Gene Collier: Right balance is the goal for new Pitt chancellor Gallagher

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Since Patrick D. Gallagher has been chancellor and CEO at the University of Pittsburgh, the Panthers are not only unbeaten in the major sports, they are prevailing by an average score of 62-0.

So right, he started last month, but really, the fact that Pitt has started the football season 1-0 is pretty much the extent of what Pitt fans care to know about the university’s 18th chancellor, pending developments, of course.

“We’re about to celebrate 125 years of football at Pitt this year, so I find it quite interesting — if you look at it just in a pure academic mission perspective, it’s fair to ask what role athletics can play,” Gallagher said across a conference table in the Cathedral of Learning recently. “But if you ask students, faculty, alumni about the totality of the university experience, you will find [sports] plays an enormous role. What happens at a university is bigger than what happens in a classroom. What’s happening at a university is that you’re learning by doing things, being a scholar, doing a research project, becoming a leader, learning how to collaborate, and so culture matters.

“I think athletic programs play a critical role in shaping those cultures. That’s the deep connection, even if it seems to create a disconnect between, ‘How can this possibly be important?’ and ‘This was so important to my experience.’ ”

Most of Gallagher’s sports experience is blatantly common — he has spent a lot of time driving his kids to games and practices, so I don’t think he got the job to figure out how to finally get Jamie Dixon’s basketball team to a Final Four. He got it through an academic and professional profile that is just suffocatingly impressive from every angle.

Most recently, he was acting deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce and director of the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), where I don’t think they regularly put their hands in a huddle and go “N-I-S-T let’s go NIST!”

In five years at NIST, Gallagher directed the promotion of U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, his priorities including manufacturing, information technology and cyber security, energy, health care, the environment, consumer safety and physical infrastructure.

He got his PhD in physics from Pitt in 1991, and his research interests have run to neutron and X-ray instrumentation and soft condensed matter systems, and he has subsequently been active in U.S. policy for scientific user facilities and was chair of the Interagency Working Group on neutron and light source facilities under the Office of Science and Technology, and co-chair of the Standards Subcommittee under the White House National Science and Technology Council.

So naturally, I knew what to ask someone like Gallagher: How ’bout them Panthers? But since he has been here only a month, I started with something a little broader, which came out approximately, “How can Pitt, or any large research university, cultivate a serious academic culture while its highest-paid employees are the football and basketball coaches, because I have my doubts?”

That perplexed the chancellor so much that he answered in about one one-hundreth of a second.

“I think what that boils down to is: Do you measure values with salaries? If that was the case through our society, we’d have a very different salary structure. I was a high school teacher for a year and I have to say I considered that one of the most important roles in our society, and we certainly don’t reward it that way.

“So clearly markets and other things are playing a role. It would be naive to not understand that. That being said, there can be a point at which markets can distort values.”

This is where I should have asked if he knew that the Kardashians are worth an estimated $80 million, but I was afraid he would know that, too, and then I’d have to be embarrassed for both of us.

What bothers me even more than the Kardashians’ take-home, though, are declining priorities for education across the board, in Pennsylvania and throughout America. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran a front-page story again last week in which pediatricians warn about the deleterious impacts of starting the school day so early, particularly for teenagers. Similar science has existed for nearly a quarter-century, but is routinely dismissed by school boards and communities in large part because they don’t want to disrupt sports schedules and practice schedules. Attitudes like that, compounded by draconian funding cuts for education from preschool to post-secondary education, make it inevitable that the country continues to fall down the charts in academic achievement across almost the entire range of disciplines.

“You get a big chicken-and-egg problem there,” Gallagher said. “We have a nine-month academic culture in the United States that stems from an agricultural society that needed to have people home to work the farm. Societies adjust around these things [but] there’s an enormous inertia. These things tend to happen from steady pressure over time. It’s like smoking. We’ve known for a long time it’s not good for you, yet changing the norms of behavior and values, these things take a long time.”

It took about 100 years, as one example, for the NCAA to be compelled to understand that it shouldn’t exploit young people to generate obscene profits only to turn many of them away without degrees and in some cases with permanent disabilities from concussions.

Gallagher said he didn’t know whether athletes will eventually be paid, but he knows that university presidents need to reach a more robust enforcement of what he calls their core mission.

“The key is not to lose our mooring to the key values,” he said. “Don’t forget the core mission, which is that they walk out of here with an education. These programs don’t sit in isolation. It’s really the fans that create a lot of these pressures, and that also goes to all the positive things we talked about. But that same pressure creates the distortions. We’ll be OK if we stick to the core values, which is doing the best we can for student athletes and giving them the opportunity to play, which is what they want, but also to walk out with an education.

“If you don’t have that, then you’ve broken it.”

There are plenty of places where it’s already broken, and hopelessly so. I don’t consider Pitt one of those places. The university’s relentlessly improving academic standing needs a serious academic culture to sustain itself and the region it serves.

If Gallagher can sustain that, he will begin to sculpt a legacy way more impressive than even a 62-0 victory against the Fighting Poultry.

Gene Collier: and Twitter @genecollier.

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