Transcript: TPN’s interview with Chancellor Gallagher

(Photo by Christian Snyder | Multimedia Editor)

This is a transcript of our entire interview with Chancellor Patrick Gallagher. Click here to read our story with more context.

The Pitt News: Looking back on this year, what would you say stands out compared to other years?

Patrick Gallagher: I would say it was an amazing year when you think about how this year started, right? We had just come off what was happening nationally, Charlottesville had just happened, there was all this tension — a lot of it aimed at university campuses. And I remember starting the year worried about the fact that this public drama of free speech and provocative speech and civil rights and justice was going to be turned into something that was aimed at campuses, and that people were going to try to weaponize campuses because this is a place where that plays out so visibly.

My view was always that if left to the students we wouldn’t have a problem, we know how to do this. There will always be a lot of wide diversity of views being expressed, but if it was in the community, we’d be fine. And in fact, that’s what a university is, it’s a community. And it’s a community that’s designed to support [an] incredible breadth of ideas and expression. The problem was there were people outside the community who didn’t get it, who were trying to incite activities. So that was the environment we started the year in.

Look where we are today. It’s not that the issues haven’t gone away, but we are actively addressing them effectively as a community. I mean, you look at the ongoing Parran Hall discussion, right? Tough issue, you know, really complicated legacy, raises profound issues, but here we have a study group that’s going through a process and we’re discussing it openly, right? Great. I just think that I’m really proud of how the University has done what universities do best — not to shy away from the issues, but to engage them openly and with some intellectual honesty. That’s what a good university should do, and I just feel like we’ve really made a lot of progress. I’m really proud of our students and our student leaders, how they’ve managed through this. I think we can feel good about the fact that we’ve tackled those in a way that maybe is even a model for others.

TPN: We had a statement come out from Provost Patricia Beeson about the University’s stance on graduate student unionization, and now recently the graduate student union has collected cards and they want to have an election, but the University is willing to go to the labor board to challenge this. Especially since Penn State had very similar issues and it ended up ruling in favor of the grad students, what do you see happening at Pitt?

PG: Unionization issues actually aren’t new — what’s new is we’re going through some organizational efforts now. So on one hand you have to remember that this question of whether you want to be represented through a formal union is something that happens, there’s a process for it, and what we’re seeing now is with two possible groups, they’re exploring this option. There’s always going to be an element of a campaign to that. It’s in your interest to do this, it’s not in your interest to do this — but in the end, that’s settled with a vote. It’s a pretty democratic process. And generally, certainly for the faculty situation, my view is that there’s a process for this and at the end we’ll have a debate and there will be a vote and people will decide whether it’s more in their interest or not to be represented through a labor union.

The case of the graduate students is a little bit different. In my mind, the difference is that some of the work-related activities we’re talking about are part of the academic requirements. Not all, but think about a research assistant, where doing research is a fundamental part of your degree attainment. It looks like work at some level because you’re in a lab doing activities, but it’s also a requirement for your degree and you’re being evaluated much like you would for coursework. So my concern has been is that work or not? In other words, for those types of activities where it’s part of the education, what happens if some of those are put under a collective bargaining agreement? And so the difference is, we felt, it was important — see, Pennsylvania doesn’t go under National Labor Relations Board the same way, and the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board has never spoken on this — so one of the reasons we’re going through the process with the PLRB is we want them to make a decision, and ironically, Temple settled, so the PLRB has still not spoken on this. So we just feel it’s important for us to go through the process and then the next steps depend on what the PLRB decides. If they decide yes, then we’ll go through the discussions and then you’re back to where we are with the faculty. If they decide this is different some way then we’ll act accordingly. We just think it’s important for the PLRB to understand that these are intertwined in the case of students for some of these activities.

TPN: In the middle of the year there was a little bit of an issue with state funding. You were talking to students, there was the fear of an $11,000 increase for in-state tuition. For the last three years we’ve had this issue come up. Since this is something that happens so often, is there some type of a contingency plan? Something that the Board of Trustees is thinking of in case the funding were ever to be held longer than we’d like it to be? Is there a way to prevent that mid-year tuition increase for in-state students?

