Gallagher’s first five years have been an education


Patrick Gallagher is approaching the end of his fifth year as Pitt’s chancellor, and he’s ready to continue working to improve the city’s flagship University.

“It’s like a relay race,” Gallagher said recently. “You get your baton from the person before you. People used to say how are you gonna fit in (former chancellor Mark Nordenberg’s) shoes? The good thing is I don’t have to. Those shoes worked fine for him, but I gotta run in my own shoes.”

And, boy, are those shoes busy. The 56-year-old is easy to spot striding across campus or popping up at a variety of Pitt events. It took a couple tries just to carve out 30 minutes to talk to Gallagher about his legacy so far and hopes for the future.

His tenure has seen many new faces at the top of Pitt’s administration and its schools, including:

  • Six of the seven senior vice chancellors (all except Dr. Arthur Levine, SVC Health Sciences), including creating a new SVC of research position.
  • Eight of the nine deans of non-health-related schools (all except John T. S. Keeler of the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs), including dean of the new School of Computing and Information.
  • Two of the three regional campus presidents, with the new leader at Bradford/Titusville named last week and the search ongoing for a replacement for Sharon Smith in Greensburg.
  • Two athletic directors, one football coach and two men’s basketball coaches.
  • Director of the University Library System.

Academia vs. government

Gallagher, who earned his Ph.D. in physics from Pitt, was selected as Pitt’s 18th chancellor in February 2014 and succeeded Nordenberg when he stepped down in August 2014.

He came to Pitt after spending more than two decades in public service, including stints as acting deputy secretary of commerce and director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology under President Barack Obama before returning to his alma mater.

Gallagher receives degree

When asked what the biggest difference is between working in government and at a university, Gallagher is quick to answer — “Sports.”

“I remember, in the middle of my first year, very early, we got caught into the whole football coach change because Paul Christ left to go to Wisconsin,” Gallagher said. “I was listening to the sportscasters on the radio and they were like, ‘Well, normally we’d look at this new chancellor Gallagher … at where he’s been, what he had done there. But he’s a physicist; we don’t know what he’ll be doing.’

“And someone else was teasing me, ‘Well, just do what you did at NIST when you had a problem with your team.’ ”

On a more serious note, Gallagher said, the biggest difference coming from government to academia is “the mission here is so tangible.”

“We’re in the opportunity business, and you do that through knowledge. You’re advancing the human condition by sharing knowledge and teaching and exploring knowledge and doing scholarship,” he said. “In a lot of government agencies, you have a mission too — it’s to support the public and advance the interests of the United States, but it can feel much more distant. …

“Here, the students are right in front of you, the research is right in front of you, the city that’s being transformed by your very presence is right in front of you, and you’re living in it. And that was really exciting to me; to see your mission kind of playing out before your eyes. And that’s incredibly motivating and inspiring at the same time.”

When he came to Pitt in 2014, Gallagher said his mission was to build on the momentum started under Nordenberg.

“I was concerned that while higher education had probably never been more important, it was being more openly challenged than ever before,” he said. “I felt that this city and this university, the University of Pittsburgh, we had a unique thing happening here. I had never seen a region that had such a close and intimate relationship with its university, and sort of understood how the University has played a role in an economic revitalization. I wanted to be part of that, and to help advance that.

“I feel like we’ve really continued to build momentum. Our incoming classes just get more and more amazing every year. We are actually now becoming known nationally, and you see that in our enrollment. We’re seeing out-of-state interest in applications going up, I think it’s up almost 20 percent this year.”

He also cited an all-time-record in research funding this year and a new record in fundraising outside of a specific campaign as signs Pitt is moving in the right direction.

Key accomplishments

Several initiatives have taken hold since Gallagher came to Pitt, and he picked out a few that make him the most proud.

Affordability: “We’ve started to address affordability in a real way,” he said. “There’s now a portfolio of programs. I would love for them to be much larger, but these are actually significant. And I think they’re innovative both on displacing loans through the Panthers Forward or the Pell match and through the Pitt Success Program. But there’s really creative things on the admissions and enrollment side, on creating ties to the Pittsburgh community through Pittsburgh Scholars. I’m really excited about that.”

Gallagher and students

Personalized education: This initiative is still at the very beginning, Gallagher said, “But the idea that coming to Pitt is more than just getting a degree; that you kind of have to leave Pitt with three things: a degree, a goal, some idea of what you’re going to do next, and a network, and all three of those are kind of now part of success.

“I think personalized education is a systematic way of starting to use data and other sorts of innovations to (learn) how do we do a much better job on that advising, mentoring and on the Pitt for Life on connecting with the network.”

Teaching and Learning Center: Another new initiative was the Teaching and Learning Center, which was rebranded from the Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education, renamed and expanded in 2016. It was set up, Gallagher said, to support faculty who really want to look at evidence-based methods in the classroom.

“I’m really impressed with the interest that has been shown,” he said. “The strategy we took was let’s try to give the faculty the tools to make themselves better by … creating a resource for them on various types of methodologies, and classroom technologies, and flipped classrooms and all these other approaches. The second part of that is creating the data and information rich environment so we can see how students are doing.”

Innovation: While Gallagher said he’d give Pitt an “incomplete” on the innovation side, he said there has been much progress. “Pitt had this amazingly strong cadre of scientists, but we had a reputation of only doing basic (research) and really staying away from applied or even translational work. I think that’s really changed. I think the faculty have kind of embraced that. … We’re still not there yet. But we’ve set now, three years in a row, new records on patents, companies, startups. I think the faculty understand that’s one way to express impact, aside from just scholarly impact.”

The chancellor said he’d like to see more larger-scale, problem-centered collaborations, where a group of faculty, either within Pitt or with other institutions, work on big societal challenges.

A few frustrations

Gallagher understands people’s frustration with the budgeting dynamics, which can create a feast or famine situation.

“I don’t worry about it too much. Because I think that’s just the way appropriations work. I saw that for a long time on the federal side; it’s no different here.”

He does wish that there would be more sustained support from the state. He’s happy with the steady increases in funding over the past five years but recognizes that Pitt and the other state-related universities haven’t fully recovered from the sharp cuts in funding under former Gov. Tom Corbett.

“I will tell you, the most frustrating thing for me, has been this polarization of higher ed,” Gallagher said. “Not concerns about whether students are getting a great education or whether our higher education system is serving our country, but a proxy for a culture war — whether universities are too liberal or too conservative or open enough or not open enough speech views.

“In some ways, it doesn’t surprise me. As I’ve often said, universities belong in the turbulence of their day, they’re not an ivory tower. But it’s frustrating. … I think one of the real keys of the success we’ve had as a country is this strong consensus around the importance of educational attainment and getting our kids into school. … I’d hate to lose that.

“Our country’s wealth and prosperity and security, both as a society and as individuals within it, are demonstrably better for what we’ve done in higher education. That’s why every country in the world is trying to copy us.”

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at or 412-648-4294.