Pitt wasn't always it.
Before University of Pittsburgh chancellor Mark Nordenberg oversaw an 18-year renaissance of student and faculty achievement, expansive research, financial strength, athletic prowess, and community engagement, there were dark days on the Oakland campus.
In the first half of the 1990s, cheers of "Hail to Pitt" were replaced by complaints that "Pitt is going to hell."
"The university was probably at its low point," said Pitt trustee Jim Roddey, the former Allegheny County executive. "The faculty was unhappy, students were unhappy, the media were very negative about Pitt, the Legislature was very irritated with the university. We didn't have any constituent bodies who felt we were doing a good job."
When the late Wesley Posvar retired as chancellor in July 1991 after 24 years, there were allegations of football-recruiting violations, controversy involving athletic-program boosters and improper conduct in its vast food-services operation. Needed was a leader to restore peace and stability. Trustees believed that was J. Dennis O'Connor, a former provost at the University of North Carolina. They were wrong.
Mr. O'Connor got off on the wrong foot with a lavish installation ceremony and an expensive office renovation. It went downhill from there.
Enrollment declined. The school faced a budget shortfall and a hiring freeze. A consultant determined the school's image was not good enough among local contributors to raise money for a proposed capital campaign of more than $100 million.
After four years, top trustees concluded he had to go and a true leader had to be found.
"It was a turning point for the university," said Mr. Roddey, who chaired the search committee for Mr. O'Connor's successor. " If we had remained on the same path we were on, I think Pitt would have ended up being a very second-rate institution."
The finalists were two outsiders and Mark Nordenberg, the interim chancellor.
The committee chose Mr. Nordenberg, a graduate of Thiel College and the University of Wisconsin law school who had come to Pitt as a law professor in 1977.
He subsequently served as law school dean, interim provost and senior vice chancellor for academic affairs.
"Any of the three could have improved [Pitt] but we never realized the extent it would be improved under Mark Nordenberg," Mr. Roddey said.
Since 1995, Pitt's enrollment has grown from 27,002 to 32,781, and applications for admission to undergraduate programs in Pittsburgh have increased from 7,825 to 27,626 for next fall's entering class. Average SAT scores of students who have paid a deposit for next fall's entering class are 185 points higher than those in 1995.
The university ranks fifth among all American universities in terms of federal science and engineering research and development support attracted by its faculty. Since 1995, Pitt has attracted more than $9 billion of sponsored research to the region.
Pitt's endowment has grown from $463 million in 1995 to $2.99 billion, and assets have almost quadrupled, to $3.8 billion.
In 1995, Pitt attracted less than $40 million in private philanthropy but during each of the last eight years has raised more than $100 million.
The Building Our Future Together capital campaign began quietly in 1998 and was announced publicly in 2000. It had a goal of $500 million but as of last fall had raised $2.05 billion.
Where an external review commissioned by the trustees publicly released in early 1996 found a university adrift and not realizing its potential, a report in 2012 by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education described Pitt as "an outstanding university" widely recognized as a "world class research university" and driven by "an unwavering commitment to excellence."
"Looking back, I was a genius," Mr. Roddey quipped. "He's been a great, great chancellor."
Pitt now faces another transition: Mr. Nordenberg announced Friday that he will step down as chancellor Aug. 1, 2014.
Penn State University President Rodney A. Erickson said he's known Mr. Nordenberg for years "and there is no leader in American higher education whom I admire and respect more than Mark. He has led the University of Pittsburgh to new heights academically and in service to the region.
"He will leave very big shoes to fill."
Ken Gormley, dean of Duquesne University's School of Law, agreed:
"I do think this will be viewed as the golden era of the University of Pittsburgh under him. Not only has he done remarkable things for the university, he's done remarkable things for the region."
Mr. Gormley said he was a "pup professor" just out of law school when he found a mentor in Mr. Nordenberg, a young law professor at Pitt when Mr. Gormley joined the university in 1982.
Mr. Nordenberg, he said, helped him find his footing as a teacher and especially as a writer -- among other things, the chancellor shared his secret with Mr. Gormley of always holding back a surprise, something special, for the conclusion of a paper or book.
"Mark wasn't one to want the spotlight on himself or do anything flashy, but he would just quietly do anything possible to help you," said Mr. Gormley. "He was always someone who cared about everyone else."
But while Mr. Nordenberg held onto his low-key style even after becoming chancellor, he showed a willingness to make the bold moves that have helped build Pitt's reputation as a regional powerhouse, Mr. Gormley said.
From the then-controversial decision to knock down the beloved Pitt Stadium and replace it with the Petersen Events Center, to the university's investment of millions in its research labs, "everything he's touched has turned to gold," Mr. Gormley said.
And through it all -- including state budget battles over funding cuts, the fight against Pittsburgh's proposed tuition tax, and months of bomb threats that forced students and faculty members to evacuate dorms, labs and classrooms with numbing frequency in 2012 -- his old friend remained seemingly unflappable, Mr. Gormley said.
"He just maintains his calm, like James Bond walking out of a building that has just collapsed," Mr. Gormley said. "He just walks out and continues to do his job."
That ability to deal with stress almost certainly prolonged Mr. Nordenberg's tenure as chancellor in a world in which university presidents typically last no more than six or seven years, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president for the American Council on Education.
Since the 1980s, many universities have become increasingly complex organizations in which "the number of things that can go wrong are staggering," he said. The president's or chancellor's job is a round-the-clock demand that often consumes their entire attention and ultimately, energy.
"The fundamental test of a university president is to leave the place in better shape than it was when they took the job," Mr. Hartle said. "Not only did Mark do that, but it's hard to think of another university president who did it as well."
As a result, graduates not just of Pitt but also of other local colleges and universities have opportunities to continue their education in Pittsburgh, where many have deep family ties, said Mary Hines, outgoing president of Carlow University.
"If a student from Carlow wants to go on to pursue a research master's or research doctorate, they qualify, they are accepted and they succeed at Pitt without having to go across the country to find a really good school," Ms. Hines said.
Carnegie Mellon University President Jared Cohon, who will step down today, said the ability and willingness of new leaders of local colleges to forge a relationship is key in continuing the schools' strong partnership, which was not as "close and productive" before Mr. Nordenberg's tenure.
"In our case, it was very much based on the personal relationship we had," he said. "When we hit those bumps, the fact that Mark and I were good friends ... that really mattered very greatly."
Both schools are members of the Association of American Universities, an organization of leading research institutions. Mr. Cohon said the association's data shows Pitt's standing nationally is extraordinary compared with when the chancellor started.
"Pitt stands today as among the very top in the league with Michigan and Berkeley and Harvard and Penn and the rest of the very top universities," he said.
"Pitt is stronger now than it ever has been."