PG: We think about that all the time. I think that the dynamic with the state is going to remain with us for a while. Not this year — interestingly enough, this year I expect to be fairly quiet. That’s not because everyone has seen the light and we have a long-term consensus on levels of state support. It has to do with the year. This is an election year for governor and nobody wants to have a fight like this in the middle of an election year. So last year’s budget battle kind of ended up in a two-year agreement about how this would be handled, and we’re enjoying the second year of that agreement now. I think all of the issues are back on the table the following year.

And there’s a couple of reasons why this is going to continue — one is there is an ideological difference about how much the public should support. How much do taxes pay for in this state? And that sets an overall amount of resources, and then the question is, of all the things a state needs to do, where does higher education fit as a priority? Pennsylvania has a kind of complicated higher education space. We provide state support for the state-related schools, there’s a state system, which is also experiencing trouble, there are community colleges that also get funding and there’s a Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency grant system that provides direct aid to students. And what I think will eventually happen is that the state needs to have a discussion about are we going to increase our investment as a commonwealth in higher education? The fact that the state-related schools are always the battleground is only an artifact of the fact that our bill comes in a nonpreferred appropriations at the end of the year — it has to go last. So we’re the last card standing and we’ve been a proxy in many ways for this broader debate. In some ways it hasn’t been about us. So I don’t think that’s going to get better, and unfortunately, sometimes in politics it has to get a lot worse before we have the political will to tackle the issue.

I think the governor wants to tackle this, the leadership in the House and Senate wants to address this. I’m always an optimist. I think at some point we expect to have those kinds of discussions. My view is that the University of Pittsburgh is facing this uncertainty from a position of strength. We’re stable, we’re high-quality and we’re in high demand. We’re also in a financially good position. Sometimes people want us to make an argument that the reason for state funding is that we would be in financial distress without it — in other words, it’s like welfare. They want us to be destitute before the state supplies funding. That would be crazy, because the argument then would be I’m going to run the University into the ground until there’s no resources and then ask for a bailout from the state. I think that would be irresponsible.

TPN: Given all of this, if it comes to a point, do you think Pitt will ever go private?

PG: In some ways you have to ask, in the case of the state-related schools, what that means, because we’re not a state institution. The way state-related schools were started is the state provided financial support to existing institutions — remember, Pitt was private — and in exchange for that support we offer a lower in-state tuition to commonwealth residents. So that’s what a state-related is.

I’m not seeking for the state to lessen our support. I think, frankly, it would be crazy for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to not want Pitt, Penn State, Lincoln and Temple. I mean, these are the flagship universities for the state, and the only consequence of failing to support them is a brain drain. Students are gonna go elsewhere. So why would a state want to do that? So I don’t seek it, I think it would be a bad move for the state, but you have to acknowledge that the trend over the last 25 years has been an erosion of support. It went from being one-third of our revenue to under 10 percent. Whether that’s happened in a crisis year or just a slow, not-keeping-up-with-inflation year, the reality is I don’t see enough consensus to turn that around.

TPN: What do you think has changed from the time you took the job and now, including your mentality on certain issues?

PG: I think it’s imperative that we help lawmakers and their constituents understand why this is such a vital investment. The public benefit of education is real. It’s not just the individual benefit, there’s a public good. There are more opportunities for everyone in this region, even if they never go to Pitt, because Pitt is here. I think we’ve taken that for granted. The thing that will solve all the budget crises at the state level is growth. We’re the engine of growth. We attract the town, we have the ideas, and you see that in Pittsburgh — it’s real.

So that’s one. The other one that I think has been an eye-opener for me is that when you’re a strongly state-supported system where the state is giving a big subsidy and the cost is really quite affordable for everyone, universities don’t have an obligation to provide a lot of financial aid on top of that. Historically, the state lowered the tuition by providing strong state support, the federal government provided need-based support and colleges provided scholarships for merit. What’s happening now is as the state is kind of slowly backing out, the University has to step in and provide more financial aid support. That you can’t have a great Pitt education cannot depend on your socioeconomic status. How do we become a financer of that? One of the reasons the tuition goes up is not just because the costs have gone up, we do that because we also have to supply more financial aid to those who need it. That’s why you get into this very strange dynamic. I don’t think I understood that, but I think it’s become much more important recently as we think about it. I’m worried that Pitt is not as responsive as it needs to be, and that questions of affordability may have to be addressed on a student-by-student basis, not as just depending on the state subsidy. So we’ve been really stepping up to how do we support students and families? We’re also looking at things we can do to reduce reliance on commercial student loans.

