When Pat Gallagher hears criticism of universities — something that’s very much alive today — people usually aren’t talking about the purpose of universities. They’re criticizing how effective they are.
“When you look at where a lot of the noise is, it’s all about the connection of the university to the society around it. Is a college degree relevant in your post-college life?” says the University of Pittsburgh chancellor.
While a college degree is not an automatic job offer — it demonstrates someone picked a narrow area and learned it on a deep level — he believes universities have two choices. They can say, ‘It’s not our problem. We issue degrees.’ Or, they can find ways to become more embedded in the community, including with employers while encouraging students to learn about the world of work.
Gallagher, who returned to his alma mater to lead Pitt in 2014, has chosen to embrace the challenge.
“I like the way the pressure forces you to think,” he says. “A university has to consider itself as part of somebody’s life, part of society, part of a region and a community, rather than something that’s standalone. And I think mission-based organizations are probably best when they think about the impact of their mission and not think narrowly about what’s happening within the institution that supports that mission.”
Gallagher was drawn back to Pittsburgh not only to help shape the university but also to engage with the community.
He left in 1991, but Pittsburgh is the town where his mom grew up. It’s where he met his wife and got married. He still has friends who live in the area. In many ways, it was like coming home, even though he wasn’t born and raised here.
After he earned his post-doctorate at Boston University, Gallagher spent more than two decades at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which is under the U.S. Department of Commerce and promotes innovation and industrial competitiveness.
He sees parallels between universities and government because they’re both mission-based organizations. As leader of a mission-based organization, Gallagher tries to orientate people toward supporting the mission.
“It’s the thing that brings people together. It’s the thing that motivates them. It’s a great way to overcome obstacles,” Gallagher says. “If you go the other way, you get into the who-does-what and the activity side, then you’re in the world of the silos and the turf.”
This is even more true at Pitt because the stakeholders include more than just the students, faculty and staff.
“Pittsburghers have an abiding belief in their community and a sense of civic ownership. In Pittsburgh, it’s our city and these are our institutions, and that sense of ownership and pride is incredibly powerful,” he says.
This ownership helps explain how the city has overcome shocks like the loss of the steel industry, and it’s something Gallagher wants to tap into.
“We want Pittsburghers to feel like Pitt is theirs in a very fundamental way, that it’s something that matters to them,” he says. “Pitt plays a much bigger role than just the immediate people that are part of it. Universities are not — and I always say this is with a little bit of irony because I work in the Cathedral of Learning — an ivory tower,” Gallagher says.