Welcome Back: Getting to know Pitt’s next Chancellor

Welcome Back: Getting to know Pitts next Chancellor

For Patrick D. Gallagher, taking on the role as Pitt’s chancellor will be like freshman year all over again.

The Pitt alumnus said the coming school year will hold much of the same excitement and anxieties felt by many students during their first year of college: new peers, a new school to navigate and a new home to settle into.

“If people see me lost on campus, I expect them to help me out,” Gallagher said with a laugh. 

But unlike the average freshman, Gallagher will lead a university and student body of nearly 30,000 students.

One of Gallagher’s first initiatives is two-fold: Build a relationship with students and build on the University’s relationship with outside agencies, including the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Carnegie Mellon University, private business, Pittsburgh’s city government and both the state and federal government. 

“On my initial calendar, a huge priority has been placed on getting out of my office and out on campus,” Gallagher said. “One of the things that the Board [of Trustees] has asked me to do is deliver excellence in education, but that education is measured by the students.”

Gallagher said he thinks his experience working with the government as the director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology will help him to increase research funding and student aid, “but maybe not in the obvious way.”

“I don’t think being a former federal government worker gives [me] this checkbook to hand out unlimited funding,” Gallagher said. “It gives me a context and contacts in Washington.”

Gallagher said he plans to use his experience and knowledge of the federal government — such as the way policymakers work and the knowledge of the pressures under which decision makers work — to benefit the University. 

Eva Tansky Blum — Pitt alumna and executive vice president of PNC Bank — served as chairwoman of the chancellor search committee and presented the resolution to elect Gallagher to the Board of Trustees at a board meeting in February. 

Blum said Gallagher distinguished himself from other candidates as an “experienced, accomplished leader who understands the challenges that research universities will be facing in the future.”

“He cares deeply about our students and wants them to have a great experience at Pitt,” Blum said. 

Aside from building on Pitt’s relationship with businesses and lawmakers, Gallagher also wants to work on his relationship with students. 

According to Gallagher, one of the reasons he took the position was so he could be part of something bigger than himself.

“There is no higher mission than preparing the youth to participate in the world,” Gallagher said.

In 2009, Gallagher was appointed by President Barack Obama to be director of the National Institute of Science and Technology. Gallagher resigned as director on June 19, and his position as Pitt’s 18th chancellor begins Aug. 11. 

Gallagher didn’t anticipate his new position when members of Pitt’s chancellor search committee called his Maryland home this past fall to survey his interest.

“I was at a point in my stay at the [National Institute of Standards and Technology] where I wasn’t looking for another job,” Gallagher said. “If it wasn’t Pitt on the other end of that call, I wouldn’t have taken the job.” 

Gallagher will replace Chancellor Nordenberg, who announced his resignation last June after 19 years as chancellor. 

Gallagher said he will have “the luxury of taking a really high-performing University and seeing where we can go from there.” Gallagher attributes much of Pitt’s success to Nordenberg. 

“[Nordenberg] has positioned the University so well,” Gallagher said. “It was rather dramatic seeing the changes he has made since I was here.” 

This year will not be Gallagher’s first time around the block — or the ’Burgh. Gallagher called Pittsburgh home at two different times in his life, as far apart as elementary and graduate school.

“My Pittsburgh world is divided into two eras,” Gallagher said. Gallagher’s mother grew up in Pittsburgh. When Gallagher, who was the oldest of four with three younger sisters, was in second grade, his father received an experimental heart operation. Gallagher lived with his grandparents and attended St. Basil’s Elementary School in Pittsburgh while his mother took care of his father back at their home in Maryland.

“In that world, my highlights were the Carnegie Museums and Kennywood [and] Pirates games in the summer,” Gallagher said.

More than a decade later, Gallagher returned to Pittsburgh. After graduating in 1985 with bachelor’s degrees in physics and philosophy from Benedictine College, a liberal arts school in Kansas, Gallagher attended Pitt’s graduate school and earned a doctorate in physics in 1991.