TPN: Another issue that’s popped up this year is the #MeToo movement, even on our own campus with the history of the communication department and things that are going on there. There’s been a lot of focus on sexual harassment, sexual assault, and it’s also no secret that this has higher levels in higher education. What has been the shift in the mentality on Pitt’s campus when it comes to issues like that?

PG: It’s funny, I would say that universities have been ahead of the issue in some ways and behind in others. If you think about when I was showing up here four years ago, we had a tremendous focus on sexual assault, sexual safety, but it was all aimed at the students. So if you remember the Title IX discussion, and there were questions about the degree to which women students in particular were experiencing sexual harassment, sexual violence [and] rape. And there was a big push on trying to understand that and address that, and we took part in this big national survey that looked at this and we did the survey of our students and we saw that it was astonishingly prevalent. I mean, unacceptably prevalent. This should be a place where everyone feels safe and [like] they belong. And we were finding a very large numbers of folks who had either experienced sexual assault of various types or sexual harassment, and so that was why we created the Title IX Office and we looked at compliance. But we also looked at education and the whole first-year student experience has changed. We’re now addressing [sexual assault], we look at bystander training. So that was long before that national #MeToo movement. The problem was we were focused only on the students. I mean, it was a big moment because Title IX was just about athletics, so all of a sudden it was general civil rights legislation.

So what happened more recently is the realization that these issues were not confined to undergraduate students at university campuses. I remember earlier on people were trying to say, ‘Our kids have gone crazy!’ and that wasn’t the issue. This was a societal problem, and when you start seeing it happen in government and in Hollywood and in business, that’s what started happening. And of course what we realized is that we’re not immune from that — we’re part of it. Issues about faculty, staff and others have been the more recent focal point. And my view is that our values are our values, right? A university is a community, the magic ingredient is that when you join this community you have every right to belong. That means not be intimidated, not be afraid and not fear violence and harassment. And that’s true whether you’re a staff member, faculty member [or] student. We handpick everybody in this community. So my view is what we need to do is when there are allegations or when there are concerns or people see something, it gets reported, you look into it, you find out what happened very deliberately and then you take appropriate action. And so what happened with the communication department in my view is an example of what we should always do. Concerns come up, we’ll look at them — in a fair and a balanced way. I think what happened in that case, because it happened over a long period of time, is you have to tackle it that way. There’s going to be accountability, and we have to fundamentally change attitudes and we have to improve the culture in that department.

TPN: There was a student death earlier in October, and I know something people were bringing up is that the University [didn’t make] a statement about it or use the opportunity to talk about an issue like partner violence.

PG: You know, what happened on that one is the University was speaking but we were doing it through our statements to the media. What didn’t happen was I didn’t write a letter to the community. And if I was doing it over again I probably would have at this point.

But we were being asked by the Pittsburgh police during the middle of a homicide investigation to not do that. And my priority at the immediate time was to find the perpetrator. I felt that justice was the most important issue. We had basically a murder that had been committed on our campus and it was a former student from another campus, and our police were working very closely with the homicide detectives. And then my focus was on talking with the Sheykhet family, and it didn’t seem appropriate to be using [the death] to discuss this. But it still can be used that way, and in fact, it is. There’s legislation now going through the state that would look at this — we’re very supportive of that, we’ve been working with the SGB. I think the lesson I took away from it is there are a lot of ways to have a dialogue and learn and improve from tragedy. I just hope the degree to which we cared about this isn’t measured by whether I wrote a separate statement to the community, rather than the sum total of everything we were trying to do.

TPN: Pitt is a huge influence in the City of Pittsburgh, even in the community of Oakland. What do you think is Pitt’s role in making sure that it’s benefiting the community in a positive way, and it’s making sure it’s not excluding people from that community?

