WASHINGTON -- Patrick Gallagher is back at his federal job after a whirlwind visit to Pittsburgh, but his stay here is only temporary.
In six months, the affable physicist will be back as the new chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh, where he earned his doctorate.
With more students, a bigger budget, new facilities, ties to a medical center, more hands-on learning opportunities, better technology and an international reputation, it's like a different place.
"When I was there it was a great campus but now it's a much closer part of the community and I also think the research is more integrated with the region. There are these programs where the students get on buses and participate in Pittsburgh life and work in research facilities and other offices and spaces around the city," Mr. Gallagher, 50, said Tuesday, three days after being named chancellor.
He said he'd like to help the university expand those programs, but he doesn't have any grand plans to abruptly change the university.
"We're talking about a university that's on the rise and doing well on so many fronts, so I wouldn't say there's a case of a corrective action plan in any sense. This is a case of looking at where the next opportunities are and what's on the next horizon," he said. "The University of Pittsburgh is doing a great job. There are no stability issues."
One priority will be increasing the value of a Pitt education. That means both reducing costs and increasing opportunities for students to have practical, relevant real-world learning opportunities.
"How do we promote a maximum value of higher education and make sure costs are not a barrier to any student who wants to attend? You have to tackle that on all fronts," he said. "That's why we do research -- so students can have a direct research experience. That's why you partner with a health care institution -- so students can get clinical experience. It's embracing and understanding that learning is about much more than what happens in the classroom."
As a parent of two college students and a third in high school, he understands that families are looking for value from their tuition dollars. He also knows that government's share of costs is diminishing.
He plans to make the case to the Pennsylvania Legislature about the value universities provide to the state, but won't begin any talks until he officially takes over Aug. 1.
Even then, he said, students and faculty should not expect any abrupt changes. First, Mr. Gallagher -- who is U.S. undersecretary of commerce and director of the National Institute for Standards and Technology -- is a collaborative, data-driven leader who takes the time to hear from stakeholders before making changes. That's how NIST employees describe him and it's what he prides himself on.
Second, he admires outgoing Chancellor Mark Nordenberg and plans to partly style himself after him.
"In many ways I share his values and hope to emulate the best qualities that Mark has. His values and approach created a remarkable culture, and that's one of the things that most appealed to me when I started looking at this job," he said.
Mr. Gallagher said he was approached several months ago by a search firm. He's gotten those kinds of calls from other organizations and has always quickly said he's not interested. This was different. It was a call to lead his alma mater in the city where his mother grew up and where he met his wife, Karen, while he was a graduate student and she was working at an internship in occupational therapy.
"I decided to look into it ... and it seemed like a fit," he said.
Still, there are skill gaps and knowledge gaps. Mr. Gallagher didn't rise through academia like many university leaders. Except for a single year teaching high school physics in Kansas, he has spent his entire career as a government scientist. He's never had oversight of a health care system, a medical school or an athletic program.
But rather than frighten him, those are the parts that excite him.
"The most exciting thing about any job is learning. I'm always at my best and having the most fun when I'm learning new things," he said. "Of course, there are going to be big differences and there are going to be challenges. The government doesn't have any football teams, and we have hospitals but I haven't had them under my purview... The good news is that the chancellor doesn't do this all by himself or herself."
Leaders often have to depend on others in their organizations. There's nothing unusual about that, he said.
"I'm currently responsible for things like the National Weather Service and ocean research, and I'm not an expert in those areas, either," Mr. Gallagher said. "In any complex organization you're going to be managing things and being responsible for things that are outside your direct expertise. That's where the key is an outstanding staff."
And while he admires his staff at NIST and the Department of Commerce, he has no plans to take any of them along with him to Pitt.
Mr. Gallagher said he hasn't yet decided when he will wrap up his federal government career, except that he plans to take some time off before starting at the university.
"One priority is to spend time with my family," he said. "It will be a time to mentally decompress, and I'm going to spend a lot of time thinking about my new role."
Those thoughts, he assured, will be focused on students.
"The pledge I made to the [board of trustees] and the students is they're going to be the beginning of everything I do and the end of what I do," he said.
Bureau chief Tracie Mauriello: firstname.lastname@example.org, 1-703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets. First Published February 11, 2014 11:07 PM