By SUSAN JONES
As he enters what will likely be his last year as Pitt’s chancellor, Patrick Gallagher is looking ahead and hoping to wrap up some of the projects that got started under his tenure.
Gallagher announced in April that he will step down next summer from the job he’s held since 2014 and transition to the faculty as a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. He has a Ph.D. in physics from Pitt. The Board of Trustees is in the process of forming a search committee to find the University’s 19th chancellor (see related story).
“It’s not a question of starting a bunch of stuff that was on my bucket list,” Gallagher said in an interview with the University Times. “It’s really about continuity and seeing a lot of the things through. We’ve just got a lot — with the budget restart model, the new compensation program, BioForge.”
He said he’d like to “leave my successor with as much positive forward momentum as I can. The best thing I can do is leave the University in good shape, but — and more importantly — moving forward. What you don’t want to do in a transition is just start treading water.”
Gallagher talked about a variety of issues during last week’s interview.
On Harrisburg and state funding
One of his biggest concerns for the coming year is the politics around higher education. He’d like to “find a pathway on some of the budget dynamics with Harrisburg and try to get us out of this annual exercise in brinksmanship.”
“The budget battle was concerning to me because it was happening at the expense of all the students that the bill supports. And our students shouldn’t be proxies in political battles,” he said. “I think we should be talking about the funding and supporting educational opportunities for Pennsylvania citizens, and that’s not what it was about; it was about other things.”
The underlying dynamics that led to showdowns with some state lawmakers are still there, Gallagher said. “I don’t think anyone wants to go through that again. But I think unless we do something to change the dynamics, that’s probably what’s going to happen. I am interested in working with elected officials on both sides to see if there’s a way that we can kind of come to a new understanding that lets us move forward without that kind of approach. … I would love to be able to give my successor a solution for that and not just pass on a problem.”
On the Plan for Pitt
The second five-year Plan for Pitt was unveiled last year, and Gallagher said the initiatives it has spawned are “about where I expected” and some of the projects are really moving along. “I think the fact that we’ve been able to do that despite a pandemic and a budget battle and all the other sorts of distractions we’ve had is really quite remarkable.”
It’s not about developing the plan anymore, he said, but about “is it leading to the kinds of ideas, initiatives and things to move forward.”
He particularly noted that the new budget model and “moving the center of gravity of leadership for the University into the deans who lead our schools, driving our graduate and professional enrollment, is, I think, in full flower and really moving forward.”
Some of the initiatives around Pitt as an anchor institution and supporting the surrounding community are doing quite well, he said. Other ideas are still in the planning phase but progressing.
“I will say, I’m always the most impatient person in the room, so I will always say we can do more, and we can do it faster,” Gallagher said. “But the more honest and maybe more reflective answer is I think it’s going well when you consider that some of these were quite mature and ready to go.”
On being a lame duck chancellor
“I don’t even know what that means,” Gallagher said. “The classic lame duck, of course, is from a political context, where people are no longer afraid of the consequences and you sort of lose some momentum. I don’t think universities operate that way. We operate much more by seeking broad consensus, and the momentum is just not depending on me and it’s certainly not dependent on power.
“I don’t think the lame duck aspect is a concern that I have at all. … I want to be respectful of the fact that, in all likelihood, somebody else is running this University next year. And part of my job now is to make them as successful as possible. And so it does change your thinking a little bit. … You don’t want to start something now that you can’t conclude or start something that just creates an obligation or constraint on your successor.”
On people anxious about the transition
Gallagher said he understands people’s fear of the unknown. “I think that’s just natural uncertainty, and it’s structural, and it’s temporary,” he said.
“The upside of these kinds of transitions is that we’re going to have a University-wide discussion about where Pitt is going, and it’s a chance to reflect on things that we’re doing really well and areas where we think we can do better and use that to try to identify somebody who’s going to be really helpful,” Gallagher said.
He noted that the new chancellor will not be filling his shoes, just as Gallagher did not fill Mark Nordenberg’s. Instead, he said, this is a relay race. “You want somebody who’s the best person to run the next leg of the relay, not the one we just did,” he said. “I tend to think these (transitions) are real opportunities. … and you’ll get all the advantages of somebody with fresh ideas and all of that kind of stuff coming in as well.”
He expects September to be a busy month as the search committee is formed and starts reaching out to the Pitt community for input.
On coping with COVID and other health concerns
Since March 2020, all of Pitt’s health issues were defined by the pandemic, Gallagher said, “and the truth of the matter is that the health and wellness of our community is affected by a lot of other things.”
Now that the pandemic is shifting into an endemic, the approach to COVID-19, like other common health programs, shifts to personal responsibility instead of institutional controls, the chancellor said.
“I do think and what I’m hoping is that we leave in place permanently a focal point for us to do health and wellness initiatives and efforts across the University and that can be adaptive to either great need, as it was in the case of the pandemic, or major opportunities,” he said.
He said Pitt is exploring whether to have a chief health and wellness person who would be a focal point for University-wide efforts, whether it’s mental health, stress, sexual health, reproductive health, staying healthy through flu and cold season, immunizations, or need-based events like monkeypox and the new emergence in West Nile virus.
One area of study the pandemic pushed aside was smoking and tobacco use on campus. Gallagher said just before the 2020 shutdown he had received a report on the subject with a lot of great ideas, and he’d like to see more action on that.
“This is a residential university, we live here. We want to thrive here and part of that is taking care of ourselves,” he said. “We all want to be in a university that can support that, and as a great medical university, we should be able to take advantage of the richness of expertise and talent that we have here. And I’m hoping that doesn’t go away. I hope that’s a permanent part of Pitt.”
On the faculty union negotiations
“I’m going to deflect a little bit on this one because they’re in the middle of having discussions. I think maybe the worst thing I could do is sit on the sidelines and call balls and strikes as they’re trying to work together,” Gallagher said.
“My expectations really haven’t changed. I think the stakes are really high here — this is about our faculty. And I expect both sides to be at the table in a meaningful, diligent way and put the best interests of our faculty and our university at the forefront, and I just don’t see that I can help that dynamic by cheerleading or providing running commentary on the side.
“I have confidence that the two parties are there for the right reason doing the right thing. There’s going to be a lot of discussions to come. I’m sure there’s going to be some different viewpoints to work out. In my experience in negotiations, the negotiators need to have that trust with each other and the confidence that this is not being distorted on the outside.”
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-244-4042.
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