PG: I actually think it’s something the region is expecting us to step up and do. One of the interesting things about Pittsburgh that you will see — I don’t think see to a similar degree in any other university town — is the degree to which the City and region explicitly look to us for that kind of role. It’s kind of special, right? And the potential of Pittsburgh to transform this new economy, this knowledge-driven excitement, is cool — but it has a flip side. We’re a city of communities, of neighborhoods, and if the existing Pittsburgh can’t participate in that new economy and they just get pushed out of the way, that is an ugly form of transformation. And frankly, when I see what’s happened around Silicon Valley, If you go out to San Francisco — it’s ugly. I mean, it’s some of the most ostentatious wealth sitting inside real hardship and homelessness and I think that would break Pittsburgh. I’ve said that to the Amazon people or anybody else who wants to come here — if you come to Pittsburgh you have to understand that Pittsburgh is a civically oriented city, and corporate citizenry matters. You have to be willing to roll up your sleeves and work on these issues. I will tell you that I don’t think anybody has figured out how to do inclusive economic development well.

And I think there’s an incredible opportunity for Pitt to step up and be a real leader in the social sciences. How do you take the idea that this is going to happen in Pittsburgh, and instead of just following this new sector, you treat it from a position of place? How does the place benefit from this? What does this mean for current citizens, who, suddenly their property values will go up? What happens if they don’t have clean title, what about educational opportunities, what about the type of, not technology venture capital, but community venture capital that lets you start businesses? You know, there’s lots of ways to participate in economic opportunity besides the new shiny technology or medical assets, and our strength in Pittsburgh is how strong our communities are, is how identifiable they are, and that’s why the community engagement centers were really so exciting to me. The idea that if we were Penn State — we would never be Penn State — they’re an agricultural university, their agricultural program has extension offices in every county in the state. And that’s so the university’s research can benefit all the farmers everywhere. So my view was here we are, we’re an urban university. Let’s have community engagement centers in our neighborhoods, where there’s a direct presence and place where that community can not just have things done to them, but can be a full partner.

And that’s starting to happen. Our discussions, particularly in Homewood and the Hill, are reaching a point where we’re seeing a real change in how we work with the community and how the community is working with us. And I’m excited that I think we’re actually going to open some of those first physical centers in the fall, but you know, there’s been years of hard work and trust-building and negotiating, and that can be a great platform for us to tackle exactly these kinds of issues. You know, what happens if Oakland takes off? I’m very worried about our Oakland neighborhood. I’m worried about the Hill. The Hill is the most valuable real estate in the whole City, and they don’t deserve to get pushed out. They should participate in what happens here, and we can’t wait until it’s happening. The one part of economic development is — we’re not used to this in Pittsburgh, we’re used to things being there and they’ve been there a long time — when things really start to heat up, it goes incredibly fast. Developers are popping up, and you can’t wait until that’s happening before you start to respond. So now’s the time.

TPN: There’s a lot to look forward to in terms of Pitt’s future, whether that be the master plan that’s been developing this year or dorms popping up What are some of the things that you’re looking forward to in the coming year?

PG: I think that I’m excited about the fact that the University of Pittsburgh sits in Pittsburgh. It’s a special university in a special place. And the reason that’s important to me is that a university education differs from anything that happens before in the sense that you don’t just get information in a classroom. You actually narrow up and go deeper, that’s why you pick a field of study to get a diploma, and you begin to do a lot of the learning experientially by doing things. And that’s really important. And if you’re in the middle of a place that’s undergoing one of the most dramatic transformations of any urban area, where a lot of these issues are right front and center, and where that community is actually looking to us to jump in? We have opportunities that very few universities have. I’m really excited to see what we do with that, we’ve been given a real gift, being here in Pittsburgh and having a city welcome us with open arms. Just think about what that means from a student perspective to get out and be involved in some groundbreaking stuff and to gain that experience and put that classroom part to work in some ways. So that’s pretty cool.

 

Editor’s note: During the initial interview with the Chancellor, he said Penn State settled the graduate students’ unionization case before the PLRB made a formal ruling. This is incorrect. The Chancellor meant to say Temple University. The transcript has been corrected to reflect these changes. 

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John Hamilton :Managing Editor