Gallagher had two favorite Pitt faculty members while he was a graduate student. 

James Maher was Gallagher’s thesis advisor and, according to Gallagher, an inspirational mentor and friend.

Maher, now provost emeritus, said although Gallagher has accomplished much since he was a graduate student, his personality has stayed the same. Maher described the young Gallagher as a “talented fellow” who was also very thoughtful and easy to talk to. 

“I loved having him in my lab,” Maher said. 

Maher said he was “delighted” to hear that Gallagher would be returning to Pitt when the news of his selection as chancellor broke.

Gallagher said Frank Tabakin, his other favorite Pitt professor, helped him to appreciate and eventually come to love physics with his fun and exciting lectures. 

Tabakin said he followed Gallagher’s career over the past 27 years and, like Maher, Tabakin said he was “thrilled and delighted” to hear Gallagher would be Pitt’s next chancellor. 

Tabakin said Gallagher was talented and dedicated to his research work, but also added that Gallagher had a “high level of intellectual and social concern and integrity.” 

“I knew he would ‘make a difference’ but did not fully appreciate what that would mean until later,” Tabakin said. 

Pitt was not only a place for academic achievement — while attending graduate school, Gallagher met Karen, the woman who would become his wife. 

The couple shared their first date at Dunning’s Grill in Regent Square. On a recent visit to Pittsburgh this past winter, they were surprised to find the American restaurant and bar was still up and running. The college sweethearts ordered the same chicken salad they’d enjoyed on their first date more than two decades ago.

Karen also enjoyed venturing outside the city for outdoor activities, Gallagher said. The couple used to go whitewater kayaking in Ohiopyle State Park in Fayette County, Pa., and in the Cheat River in northern West Virginia. 

“I also tried rock climbing, but I wasn’t as successful at that,” he added. 

He’s mellowed a bit since his more boisterous days as a grad student and now describes himself as a “homebody.”

“My hobbies are not as glorious as whitewater boating anymore,” Gallagher said. 

He’s a handyman, handling household tasks including installing hardwood floors and remodeling bathrooms. But he finds the time to pick up new hobbies, such as cooking, after tuning into the Food Network. Gallagher’s specialities are smoked foods.

“I make a mean smoked salmon and barbecue ribs,” Gallagher said. 

Gallagher’s favorite shows are “Chopped” and “Iron Chef.” 

One year when all three sons — Sean, Devin and Ryan — were home for Christmas, the Gallaghers created their own version of “Chopped.” The boys were given “odd” ingredients from around the house they had to use to create a dish, just like the cooking contestants on the show. 

Gallagher and his wife judged the competition. 

“In the end, it looked like our kitchen had been destroyed, but it was a lot of fun,” Gallagher said. “Karen and I still bear the emotional scars from the judging experience!”

A seasoned academic, Gallagher also enjoys reading literature outside of his expertise, diving into historical fiction and fantasy when he wants “an escape.” Gallagher also has an eclectic taste in music. He said he doesn’t have one particular favorite band, but is more of a ‘whatever-I’m-in-the-mood-for’ kind of guy. His favorite genres include pop, country, bluegrass, blues, jazz and classical. 

His boys inspire his music taste. 

“I live vicariously through the boys,” Gallagher joked.

Gallagher and his wife will spend his inaugural year as chancellor apart. They didn’t want to uproot their youngest son Ryan, 17, from their Maryland home during his senior year of high school. 

“We’re going to be burning a lot of rubber trying to visit each other on the weekends,” Gallagher said. 

When he’s not burning rubber, Gallagher said his calendar will include some quality time with the student body. 

Gallagher said like any relationship, getting to know Pitt’s students will take time, so he wants to spend a lot of his initial weeks out of the office and out on campus with students. 

“Even if that means rolling up my sleeves to help people move in,” Gallagher said.