Through SHANNON O. WELLS
On a crisp late afternoon at the start of Pitt’s homecoming weekend, about a dozen people — mostly Pitt’s faculty, staff, and a few visiting alums — turned up at the University Club to listen and exchange thoughts on the university’s ongoing search for a new chancellor to replace the outgoing Patrick Gallagher.
The October 7 forum was chaired by Eva Tansky Blum, Chair of the Finding Committee and former Chair of the Board of Trustees; Anantha Shekhar, Vice Chancellor for Health Sciences; John Gismondi, member of the Board of Trustees, and Geovette Washington, Pitt’s Chief Legal Officer.
Blum, who also chaired the committee that brought Gallagher to campus in 2014, summarized the process the selection committee has conducted so far and said a lot has changed since that last search.
“There are about 14 universities, many[association of American Universities affiliated]universities whose presidents or chancellors have said they’re going after this year,” she noted. “This is an incredibly crowded market. Our search company tells us they’ve never seen a situation like this before, so there’s a lot of competition out there. And we’re really in the business of selling Pitt and really making sure everyone understands how great it would be to be Chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh.”
Some of the similarly sized universities like Pitt currently seeking chancellor or presidential positions are: Boston University, Columbia, Florida International, George Washington, Harvard, New York University, Ohio University, Tufts, University of Arkansas, Florida, Louisville and Massachusetts – Amherst.
As with previous search forums, the panel sought feedback and discussion based on three main questions/categories:
What would be attractive about Pitt for potential chancellor candidates?
What challenges and opportunities does the next chancellor face? and
What would be the ideal profile of the next German chancellor?
The Pluses of Pitt
The first listener to speak, Bibiana Boerio, Chair of the Katz Graduate School of Business Visitors Committee, referred to Gallagher’s address just before the forum, which emphasized the strong integration between Pitt and the surrounding city and region.
“So it’s not like you come to town where there’s a bad relationship,” she said. “The university is recognized to play an important role in this region. It’s also highly regarded (in the business world).”
Dan’Talisha Deans, Pitt’s new development director for diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging in the Department of Philanthropy and Alumni Engagement, described the university as “a place of true academic excellence.”
“Actually, I have some skin in it, but … (Pitt) is a place of opportunity and access and (there is) a lack of pretense here,” he noted, adding that the culture and support for faculty and alumni these include unique elements that “drive disciplinary innovation” in medicine and science.
“As much as it’s about the future, it’s also about the past because I think there are 21 universities in the country that predate Pitt,” he noted. “The city of Pittsburgh has a great history and tradition that was built during the industrial age … but there’s this real resurgence of the fortunes of the two (which) are so intertwined with the future.”
Doug McCullough, vice chancellor for individual giving, underscored the pride many feel in Pittsburgh’s reinvention from an industrial hub to an academic powerhouse. “People believe they are part of something substantial, as opposed to stagnation,” he said. “It’s a psychological boost.”
Continuing on this theme, another participant pointed to the opportunities Pittsburgh offers for a chancellor’s spouse or partner to “be hired so you don’t have someone who wants to stay somewhere else. You can live in the city,” she said.
Pitt, she added, has an opportunity to bring together advances in artificial intelligence, healthcare and cybersecurity. “I think the challenge on the search committee is finding someone who can bring the vision and experience to complex different parts of academic, athletic and campus life, but in a personal way,” she said. “Because I think it’s very, very important that the chancellors feel they belong.”
Challenges discussed in finding the right candidates for Pitt for chancellor included government funding difficulties and demographic shifts that could negatively impact college and university enrollment across the board.
“One of the other big challenges for me is government support,” a participant said, “because it’s very difficult to have an overall certainty to create a community and build the vision for the master plan of the future while having to (have to) focus an incredible amount of energy on making sure that funding structure stays full .”
John Gismondi ominous noticed what he said “demographic cliff,” an expected dramatic decline in the traditional college-age population and enrollment rate in the United States
“Everyone’s been talking about it, and it’s a supply-demand challenge that a lot of schools are facing,” he said. “(Pitt’s) is better positioned than others to withstand this, to win our share of buyers out there in the market, but it’s (will) be a challenge.”
Skills and experience that forum participants would like to see in a new chancellor include:
Prioritize and make decisions, realizing that “they can’t be everything to everyone”.
Make investments and set realistic but ambitious fundraising goals.
Work well with local and regional businesses and leaders.
Able to act dexterously both within and outside of science and adapt to changing climates and circumstances.
“And it’s not just, ‘Hey, you successfully spun the ship, and then everyone fell off because you spun it so fast,'” noted Chris Gassman, senior associate director of the Pitt’s Center for Sustainable Business. “Let’s remember that as times change, we have to adapt. “How do we improve the experience for the students? … It’s not just that I made the change, it’s that (the) change got stuck and the organization was better off because of that transformation.’”
Blum thanked those who showed up to share their thoughts and opinions, citing the success of Search’s online poll, which had 1,400 respondents as of Oct. 7.
“Our search company tells us this is unprecedented,” she said.
The team’s goal is to develop a final “leadership profile” by the end of October, which will be shared with the Board of Trustees, the body that will eventually elect Pitt’s next chancellor by spring 2023.
“We reach people. We get their thoughts,” Blum said. “We’re going to bring things together, and that’s going to absolutely help us as we help evaluate candidates that are recommended to the Board of Trustees.”
Shannon O. Wells is a writer for the University Times. Reach him below [email protected].
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