Pitt thrust into tough search for chief

Debra Erdley
| Monday, July 1, 2013, 11:45 p.m.

The competition couldn't be much tougher.

When University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg announced his retirement last week, Pitt joined Penn State, Ohio State and the University of Michigan in high-stakes national presidential searches.

“In the case of Pitt, it's fairly safe to say they are looking for somebody who can walk across all three rivers simultaneously and speak fluent Pittsburgh,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education in Washington.

“Of course, if you take out three rivers and Pittsburghese, that's what all of these search committees are seeking. They are looking for someone that will have great appeal and be able to connect with the huge array of constituencies within a modern research university. It is students, faculty, alumni donors, fundraisers, the football team, the community groups.”

He said a good fit — and Hartle puts Nordenberg in that category — can build a university. A poor fit can spell stagnation.

Former Allegheny County Executive Jim Roddey, who headed the search committee that picked Nordenberg, said the proliferation of vacancies is “obviously going to make this search harder.”

But he doubts there will be a shortage of qualified candidates. Roddey said 600 candidates applied for the post at Pitt in 1995.

Eva Tansky Blum, a PNC executive and vice chair of the Pitt trustees, is leading the search for Nordenberg's successor. She did not return a call for comment.

She is the second PNC executive to lead a university presidential search here in as many years. Jim Rohr, who retired as the corporation's CEO in May, led Carnegie Mellon University's search that culminated in the appointment of Subra Suresh as president.

Many hope that Pitt will seek a candidate who prioritizes regional issues.

“From our perspective, the universities are very important partners in regional economic development,” said Catherine DeLoughry of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development. “Mark Nordenberg has been an important leader and collaborator. We certainly hope his successor will do the same.”

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, a Pitt trustee, said the new chancellor should mirror Nordenberg's work ethic and ability to lobby lawmakers in Harrisburg and Washington.

Although most universities hire leaders from academia, strong leaders can come from the outside, too, said Michael Poliakoff, vice president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Former Sen. David Boren has become a respected leader at the University of Oklahoma. Purdue University selected former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels as president.

“What is crucial first and foremost is a profound sense of accountability to taxpayers and students,” Poliakoff said. “In the environment in which we're in today, when there is justified skepticism of the cost-effectiveness and academic standards of higher education, above all, the leader of a public institution needs to see the faces of the public and the students.”

At Pitt and Penn State, that means dealing with the fact that the schools annually top the list of the nation's highest-priced public universities. Pitt reclaimed the top spot from Penn State in a federal Department of Education survey released on Monday. It pegged annual tuition and mandatory fees for Pitt at $16,132, and for Penn State at $15,984.

Hartle said that won't scare any candidates away.

“The universities, even at that price, can attract more than enough qualified people to fill their freshmen classes. And compared to competition like George Washington, Penn or Case Western, tuition at $16,000 for an in-state resident is a bargain,” Hartle said.

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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