Chancellor says ‘we have to be even better than we were last fall’

Woman holding vial of Moderna vaccine


Chancellor Patrick Gallagher gives Pitt a passing grade for the fall semester overall but an A+ on resiliency.

“I’m still, frankly, in awe of how people kind of swallowed their uncertainty and concerns and stepped way out of their comfort zone to kind of do things in new ways,” he said in an interview this week.

If anything, the spring semester will be even harder, he said, with the virus more widespread and a possible mutation that is even more contagious. “That doesn’t mean anything we did last fall isn’t effective, it’s still super effective,” Gallagher said. “But it’s easier to leak on your virus control, so we just have to be even better than we were last fall.”

On the positive side, Gallagher said we can start to see how the pandemic is going to end, as vaccines slowly roll out. Allegheny County is administering shots this week at the Petersen Events Center to people in the 1A category, including clinical students in the health sciences who are patient-facing.

Pitt plans to eventually be an official provider of vaccines. To prepare for that, a survey is going out to all Pitt faculty, staff and students this week to help prioritize vaccinations for people within group 1A. This will enable the logistics, equipment, staff and IT infrastructure to be set up to distribute vaccines as soon as Pitt is approved as a provider.

Gallagher spoke on a variety of topics during the interview.

Cost of delayed return

The delayed return of students to campus already has a cost. Gallagher said the lost room and board on the Oakland campus for the two-week delay is about $4.4 million. Around 1,000 students have chosen not to return to Pitt housing for the spring, while another 400 who weren’t on campus in the fall are coming back for the spring. The net loss of about 600 occupied beds will result in a loss of an additional $3 million, but that number is still evolving.

Students will begin moving onto all of Pitt’s campuses on Jan. 29, even though the semester started on Jan. 19. In Oakland, the residence hall move-in won’t be completed until Feb. 5.

Gallagher said he understands students who choose to stay home because everyone has their own risk factors. But there’s also a risk to “doing everything remote from home, in isolation from others — the social cost, the mental health costs, the stress cost, and also the fact that even learning outcomes aren’t necessarily the same. I think we have to remember that we can’t lose a generation, and our mission really does matter.”

Institutional settings, such as classrooms, dining halls, labs and even residence halls, have not been major sources of transmissions, Gallagher said, although Pitt did quarantine about 60 students across three floors of Litchfield Tower B in October after nine residents tested positive for the coronavirus. Most transmissions on campus have been traced to social gatherings.

“I do think it’s a true statement that being at the University does not give you any increase in risk environment, as long as you’re attentive to behavioral issues,” he said.

From the beginning of the year through Jan. 26, Pitt has reported 93 new coronavirus cases among students who have been on campus in the past seven days and 29 among employees.

Overall since Aug. 1, 2020, there have been 797 student cases and 151 employees.

The numbers will likely fluctuate in the coming weeks as more and more students return to campus. Students were asked to shelter in place for seven days before returning to campus and 10 days after they get back. Those living in residence halls on the Oakland campus will be required to have a negative COVID-19 test result to enter University housing. Pitt has partnered with Quest Diagnostics to provide the tests, and as of Jan. 26, 7,880 tests had been ordered by students, according to the report from the COVID-19 Medical Response Office.

In-class experiences

The University continues to operate under the Flex@Pitt model, which allows students and faculty members to decide whether they want to be in the classroom or not.

In the fall, only about 12 percent of classes were taught in person, even after the Oakland campus moved to Guarded Risk. Gallagher said they saw in the fall that there’s a risk of momentum taking over, “you start taking a class remotely and it’s hard to change.”

“We didn’t use the flexibility maybe as much as we could have,” he said. But he admits that the flexibility “puts a lot more responsibility on faculty and students on how they’re going to use that flexibility. And it also made everything more complicated.

“If you’re a faculty member, it’s just harder to prepare for something that’s both in-person and remote. There wasn’t much we could do about the complexity part, except support everyone. And that’s why I said, I think it’s been heroic on the part of our faculty what they’ve done.”

For the spring semester, he said Provost Ann Cudd is encouraging people to use the flexibility that’s there, “but I want to be very clear, we’re not making any new requirement, because that would take away the flexibility we’ve worked so hard to put in place.”

Stimulus money and state funding

Pitt is slated to get $30.6 million from the federal stimulus package approved in December. Gallagher said he’s waiting on recommendations from an internal group on how to use that money. A portion of it will be used for direct student aid. Those making the recommendations are likely waiting to see if there is any last-minute guidance from the government on how the money can be used, he said.

As for state funding for 2021-22, Gallagher said it’s likely to be a tougher year than the first year of the pandemic. In 2020, lawmakers “were able to pass the full budget right at the beginning of the pandemic, knowing that there was going to be a future cost that was going to get factored in.”

States have had to bear the brunt of responsibility during the pandemic for vaccinations, health care, prison care and educational systems, while dealing with the cost of the economic slowdown.

While he feels like there is plenty of support for Pitt among lawmakers, “They have a lot of competing interests to balance.”

“I think we have to be honest with lawmakers, who’ve got a really hard job, telling them what the impacts have been,” Gallagher said. And he said the Pitt community — students, faculty, staff and alumni — needs to engage with lawmakers.

The Biden administration

Gallagher sees a few bright spots with the new administration in Washington, D.C.

“I think the focus on COVID and getting the federal response moving is going to be huge,” he said. Having the benefit of scale with the whole country, and not “treating our country as sort of 50 independent states” can only help, he said.

“As a former fed, I will tell you the one thing I find really gratifying is the quality of people that I see being appointed into key positions,” said Gallagher, who came to Pitt in 2015 after two decades in public service, including as director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and as acting deputy secretary of commerce during the Obama administration. “These are deep expert, really good government people. And I think that’s really encouraging to me.”

After the pandemic

There has been a “burst of innovations” brought on by the pandemic, Gallagher said, and some of that will live on, especially the technology and collaborations in the classroom.

Another area likely to have long-lasting changes is “work flexibility, telework, flexible work schedules. I think that’s already happening. And I hear a lot of business units within the University already talking about how they could live with this longer term and give employees more latitude.”

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at or 724-244-4042.


Have a story idea or news to share? Share it with the University Times.

Follow the University Times on Twitter and Facebook.