Retro Oakland: Learning about our university’s leaders


John Brashear found a love for astronomy after he glimpsed at the moon for the first time at age nine. (Photo via the University of Pittsburgh)

Although Pitt students today have grown accustomed to a chancellor who takes selfies with each upcoming class and tweets regularly, past leaders of Pitt had different approaches to interacting with students.

There have been 18 Pitt chancellors — and each one impacted the University as we know it today. From Pitt’s inception as the Pittsburgh Academy in 1787 to one of the nation’s most distinguished universities with five campuses, Pitt has weathered hardships as well as celebrated successes.

Whether you take classes in Crawford Hall, live in Litchfield Towers or shoot pool in Nordy’s Place in the William Pitt Union, you have been in buildings named after these chancellors. Learning about these influential leaders could potentially give you a new perspective on the University, or at the very least a building you’re in every day.

Hugh Henry Brackenridge moved to Pittsburgh in hopes of a successful future after he failed as a publisher. (Photo via the University of Pittsburgh)

Hugh Henry Brackenridge — Founder of Pittsburgh Academy

Before our school was the University of Pittsburgh, it was the Western University of Pennsylvania — but even before that, the school was called the Pittsburgh Academy. Hugh Henry Brackenridge founded the Pittsburgh Academy in 1787, and a residence hall on Fifth Avenue is named after him because of it.

Brackenridge — who emigrated from Scotland with his family when he was 5 years old — not only founded the Pittsburgh Academy, but was also a justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, helped in 1786 to establish the Pittsburgh Gazette — which operates today as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette — and wrote a satirical novel, “Modern Chivalry,” about the American frontier.

David Riddle was the Chancellor of the university when classes were suspended. (Photo via the University of Pittsburgh)

David Riddle — Chancellor from 1849-1855

Much of Pittsburgh — including many Western University of Pennsylvania buildings — was engulfed in the flames of the Great Fire of 1845 and burned to the ground. After this catastrophe, the University constructed a new building — Duquesne Way — and finished it in 1846. But this too burned down when the second fire in less than five years destroyed much of what was left of the University in 1849.

Riddle was the chancellor during the recovery from the second fire. According to the chancellor’s website, Riddle served a school without students because classes were suspended during his tenure.

A new building — a 16-room, slate roof and brick building — was built on what is now the corner of Forbes Avenue and Grant Street in downtown Pittsburgh but at the time was the corner of Ross and Diamond streets. The City-County building now resides on that plot.

William J. Holland created a partnership between Pitt and Western Pennsylvania College of Medicine, which later turned into the School of Medicine. (Photo via the University of Pittsburgh)

William Jacob Holland — Chancellor from 1891-1901

Although many Pitt chancellors were Scottish, Holland was born in Jamaica. He was a zoologist, paleontologist and like many other chancellors of the school, was an ordained Presbyterian minister.

Holland wrote multiple books about butterflies and moths, and donated his private collection of over 250,000 species of butterflies to the Carnegie Museum, where he was director for 21 years after Andrew Carnegie appointed him director in 1901, according to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s website.

He was the first chancellor to allow women to attend the University, making the school co-educational in 1895. The first U.S. college to be co-educational was Oberlin College in the 1830s.

John Brashear — Chancellor from 1901-1904

Brashear was chancellor when the University was still the Western University of Pennsylvania, and was an astronomer who at one point was also the director of the University’s Allegheny Observatory.

His ashes are kept in a crypt below the Keeler Telescope at the Allegheny Observatory with his wife’s, and a paraphrased line from the poem “The Old Astronomer” by Sarah Williams — “We have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night” — is inscribed on the crypt, according to Pitt’s Physics and Astronomy Department website.

John G. Bowman also organized the University’s Medical Center. (Photo via the University of Pittsburgh)

John Gabbert Bowman — Chancellor from 1921-1945

Bowman — the 10th chancellor of Pitt — both initiated and completed the Cathedral of Learning despite many objections from the faculty and community. The 42-story Late Gothic Revival building was the tallest educational structure in the world in 1926 but is now — according to World Atlas — the fourth tallest educational building in the world.

Edward Litchfield also helped supervise the creation of the Pitt-Greensburg campus. (Photo via the University of Pittsburgh)

Edward Litchfield — Chancellor from 1956-1965

As the 12th chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh, Litchfield plunged Pitt into massive debt, which was the root cause of his 1965 resignation. This debt came from a hunger to expand the campus — he bought and renovated the Hotel Schenley, now the WPU, and acquired the land for the Hillman Library. Three years after his resignation, he died in a private plane crash over Lake Michigan, according to the University Library System.

Wesley Wentz Posvar eliminated the university’s debt as Chancellor. (Photo via the University of Pittsburgh)

Wesley Wentz Posvar — Chancellor from 1967-1991

Despite inheriting tremendous debt, Posvar’s tenure proved beneficial to the campus — during his time as chancellor he added more than two million square feet to the campus. He also created the University Center for International Studies, the Center for the Philosophy of Science and the Honors Program, now known as the Honors College.

Historical information sourced from Historic Pittsburgh, Pitt Library System

“Pitt: The Story of the University of Pittsburgh” by Robert C. Alberts

“Oakland” by Walter C. Kidney


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