Gallagher reflects on time as chancellor, changing world of higher education


TPN File Photo

Chancellor Patrick Gallagher.

By Alexandra Ross, Assistant News Editor

After nearly a decade leading the University, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher “feels pretty good” about how he will leave Pitt when he steps down this year. 

“I think Pitt’s doing great,” Gallagher said. “Nothing’s perfect, and I’m sure my successor will have their own share of challenges, most of which won’t be expected either. I think they have a University that’s got a lot of momentum and a lot of enthusiasm for what it’s doing, so that feels pretty good.”

Gallagher spoke with The Pitt News for about 30 minutes last Thursday about the highs and lows of his tenure as chancellor, the changes he’s seen at Pitt since 2014 and how sexual assault prevention at Pitt has changed this year. 

The chancellor’s role and replacement

Between Gallagher’s first day as chancellor in 2014 and his yet-unchosen replacement’s first day in 2023, Gallagher said the demands of the role haven’t changed a lot — it still requires “values-based” and “service-based” leadership, for example. However, he said he has seen a growing need for the chancellor to be a leader in Pittsburgh, not just on campus.

“Universities shouldn’t be isolated,” Gallagher said. “They should be part of the community that they’re in, they should be part of the world, they should be in the middle of the big issues, and I think that that orientation to looking outward and not inward has really been important.”

The politics of higher education have grown increasingly partisan since 2014, Gallagher observed. This includes support and funding of higher education itself, but also issues such as taxing endowments, academic freedom, research funding and diversity, equity and inclusion. Gallagher’s replacement will need to be comfortable dealing with these rising issues, he said. 

“You don’t want your chancellor being a political person, but I think somebody who’s got the skill to navigate what is a pretty political environment has become a big one, too,” Gallagher said. 

“You also need a vaccine nowadays,” Gallagher joked. “You didn’t need that in 2014.” 

No matter who is chosen as his replacement, Gallagher emphasized the importance of the “getting-to-know-each-other process” between the new chancellor and the student body that will take place toward the end of this semester, over the summer and at the start of next academic year. 

“I hope that’s really something everybody focuses on,” Gallagher said. “It was so important to me in both big ways and little ways, right, to get out of this office and try to be part of, at least a little part of, student life.”

The highs and lows of Gallagher’s time as chancellor

As chancellor of the University, Gallagher said he doesn’t “do anything directly — the students and the faculty are where the University does things.” As such, his proudest moments are when he sees Pitt students, faculty and staff reaching their own milestones, especially commencement. 

“I know that sounds corny, but it really is an enormously proud moment for me, because I remember a lot of them when they were first showing up on campus for the new student convocation and just to see their pride and progress and that sort of collective celebration,” Gallagher said. 

He also said he felt proudest during Pitt’s biggest moments of unity, often in response to an “external crisis” such as the Tree of Life shooting, the death of George Floyd and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“That’s really special when you see a community of, you know, 50,000 people when you add everybody together, having each other’s back and supporting each other,” Gallagher said. 

As for his regrets, Gallagher said he wishes he’d had more time to push certain initiatives forward — in particular, the ones that were pushed aside because of COVID-19. For example, Gallagher said the University had been doing “novel” and “innovative” work surrounding financial aid and debt support for students before the pandemic. 

“They were kind of follow-ons to the Panthers Forward effort, but they would have been at much greater scale and — but they take, you know, years to have pulled together, and so losing several years during the pandemic kind of forced us to set that aside to focus on other things, so I felt badly about that,” Gallagher said.

He also said he’d like to have stronger career support for students and early alumni, particularly in the humanities and other “broad” degrees that may not align with a set career path. 

“We have to make sure that being in a humanities degree or general-purpose degree like that doesn’t prevent you from getting some of the support you need to think about options, career choices, get experiences, develop networks — and in fact, those sets of services should not end when you graduate,” Gallagher said. “They should persist at least for the first five years after graduation.”

Sexual violence response and prevention

After Pitt Police released three crime alerts describing sexual assaults on or near Pitt’s campus last semester, sexual violence received increased attention from students — especially because for the first time, police sent alerts to all students, not just those who opted into the alert system. Students spoke out at a protest, a town hall and meetings with administrators about how they wanted the University to improve its approach to campus sexual violence. 

One of the reasons the alerts about these incidents were so jarring to students, Gallagher said, was because conversations about sexual violence on campus lessened during the COVID-19 pandemic. Gallagher said he felt the events of last semester “created a lot of visibility” that he hopes will help destigmatize conversations around sexual violence.

“The problem is when our attention [lags], and I think that was maybe still part of the coming out of COVID and having such a disrupted campus life, if you will, for that year and a half,” Gallagher said. “It was kind of a wake-up call.”

While Gallagher said Pitt will continue to assess and improve its own sexual violence response and prevention services, he also noted that student-led efforts can be more effective and powerful than the work of administration. 

“Some of the best stuff that we did in this area … particularly on the prevention side, were not the University’s material. They were peer to peer, they were student-based groups and organizations working with either their members or working in partnership across the University,” Gallagher said. “I think that’s powerful in a way that I think no University response will be and I’d like to see more funding and support for those kinds of student-led [efforts].”

Even with increased funding and support for these resources, the Chancellor said the issue of sexual violence won’t go away any time soon.

“I’m unaware of any place that has found any support service that has solved the problem for their campus,” Gallagher said. “We have to keep pushing on everything and certainly the University services, whether they are incident prevention, training, awareness, bystander [intervention], all of that stuff.”