full stride as he prepares to step down on Aug. 1 after 19 years as chancellor — a tenure that puts him atop the seniority list of leaders at U.S. research universities.

Indeed, it seems Nordenberg was in for the long haul from the day he arrived at Pitt in 1977 as a visiting law professor on a nine-month contract.

Logging long days and speaking always in a cautious, measured cadence, the soft-spoken professor led the region's largest public university — the city's third-largest employer — to national prominence. He managed a $1.8 billion budget, the economic impact of which ripples across Western Pennsylvania as Pitt research reaches around the world.

“I've loved every job that I've had here as a faculty member, dean, interim provost and now chancellor,” Nordenberg said.

He relishes the opportunity he and retired Carnegie Mellon University President Jared Cohon had to forge ties between the schools, putting them in a unique position to compete for research dollars. And he takes pride in the role the schools played in Pittsburgh's emergence as a nationally known center for “eds and meds.”

Even so, he long ago began planning his departure, which he announced last summer.

“I was thinking about it for the last five or six years. But when you combine things like draconian budget cuts and bomb threats, there hardly was a time when I could have responsibly said, ‘I think it's time for me to leave and for someone new to come in.' There are certain things you have to take care of when you're in a position like this or you're not discharging your responsibilities,” he said.

In 2011, the state reduced its funding to Pitt by about 22 percent. Then in 2012, the university was plagued with dozens of bomb threats during spring classes and finals.

Nordenberg, who asked that his compensation be frozen for several years while the university endured budget problems, collected base compensation of $597,500 in his final year as chancellor.

He says he will hand the baton to Chancellor-elect Patrick Gallagher with no regrets as he settles into a new, undefined role at Pitt.

Gallagher, a Pitt-educated physicist, was acting deputy secretary of the Department of Commerce and director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, when a search committee tagged him to succeed Nordenberg.

“Here's somebody who can make a difference in new ways to the university. His background in science and technology and the fact that he has devoted much of his life to the uses of science and technology to promote U.S. commercial strength and economic growth gives him a reservoir of experience that I can't match,” Nordenberg said. “There is a very strong foundation in place here.”

Those who know Nordenberg say much of that is because of him.

“Mark is an extraordinarily hard worker,” said former Allegheny County Executive Jim Roddey. “He works so hard. Maybe he just works 10 times as hard as anyone else. He's returned calls from me at 10 p.m. and said, ‘I'm just getting ready to go home, but I wanted to talk to you first.' Or some days I'd call him at 6 a.m. to leave a message, and he'd be there.”

Nordenberg, who married his college sweetheart, Nikki Pirillo Nordenberg, said his one regret is not spending more time with their three children. He looks forward to spending more time with his three grandchildren.

He readily concedes work is his only hobby.

“First, I take a great deal of satisfaction just from getting things done. And second, I have always wanted to avoid the embarrassment of not doing a job well, and so I work hard at it. In the middle of a university campus like this one, I quickly realized that most of the people around were smarter than I am. And so what I had to offer in compensation was the ability or the willingness to work longer and harder than they did,” he said.

Pitt's rebound

By most accounts, Pitt was awash in turmoil — its research dwindling and academics foundering — when Nordenberg became chancellor.

Roddey said Nordenberg quickly assembled a team dedicated to rebuilding Pitt.

“He's figured out that communications is 50 percent listening. He made Pitt a good place to work. It was not always so,” Roddey said.

Longtime Pitt English professor David Bartholomae said the chancellor's commitment made people want to work with him.

“My generation was privileged to ride the crest of the wave created by his leadership, character and success. He came from the faculty. He was a member of the faculty, and when he became our chancellor, he knew the institution. He knew the city, and he was committed to doing what he could on behalf of everyone,” Bartholomae said.

At the same time, there was always the notion that students came first with Nordenberg, said Reynolds Clark, his chief of staff and vice chancellor for community initiatives.

“When there were budget cuts, it was always, ‘How will this affect the students?' When there were bomb threats, it was always, ‘How will this affect the students?' ” Clark said, recalling how Nordenberg walked across campus at night, calming students displaced during the bomb threats that nearly closed the university two years ago.

Retired Westinghouse CEO Stephen Tritch, who chairs Pitt's board of trustees, said traveling with Nordenberg means allowing time for him to talk with people who approach him, whether they're walking through a Pitt dormitory or in New York at a basketball tournament.

“He knows these are people connected to Pitt, and he doesn't want to shortchange them. He genuinely cares about what people have to say. People will want to take pictures with him. I have to wonder how often his picture shows up on Facebook pages,” Tritch said.

Prospective pioneers

Nordenberg says he's concerned about the future, citing shrinking state support for higher education, which he says has a direct relationship to increasing tuition at Pitt, and the threat of reductions in federal spending for research.

Yet he is optimistic about Pitt.

He points to numerous national and international scholarships Pitt students have claimed: among them, Rhodes, Goldwaters, Trumans and Marshalls.

He notes Pitt's legacy of medical breakthroughs, from Julius Younger, who was a member of Jonas Salk's polio vaccine team, to Bernard Fisher, who changed the course of breast cancer research, and to organ transplant pioneer Thomas Starzl.

“There are people here who could become pioneers in the category of those legendary figures, which is one of the things that makes the job so exciting,” Nordenberg said. “The notion that you are contributing to an environment in which they can advance that impactful work is a source of great satisfaction.”

Debra Erdley is a Trib Total Media staff writer. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or

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