Jerome Cochran Strengthens Pitt with Drive, Business Acumen

Issue Date: 
November 3, 2014

When Stephen Tritch was elected chair of Pitt’s Board of Trustees in June 2009, he thought that his presence would bring the corporate perspective of a seasoned Fortune 500 CEO to Pitt’s business operations. A year earlier, Tritch had retired as chief executive officer of Westinghouse Electric Corp., after a successful 37-year career with the company, which he skillfully guided as CEO through a dramatic period of expansion.

“ComingJerome Cochran received the University’s 225th Anniversary Medallion during a Feb. 22, 2013, meeting of Pitt’s Board of Trustees. From left, Pitt Board Chair Stephen Tritch, Cochran, and, now Chancellor Emeritus Mark A. Nordenberg. in from industry as a Westinghouse guy, I thought I could add value by taking a hard-nosed look at costs,” says Tritch (ENGR ’71, BUS ’77G). But when he began to look more closely at Pitt’s business operations, he discovered an efficient and well-run enterprise that resembled the operational model he had built at Westinghouse.

“There wasn’t a lot of fat,” recalls Tritch. “Pitt had done a lot of the same kind of things that Westinghouse had done and even had some unique ideas for cost-cutting.”

The man chiefly responsible for the University’s business and service operations—and the lack of fat—during the past 19 years is Jerome Cochran (LAW ’89), Pitt’s executive vice chancellor, who recently announced his decision to retire after a long career in which his unique talents helped to shape an era of flourishing success at Pitt.

In announcing the retirement, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said, “Through Jerry’s dedicated service as our chief business officer, the University has benefitted in innumerable ways. His business acumen and commitment to providing the highest-quality support to the mission of the University has significantly contributed to the success that Pitt has enjoyed over the nearly past two decades.” 

It is Cochran’s people who beautify the campus landscape and create green spaces like Schenley Plaza. His staff manages operations that range from human resources to student food services. He leads the departments that develop and maintain student housing, modernize classroom and office space, and build specialized research facilities containing gigantic research magnets, sophisticated laboratories, and even a virus biocontainment site. He’s responsible for public safety and takes great pride in the standards that have been set for the hiring and training of a truly professional Pitt police department, one that responded so effectively to such crises as the shootings at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic and the extended bomb-threat siege and that also relates so well to the student body. His operational responsibilities also include parking and transportation, both for normal days in our always challenging Oakland neighborhood and for special events, including the bus convoys that transport thousands of students to Heinz Field for football games. And for years, Cochran also served as general counsel, developing Pitt’s in-house law firm into a group of highly accomplished professionals that are the equivalent of any outside firm.

“Jerry has a broad set of skills, and he has about as broad a set of responsibilities as anybody,” says Tritch. “I would say his two most impressive qualities are his breadth of skills and his ability to get things done.”

Cochran has always had an appetite for hard work—and for the next challenge.

“My 91-year-old mother has been saying to me all my life, ‘Why can’t you be satisfied? Why does it have to be the next thing? Why do you always want to go to the next step?’” says Cochran. Then adds, “I had drive. That was it.”

Cochran’s boyhood was spent in humble circumstances in a modest home near Harwick, Pa., a rural setting northeast of Pittsburgh. He worked throughout high school. As an undergraduate at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, he pursued degrees in both political science and administration of justice while working multiple jobs, among them managing a “mom and pop” grocery store, pumping gas, and organizing adult recreational programs for the town of Indiana, Pa. During his last two years of college, he worked as an inhalation therapy technician in a hospital, directly helping patients.

After he graduated, he took a job as a unit manager on a floor of Presbyterian University Hospital in Pittsburgh, where he was responsible for budgeting, equipment, supplies, and scheduling. Soon, he recalls, he was managing some of the hospital’s critical units, including the emergency room, intensive care area, and operating rooms. Drawing upon years of employment in various work settings, he brought an entrepreneurial spirit to his job.

Before long, says Cochran, he convinced the hospital’s anesthesiologists—all physicians—to form a clinical practice plan, well before that was an accepted business model. Then, a top surgeon was at his door, asking Cochran to do the same for the Department of Surgery. Then came the pathologists and radiologists.

