Two smart, ambitious men leading neighboring research universities could have created a bitter rivalry and a cut-throat competition for students and resources.
Instead, the longtime leaders of the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University became collaborators, partners and, ultimately, close friends.
On Friday, Pitt chancellor Mark Nordenberg praised the "competence, character and caring human qualities" and the scholarship and vision of his colleague, outgoing CMU president Jared Cohon, in awarding him an honorary doctoral degree. He also gave thanks at their mutual ability to "put aside narrow interests to enhance the public good," he told the crowd of approximately 2,000 students, professors and guests attending the university's honors convocation inside Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland.
"The day that Jared Cohon -- a native of Cleveland, I must admit -- came to town was also a great day for Pittsburgh, for the university and for me," Mr. Nordenberg said.
It was the first time that a sitting president of Carnegie Mellon had received an honorary doctorate from Pitt, he said. Mr. Cohon, 65, is retiring in June after 16 years as CMU's president. Mr. Cohon was 49 years old and dean of Yale University's school of forestry and environmental studies in 1997 when Carnegie Mellon tapped him to become its eighth president. (Mr. Nordenberg, 64, became Pitt's chancellor in August 1995 -- initially on an interim basis -- 23 months before Mr. Cohon was hired.)
At the time, the average tenure of college presidents nationwide had dipped to approximately seven years, according to the Washington, D.C.- based American Council on Education.
Mr. Cohon will have completed a tenure more than double that when he leaves office, making him the third longest-serving president in CMU's 113 years and the second longest-serving in the institution's modern history after the late Richard Cyert.
During Mr. Cohon's watch, CMU's enrollment has grown from 7,800 to nearly 12,600 and student applications more than doubled to almost 19,000. The school's global presence increased, with CMU now offering graduate degree programs in Asia, Australia, Europe and Latin America and maintaining an undergraduate campus in Doha, Qatar.
And there were other successes, including Disney's 2008 decision to make CMU one of only two locations in the world for its research labs, the successful wooing of ventures such as Google and mega gifts including a $265 million donation from the late William S. Dietrich in 2011 and a $55 million donation from David A. Tepper in 2004, both the biggest in school history when they were announced.
Still, despite presiding over two campaigns that surpassed their goals and raised upward of $1.5 billion, Mr. Cohon likely will leave office with a lament similar to his predecessors: That the school's endowment is a fraction of its competitors'.
He also is leaving at a time of particular challenge for research universities of all sizes, public and private, he said.
"The future is clouded by uncertainty and contradiction," Mr. Cohon told the crowd in his keynote address.
Students and their parents, he said, want and need more services -- health and wellness facilities, career counseling and spectacular dorm rooms, among other offerings -- even as government support is waning.
State subsidies for higher education are steadily being cut and at the same time, state legislatures are capping or threatening to cap tuition. Federal funding for scientific research, which Mr. Cohon said often drives economic growth, is flat or declining. And that, he said, shrinks opportunities for researchers, especially young ones, to obtain the grants they need to continue their work.
"It may put at risk a whole generation of researchers as they choose to opt out of this challenging environment," Mr. Cohon said.
And even where tuition is not capped, he said, many students and their parents are beginning to see a college education as unaffordable, and are looking to online courses -- sometimes from sources inferior to high-quality, accredited universities like Pitt or Carnegie Mellon -- to save money.
As a result, universities need to change some of their methods, by giving more information to students and families about the potential salaries that can be expected by graduates of various programs so they understand how to earn a degree they can reasonably repay, Mr. Cohon said.
And universities such as Pitt and CMU are offering an ever-increasing number of courses online, for a compromise of Internet convenience with high-quality teaching from well-respected faculty members.
Somewhat surprisingly, he said, students evaluated after taking such courses were found to have learned the material as well as students who took the courses in person -- and in half the time. Earning a degree in less time would help reduce its cost, and would free up more time for more applied learning in laboratories, field work, community service and on-the-job training, he said.
"It may be we're entering a period when the nature of college will alter fundamentally," Mr. Cohon said.
First Published February 23, 2013 5:00 AM