Pittsburgh: 'The city is our campus'

Pitt’s new chancellor should keep the university an integral part of Pittsburgh, write TRACY M. SOSKA and ADRIENNE WALNOHA

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With University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg soon to pass the torch of leadership to Patrick Gallagher, it seems appropriate to reflect on Mr. Nordenberg’s legacy and what it offers as a benchmark for the new chancellor.

Universities are distinguished by their tripartite missions of teaching, research and service. Much has already been said of Mr. Nordenberg’s leadership in enhancing Pitt’s research and academic reputation, now among the leading national and international research universities. This accomplishment is remarkable and noteworthy, especially in the context of some of the university’s recent milestones — 225 years as a university and more than 100 years in the Oakland community.

However, another leadership measure lies in Mr. Nordenberg’s focus on the public service mission of the university, which has solidified Pitt’s reputation as an anchor institution that’s been driving regional growth and development — a world-class university helping Pittsburgh become a world-class city.

The reach of the university’s contributions has extended to the state, national and international levels, but Pitt’s public service is best seen by looking in its backyard where the Cathedral of Learning casts its shadow and in the city that shares its name.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently recognized Pitt for its “best practices” as a community institution in an online article, “University of Pittsburgh: a University of the Community.”

“The city is our campus” is a phrase Mr. Nordenberg often shares in talking to students about Pitt’s connection to Pittsburgh and, especially, to its surrounding Oakland neighborhood — the third busiest commercial hub in Pennsylvania. And he has “walked the talk” as a citizen of the community — which includes his walking with city officials to check out zoning violations in Oakland and assembling shelves to create the Oakland Community Pantry — and has encouraged faculty, students and staff to be good citizens and neighbors.

Connecting the university’s public service mission to its missions of teaching and research, Mr. Nordenberg also has led by example in serving on key task forces and commissions addressing critical community issues, from workforce development, to disability access, to local governance and more. He has extended university resources to help solve community-identified issues.

This “servant leadership” has made Pitt an exemplar of a university working in partnership with its city and neighbors. This, as much as its research and education work, has made Pitt an economic engine for the region and beyond.

In 2009, when the University of Pittsburgh was recognized in the national report “Saviors of Our Cities: 2009 Survey of College & University Civic Partnerships” as the leading public university in the country and tied for second overall in terms of community impact, Mr. Nordenberg’s legacy was clearly on display.

The university’s educational and research enterprises have made Pitt the region’s second-largest employer (UPMC being the largest). Pitt has held fast to its historic roots while providing a foundation for growing the region’s new economy, especially by attracting young talent to the city. This has contributed to Pittsburgh’s designations as among America’s most livable and literate cities, as well as one of the best cities in which to invest. President George W. Bush noted when visiting Pitt’s new Biomedical Science Tower in 2005 that “this is no longer steel-town but knowledge-town.”

Mr. Nordenberg’s appointment of a vice chancellor to handle external relations and community initiatives — G. Reynolds Clark —has brought university leadership to projects driven by Oakland institutional and neighborhood partners: the creation of Schenley Plaza, the redesign and renovation of the Boulevard of the Allies bridge and portal, and enhanced pedestrian safety features in the business corridor. The university’s Office of Community and Government affairs has spearheaded outstanding United Way support, including one of the largest Day of Caring contingents in the county, and Pitt hosts many other public service efforts. Pitt’s Make a Difference Day now sends 4,000 students fanning out across the city to perform community service.

From 2000 to 2010, Chancellor Nordenberg supported a HUD-funded academic- and community-led Community Outreach Partnership Center to mobilize university resources to address “community-identified” needs. This work is now embedding throughout the university and producing enhanced initiatives, such as the Pittsburgh Neighborhood/​Community Information System at the University Center for Social and Urban Research, which helps to drive research on timely community issues and supports neighborhoods in planning and development efforts.

As an Oakland partner, Community Human Services has enjoyed a relationship with the University of Pittsburgh that is the envy of colleagues across the country. Not only has the agency had the luxury of sitting with university leadership to identify and tackle community issues, it also has benefited from the knowledge and expertise of Pitt faculty and staff, the incredible human capital of its students and the financial resources of the university.

This relationship was driven primarily by the commitment of Mark Nordenberg. As CHS celebrated its 40th anniversary serving Allegheny County, Mr. Nordenberg contacted the agency about participating. In his remarks to the 250 guests, he highlighted the symbiotic relationship between the university and “its” neighborhood. He stressed how the university thrives when its community thrives, how innovation arises when faculty, staff and citizens work together, and how students cannot learn and master their craft without seeing how their work ties in to the real world.

Thus, it was encouraging to learn that incoming chancellor Patrick Gallagher, aside from his many scientific and academic contributions, also has recognized the importance of public service in both his personal and professional life.

Throughout history great cities have been places of great learning, and universities have played a vital role as generators of growth and development. In recognizing Chancellor Nordenberg’s public service legacy, we also encourage Mr. Gallagher to appreciate Pitt’s role as a “university of the city” and not just a university “in the city.”

Of course, Mr. Gallagher has his own agenda to establish. Our hope is that, as he continues to build Pitt’s academic and research excellence, he also will continue to build on the university’s public service work by applying its teaching and research as a leading citizen at the local, state, national and international levels — but especially in its own neighborhood.

Tracy M. Soska is an assistant professor in the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work (tsssw@pitt.edu). Adrienne Walnoha is CEO of Community Human Services (awalnoha@chscorp.org).

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