Pat Gallagher envisions a more impactful and relevant University of Pittsburgh

 

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.”

Mission first

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.

Reaching out

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.

Gaining buy-in

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.”

Gallagher also doesn’t see his job as managing the faculty and students who do the knowledge creation and knowledge sharing. His role is to create conditions and manage the environment though things like collaborative capacity.

And he says it’s not hard to convince faculty, staff and students that Pitt needs a closer and wider role with the region.

“Everyone at the university is here because they want to make a difference. They’ve already bought into that mission,” Gallagher says. “I don’t want it to sound like that influence is a difficult sell. People are here because they really do want to make the world better, even though that sounds corny sometimes. It’s really, really true.”

 

Takeaways:

  • Orient people toward the mission to lessen turf wars and silo building.
  • Take up your challenges; the pressure could push you to a better way.
  • A wider focus doesn’t have to subtract from the core mission.

 

The file:

Name: Pat Gallagher
Title: Chancellor
Company: University of Pittsburgh

Born: Albuquerque, New Mexico
Education: Ph.D. in physics from the University of Pittsburgh and a bachelor’s degree in physics and philosophy from Benedictine College in Kansas.

You mentioned your parents are Pennsylvania natives. Which sports team did you root for?

Mom was from Pittsburgh. She grew up in Carrick. Dad was from Philly. I had no local allegiance because New Mexico didn’t have a team. So, it was going to be either dad’s team or mom’s team, and I’m sorry, but the Steelers were it because I came of age for sports in the ’70s. I’ve been a lifelong Steelers fan.

What was your first job, and what did you learn from it?

My very first job was a startup. I was in middle school and a friend and I started a lawn mowing and lawn service company. We got carried away doing the brochures. We canvassed the whole neighborhood and, based on the flyers, everybody thought we were a professional landscaping company. Then this skinny 13-year-old kid would show up with his dad’s mower.

I did get a couple good lawn-mowing gigs out of that experience and realized I did not want to mow lawns for the rest of my life. It’s a pretty hot job in Albuquerque.

Where might someone find you on the weekend?

In the summer, there’s a good chance you’d find me on a river. I love whitewater rafting and kayaking. In the winter, maybe on a frozen hill skiing.

What’s your favorite vacation spot?

Usually near water, whether it’s relaxing on the beach or a little scuba diving or just on a lake or a river.

What are you currently reading?

I have five unfinished books that I’m constantly scanning through next to my desk. But what I’m reading for fun is a little bit of urban fantasy, just to turn off my brain.

What was the hardest management skill for you to learn and why?

Sometimes your positional role, being a boss, is about taking actions that are in the interest of the organization that you’re supporting. Being a human being and a friend often means that you’re working on the individual’s best interest. You’re taking care of people; that’s what friends and colleagues do for each other. Most of the time those two interests line up with each other, but occasionally they don’t. Then you’re asked to take a very tough position for the individual, but it’s in the organization’s best interest.

It turns out it’s a hard thing, because it touches your humanity. You don’t want to be a jerk when you have to make those hard calls, and I think people struggle with how to manage their own emotions and feelings around that. That’s a good thing. I think it would be rotten if people found that to be an easy thing to do.

But learning how to do it in a way that’s fair and that tries to balance was something that took a lot of experience. What I try to do is just be very candid with people under those circumstances and identify, ‘Look, this is not necessarily going to be viewed in your personal interest right now, but here’s why I’m doing it and here’s why I’m taking this decision for the interest of the organization.’ Try to arm them with understanding and information.