Pitt's new chancellor Gallagher to continue broad role at school

Debra Erdley
| Thursday, July 31, 2014, 11:00 p.m.

Patrick Gallagher faces a rapidly changing landscape in higher education and lofty expectations from business and civic leaders when he takes office as chancellor at the University of Pittsburgh.

Gallagher's move into the corner office on the first floor of the Cathedral of Learning is the latest step in a transition months in the making at Western Pennsylvania's largest public research university.

Mark Nordenberg, 66, Pitt's chancellor for 19 years and a fixture at the university for 18 years before that, steps aside on Friday and Gallagher steps in; his first full day on the job will be Monday. Nordenberg, who announced his departure 14 months ago, will chair the University of Pittsburgh Institute of Politics.

Nordenberg — the intense, soft-spoken law professor who shepherded Pitt's transition from a regional school to a national university ranked fifth in federal research dollars — cast a long shadow that fell well beyond Pitt's Oakland campus. His participation in civic and economic development initiatives and the partnership he and former Carnegie Mellon University President Jared Cohon crafted made for great expectations within and outside Pitt's hallowed halls.

“It's not typical for (university leaders) to be that engaged. (Nordenberg) worked inside as well as outside the university. Those who worked for him understood his vision. He instilled a sense of responsibility to the land that they've been sitting on at Pitt,” said Audrey Russo, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Technology Council.

Gallagher, who was not available for comment on Thursday, has said he'll focus on building relationships with civic and business leaders to leverage them for Pitt's success. He'll earn a base salary of $525,000.

With 12,300 employees, 32,600 students and a $1.9 billion budget, the university is a key player in the region's economy; its leader can wield enormous influence on Western Pennsylvania's health and vitality, experts say.

“Pitt is very high in terms of importance to the local economy,” said Kurt Rankin, an economist with PNC Financial Services Group.

“Without Pitt and CMU's active involvement in issues beyond their walls, this region's transformation story would be very different,” said Dennis Yablonsky, CEO of Allegheny Conference for Community Development.

Yablonsky said the university leaders supported initiatives such as Pittsburgh Life Science Greenhouse and Pittsburgh Digital Greenhouse that helped to make the region a center for high-tech and biotech start-ups.

But like other public universities, Pitt, which charges the highest tuition of any state flagship school in the nation, faces declining state support and a Congress at odds over continued funding for research.

“Pitt is one of the reasons our leaders can market this city and this region,” said former Millvale Mayor Jim Burn, who chairs the Democratic State Committee. “I hope the new chancellor takes the same multi-faceted approach Chancellor Nordenberg has, focusing on government and economic opportunity as well as education. We were only limited by (Nordenberg's) creativity and imagination. He's poured a great footer for the new chancellor to continue to build upon.”

Those who have met Gallagher are confident he is up to the task. Gallagher earned a Ph.D. in physics at Pitt, and was undersecretary and then acting deputy secretary of the Department of Commerce and director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

That experience, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said, indicates Gallagher and Pitt “have the ability to transform not just this city but the entire region.”

Gallagher, 51, a father of three, grew up in New Mexico and spent most of his professional life inside the Washington beltway. But his ties to Pittsburgh run deep. He met his wife, Kate Abrahamson, while in graduate school at Pitt and often visited his grandparents, Adolf and Agnes Selter, in the Carrick home where his mother grew up.

Yablonsky said that when he met Gallagher, “He clearly communicated his understanding of the role the chancellor has to play in the community, and that is music to my ears.”

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, an ex-officio member of Pitt's board of trustees, said he is “very comfortable in where Pat Gallagher wants to take the university, on the trajectory Mark Nordenberg has put it on.”

Laura Ellsworth, a partner with the Jones Day law firm and chair of the Pennsylvania Economy League, looks beyond Gallagher's potential influence on Pittsburgh.

“It is my hope that Pittsburgh influences the new chancellor,” she said. “Because there is nowhere in the country like this, where people genuinely care about one another and their community as a whole, and where the leaders of great institutions come together to roll up their sleeves and work — directly, not through proxies — for the good of this region.”

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

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