Gallagher has sought to broaden Pitt’s impact and increase its relevance in a time of public questioning and a lack of confidence in the institutions of higher education.
While Pitt has always focused on the quality of its programs, Gallagher also emphasizes accessibility. In the last year, the university made one of the largest changes in its history to financial aid. It matched federal Pell grants, dollar for dollar, for all Pitt students and expanded its aid.
In addition, all valedictorians and salutatorians from Pittsburgh public schools were automatically enrolled and granted scholarships, and the university has expanded its outreach to local schools.
On the research side, Pitt is working to expand the aperture of how faculty and students leverage research and demonstrate impact, Gallagher says. Partnering is critical for that to be successful — the university has to be working with companies and be in communities.
Gallagher is excited about a novel program that creates community engagement centers in Pittsburgh neighborhoods. Pitt is one of the few urban research-intensive universities, but Gallagher says the idea was sparked by thinking about agricultural universities with extension offices in each county so farmers can access agriculture research extension services.
“The question came up: ‘What would that look like for Pitt?’ The original germ of the idea, if you will, was neighborhood extension offices,” he says. “Maybe we need a presence in our neighborhoods where we’re working very intensely so that those community members have a portal and a home base to work with the university, and conversely, the university folks working in that neighborhood have a home base. From there, it’s become a much richer and better idea.”
These centers aren’t meant to be a Pitt marketing office. The person running the center is hired with community input and is from that community, so people can ask for help navigating local challenges or point out an area that Pitt should pay attention to.
“It was really important to us that those be true partnerships, a real two-way road,” Gallagher says.
After a letter of intent circulated, a number of communities expressed interest. Gallagher says the first one was in Homewood. The Hill District has a director hired, but a physical center hadn’t opened as of the beginning of August.
“That sense of connectivity between a university and its community is one of the most important things that a university can pay attention to,” he says.
Pitt also is part of Innovate Pittsburgh, a coalition of Pitt, Carnegie Mellon University, foundations and the public sector. Gallagher says it seeks to create a collision zone between universities and businesses where startup companies can take hold.
When universities move into new areas, it’s not like corporations, where it’s all about reprioritizing and trade-off economics, Gallagher says.
Instead, it creates a focal point for the effort and resource allocation that’s already there, while sometimes acting as a magnet for new resources. For example, student recruiting was always occurring, but now it’s done alongside the idea of supporting the region, or access and affordability, he says.
The obvious exception was restructuring the financial aid position of the university. This wasn’t done by alignment and instead took active cutting and reprioritizing. And in doing so, Gallagher had to reassure some Pitt employees about the changes.
“Any time you’re enriching the portfolio or you’re broadening the viewpoint, some people will feel that you’re losing focus on the core mission, the traditional mission,” he says. “We’ve tried to be very clear that we’re not telling you to stop doing things that you’ve done and to do something different.
“We’re simply saying at a time when the world around us is so dynamic, you have to take a broader view on what kinds of things might generate impact. The university is a big place, so there’s a lot of room for different people to focus on different things.”