In choosing Patrick D. Gallagher as its 18th chancellor, the University of Pittsburgh has pinned its aspirations to a successful, high ranking federal administrator and scientist who knows Pitt as an alum but lacks a higher education management background.
School trustees, meeting in special session Saturday, voted unanimously to elect Mr. Gallagher, a top U.S. Department of Commerce official, to succeed Mark Nordenberg, who last June announced he will step down Aug. 1 of this year from a job he has held for nearly two decades.
Mr. Gallagher, 50, is acting deputy secretary at Commerce. He was appointed to the post by President Barack Obama last June, and since 2009 also has been director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. He has 20 years with the agency.
Described by colleagues as an excellent manager and strong collaborator, Mr. Gallagher is the latest example of an individual who has traded a high-profile job within the federal government to lead a university or a system of campuses.
Others include former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, now president of the University of California system and -- just up the road from Pitt -- Subra Suresh, who left the directorship of the National Science Foundation last year to become president of Carnegie Mellon University.
Pitt officials say their new leader was picked from "hundreds" of candidates in a six-month search kept secret by design nearly until its conclusion. Pitt spokesman Ken Service said without elaborating that Mr. Gallagher was one of four finalists presented to the full board of trustees by a search committee.
"This is an important moment for the University of Pittsburgh," board chairman Stephen Tritch said in a statement. "In Patrick Gallagher, we have an individual who brings exceptional experience to the position, along with an impressive background in promoting partnerships that develop innovation and support research and other academic pursuits to advance the greater good of society."
He said Mr. Gallagher has a deep understanding and commitment to Pitt's mission and values.
Introduced as the chancellor-elect at a news conference immediately after the vote, Mr. Gallagher said he planned to continue what Mr. Nordenberg started by working with UPMC, Carnegie Mellon, the city of Pittsburgh and the state "to leverage the relationships and put the university in a position to be even greater."
As a federal employee, he said he does not have experience in fund-raising and said it was an issue he brought forward early in his selection process.
"What I think I do have, that I mentioned earlier, is some of the same skills. It's about relationships," Mr. Gallagher said.
Mr. Tritch said the chancellor-elect has garnered money for his institute every year from Congress, which the chairman said involves developing relationships with members of Congress to convince them of the importance of that funding. The skill will translate to working with the state to fund the university, he added.
Last year, Pitt surpassed Penn State as the nation's most expensive public university for tuition and fees, a standing campus officials blame in large part on deep state funding cuts that have reduced support to 1995 levels.
As the father of two college-aged boys, Mr. Gallagher said he knows that rising tuition is a problem for many families.
"As a tuition-paying parent, I really understand this issue," he said.
"A university has the greatest mission of all, and I will never lose focus that at the heart of this mission are the students," Mr. Gallagher said.
Mr. Gallagher's salary was set at $525,000, with deferred yearly "retention incentive payments" of $100,000 each, payable on July 31, 2019, if he has not voluntarily left the university or been removed for cause.
Experts say university presidencies are largely about managing massive enterprises, and as such, the disadvantage of not coming from a traditional campus leadership background could be offset by experience in navigating a complex agency.
"What it shows is that government experience in a large bureaucracy really helps right now," said Jeffrey Selingo, a contributing editor to The Chronicle of Higher Education and author of the book, "College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education and What it Means for Students."
"[Mr. Gallagher] knows his way through the Washington process, which is incredibly important at a time when federal resources are going to be constrained more than ever," Mr. Selingo said.
Another critical relationship will be with CMU, whose president, Mr. Suresh, said he was pleased by the pick. "I have worked with [Mr. Gallagher] and interacted with him when I was director of NSF. He's a very friendly and thoughtful individual [who] has a very strong background, not only in science but science policy."
Mr. Gallagher's success also will be tied to how effectively he works with the faculty at a major research university. Nicholas Bircher, former University Senate president and an associate professor in the department of anesthesiology, said he does not know much about the new chancellor but liked the process that led to his selection.
"I was happy with the process -- the degree to which the board of trustees solicited elected faculty representation," he said.
Mr. Gallagher is 11 years younger than the average sitting campus president. He is roughly three years older than Mr. Nordenberg was when he began what proved a highly successful run.
While leaving one bureaucracy, Mr. Gallagher will take leadership of another. Pitt's main campus and four branches have 35,000 students and 13,000 employees and a budget of $1.94 billion.
Mr. Gallagher was accompanied by his wife, Karen, an occupational therapist, and his youngest son, Ryan, a high school junior. The couple's two older sons, Sean, 21, and Devin, 19, are in college.
Mrs. Gallagher said she will spend the first school year of her husband's tenure at Pitt living in Maryland so that Ryan can complete his senior year of high school there, swimming for his school team.
The Gallaghers met in Pittsburgh when he was studying for his doctorate and she was working as an occupational therapist. Mrs. Gallagher said they met through an outdoor club on a whitewater kayaking trip. They got married at Seven Springs.
When they moved to Boston for Mr. Gallagher's post-doctoral work, Mrs. Gallagher said she saw the little apartment that they would be living in there and cried. She said she grew to love Boston during the two years they lived there, and then the Washington, D.C., area, but she is happy to be coming back to Pittsburgh.
Bill Schackner: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1977. Ann Belser: email@example.com or 412-263-1699. First Published February 8, 2014 9:58 AM