Pitt’s choice: A secret process yields an unconventional pick

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After two decades of success under Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, the University of Pittsburgh has made a bold and, some would say risky, choice for its next leader.

Through a process that began with public forums then retreated behind closed doors, Pitt’s search committee and board of trustees selected Patrick D. Gallagher, a senior official in the U.S. Commerce Department, to become the university’s 18th chancellor. Although Mr. Gallagher, 50, is the acting deputy secretary of commerce and the director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, he has no university administrative experience and no background in higher education fundraising.

These are gaping holes in a resume that may not have withstood public scrutiny had Pitt’s search been as open as that of other institutions. The cult of secrecy, which has infused Pitt’s overall communications in recent years and which has produced this unconventional pick, will be to blame if Mr. Gallagher’s tenure is not a plus.

The Post-Gazette hopes otherwise. The chancellor-elect comes with a Pittsburgh pedigree. Mr. Gallagher earned a Ph.D. in physics from Pitt, met his wife while doing his graduate work and married her at Seven Springs. His grandparents owned a house in Carrick, where his mother and her four siblings grew up. It would be hard to argue that his blue-and-gold heart is not in the right place.

But for his years at the helm to be successful, Mr. Gallagher will have to demonstrate that his skills as a government administrator are transferable to one of the nation’s top public research universities. His reputation as an effective manager and a good collaborator will be put to the test in his new academic setting.

One talent Mr. Gallagher will need to exhibit quickly is how to raise money for a state-related university with 35,000 students, 13,000 employees and a $1.94 billion budget. To an extent, he’ll be able to draw upon his years of seeking funds from Congress to support his institute. The experience he has in building relationships with federal lawmakers will be applied to the state officials and private donors whose backing is essential to Pitt.

But the questions on Mr. Gallagher’s ability to move effectively into this executive university position should have been raised earlier — and laid to rest — in an open search process. Although the search committee posted on its website the traits it sought in Pitt’s next leader and solicited input at 14 forums last fall on the university’s five campuses and in seven other cities, the final phase of the search was conducted in secrecy.

Pitt did not announce the names of finalists and no candidate interviews were open to the public. Yet it will receive $147.8 million this fiscal year from Pennsylvania taxpayers and it relies on $100 million raised annually from donors. Its voluminous board of trustees has a dozen who either are elected officials — including the governor, the Allegheny County executive and the mayor of Pittsburgh — or are appointed by elected officials. Yet this public university did not give the public much of a seat at the table.

Pitt’s trustees argue that confidentiality had to be kept in the search’s closing stage, yet other universities have no difficulty putting the people’s right to know above a penchant for secrecy. In the last year, the University of Wisconsin, University of Portland, University of Idaho, University of Wyoming and New Mexico State University were among those that announced the names of finalists before hiring a president or chancellor. The University of South Alabama and Illinois State University even held forums at which the public could ask questions of their finalists.

Such openness enables students, staff, alumni and donors to see the top candidates in action, learn about their vision, understand the events that shaped their lives and see them think on their feet. As it is, given the tight secrecy of Pitt’s search, Pittsburghers can only trust in its choice.

Patrick D. Gallagher has both credentials that will serve him as chancellor and question marks about whether his atypical background makes him right for the job. Nevertheless, the people of this region, who rely on the university as an economic generator, should wish him well.

He shares his predecessor’s values and hopes to emulate his qualities — an approach Mr. Gallagher said “created a remarkable culture” at Pitt. Whether he can make a thorough transition to academic leadership and continue the upward arc of his alma mater will be known in due time.

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