At the time, Cochran was 24 years old. Not long afterward, he says, he was recruited by Pitt’s then-Chancellor Wesley Posvar to serve as an assistant senior vice chancellor, developing and managing an array of clinical practice plans that would also benefit and support the academic mission of the University’s health sciences departments and schools.

But Cochran’s greatest contributions to the University of Pittsburgh were ahead. In the late 1980s, he returned to the classroom to pursue a law degree at Pitt, where one of his teachers was Mark A. Nordenberg, who recalls that Cochran “had a unique combination of book smarts and street smarts.”

When Nordenberg became interim chancellor in 1995, Cochran left a successful Downtown law practice to become Pitt’s assistant chancellor—and one of the original members of the senior leadership team that produced the phenomenal progress of the past 19 years. During that time, undergraduate applications nearly quadrupled, full-time equivalent student enrollment grew by more than 20 percent, and research funding soared—all of which had major implications for Cochran’s areas of responsibility: Facilities Management, Parking and Transportation, Student Housing, Food Services, Police and Public Safety, Human Resources, Business and Retail operations, and until recently, Legal Services.

“I have never met anybody with the same combination of strengths that Jerry has,” says Nordenberg. “He is just the kind of person you want standing by your side when it comes to making and implementing big decisions, because he is so smart, so strong, and so resourceful.”

Trustee and Board Chair Tritch says it was Cochran who took on the responsibilities—and the pressures—of creating a campus environment that would attract the best and brightest students, faculty, and staff during those transformative years. 

Tritch recalls that—after discussions about how to admit more students, expand residence halls, improve food services, and beautify the campus— meetings would typically end with everyone looking at Cochran. “He was the guy holding the bag, with us saying, ‘If you can make all of this work, it will be great for the University.’”  And, says Tritch, “Year after year, Jerry would come through.”

Cochran gives credit to all those people who manage and staff his array of operations. “The only way I was able to do this is by having really good people working with me,” and his staff is loyal to his cause. He has a reputation for blunt talk and decisive action. “I am a tough negotiator in the interest of the institution,” he says, “but at the end of the day, as tough as I am, I’m also fair.”

When he retires in December, he expects to spend a lot more time with his wife, Cathy, on their nearly nine acres of rural property in Beaver County, where Cochran, despite some health setbacks in recent years, still loves to pursue some of his youthful passions—hunting, fishing, and cruising back roads on his motorcycle.

When asked about his legacy at Pitt, he describes the transformation of the physical landscape on all five campuses with new buildings, the renovation of facilities, the addition of green space, the creation of cost-efficient and self-sustaining facilities like the building of Pitt’s own steam plant for power and heat.

The physical transformation is visible, he says. And it’s symbolic of a significant era of progress in education, research, and community partnership for Pitt. He’s quick to give credit to the importance of the close working relationship he shared with Nordenberg and then-Provost James Maher to ensure that the University’s business and service operations were closely aligned with Pitt’s academic priorities and, especially, with the needs of students.

“Mark, Jim, and I are cut from the same cloth on so many things,” says Cochran. “We were a good team.” And, he adds, his biggest accomplishment in that larger context was transforming the culture of doing business at Pitt.

Nordenberg, now Chancellor Emeritus, emphasizes that legacy: “Through the force of his own leadership abilities and professional personality, Jerry changed external perceptions of the University, elevating it to a position of widespread respect as a large and very well-managed enterprise. It should be noted that this came at a time of increased public awareness that the future of the region was directly dependent upon a strong, financially healthy Pitt. Perhaps even more important, within the units reporting to him, Jerry instilled a sense of pride in work well done and a sense of loyalty to our overall mission. People can see the positive products of that pride and loyalty in work being done throughout the University.”

Today, Pitt is a different place, a better place. And that, truly, is Jerome Cochran’s legacy: You can see the progress by walking across the campus, by talking with people who study and work here, by watching Pitt people accomplish their work in an environment that supports excellence.