University Update

Issue Date: 
July 2, 2013

To:       Members of the University Community

From:   Mark A. Nordenberg

Date:    June 28, 2013

Re:       Leadership Transition

Though it sometimes seems hard to believe, 36 years have passed since my family and I traveled to Pittsburgh, with all of our possessions packed into a midsized rental truck, so that I could begin a nine-month appointment as a visiting assistant professor of law at Pitt. We arrived on a nice summer day, and I still can recall the excitement that many of you also have felt—as we emerged from the Fort Pitt Tunnels into the beauty of the Golden Triangle. We then drove past the Oakland campus, to be warmly welcomed by friendly new neighbors as we moved into what we expected would be our single-year Squirrel Hill home.

For me, there also was another home, the University itself. The School of Law was an exciting place—with a rapidly expanding faculty, impressive students, loyal alumni, a brand-new building, and high ambitions. Even in those early days, when my attention was narrowly focused on school-specific responsibilities, I had a sense of the larger institution as a place in which work of quality and impact was regularly produced in wide-ranging disciplines.

What began as a short-term stint grew into a career-length stay, and I never could have envisioned the range of rich opportunities that would be presented to me by Pitt. From the very start, I was given the chance to teach, the one thing that I still may do best, and to explore areas and issues of scholarly interest to me. Almost as soon as I had earned tenure and promotion to the rank of full professor, doors to positions of academic leadership were opened.

I moved into the law school Dean’s Office, first as an interim appointee, in 1985, and stayed until 1993. When I left that role, I fully expected to take my first-ever sabbatical and return to the life of a law professor—which, after all, was the life that attracted me here, but those plans were sidetracked for what has become a very extended period of time. In 1993-94 and 1994-95, I twice gave up that leave and deferred my pre-existing plans, first to serve as Interim Provost and then to chair a committee searching for a new senior vice chancellor for the health sciences. Not knowing where life would take me next, I did not realize what a valuable part of my own professional preparation those two experiences would prove to be.

In the summer of 1995, I accepted yet another short-term administrative assignment, this time as Interim Chancellor. As had been true when I was appointed Interim Dean, just about a decade earlier, the situation into which I moved was challenging. However, at least from the perspective of the Board of Trustees, my “tryout” must have gone well, because in the summer of 1996, following a national search, the Board removed the time-limiting adjective “interim” and elected me Chancellor on a more permanent basis.      

It would be hard to imagine a more professionally satisfying time than my 18 years as Pitt’s Chancellor have been for me. To be sure, little about the job has been easy. To the contrary, the challenges have been frequent, the pressures sometimes have been intense, and the demands have been unrelenting. I do not know if the now-common “24/7” phrase even had been coined in 1995, but it aptly describes one dimension of the position I have occupied since then.

That statement, though, is not a complaint. On the most basic of levels, I love to work, and in that sense, serving as Chancellor has given me essentially limitless opportunities to do what I love. Even more gratifying has been the broader purpose of that work, whatever form particular pieces of it might have taken—helping to provide a supportive environment for tens of thousands of talented people whose own efforts are contributing to the greater good, even while advancing an institution whose mission now has stood a 226-year test of time and whose quality, strength, and impact have grown with each passing year.

Though there is little to be gained by dwelling on memories of that earlier time, the years of the mid-1990’s were not one of Pitt’s “glory periods.” When publicly disseminated, the independent review released by the Board halfway through my year as Interim Chancellor produced headlines such as “Why Pitt’s Not It” and “Critical Report Says Pitt Fails Its Own Test.” However, the basic thrust of that review—that “an imposing, impressive institution of great quality” was not achieving its full potential—was taken as a call to action by those most deeply committed to Pitt, including its Board of Trustees.

At the time of the review’s release, the Trustees adopted five priority statements that have helped set our institutional course since then. Those statements committed us to: (1) aggressively pursue excellence in undergraduate education; (2) maintain excellence in research; (3) partner in community development; (4) ensure operational efficiency and effectiveness; and (5) secure an adequate resource base. A sixth priority statement committed the Board to the selection of a Chancellor “qualified to lead the University into the next century.” Whether the Trustees met that charge or not, that particular statement seems not to have been regularly revisited during the intervening years.

By February of 2000, the Board felt sufficiently comfortable with our progress to publicly adopt, as an overarching aspiration, “aggressively supporting the advancement of Pitt’s academic mission” to “clearly establish that this is one of the finest, most productive universities in the world.” Whether articulated in precisely those terms or not, a shared sense of high institutional ambition has fueled our still-building momentum. Our successes in the never-ending pursuit of excellence and impact have been impressive on almost every front and should be a source of pride for every engaged member of the University community.

Many aspects of our progress can be quantified, and we have been very disciplined in measuring them. Other forms of progress, though less easily calculated, may be even more important. For example, it is hard to assign a meaningful value to fulfilled faculty members, engaged staff, happy students, satisfied parents, and proud alumni. Still, within such a human institution, these may be among the most important performance indicators of all, and for me, interacting with committed members of these key constituent groups has been one of the great joys of serving in this position.

In fact, nothing about my service as Chancellor has been more energizing than working with large numbers of very good people. I am particularly grateful to the members of our Board of Trustees, who not only elected me to this position but who have done everything within their power to ensure that both the University and its Chancellor would be successful. It has been my further privilege to work on a daily basis with both the best senior leadership team and best office staff that I could imagine.

As I hope these comments reveal, I believe that most credit for the progress we have made belongs to others. At the same time, I do feel very fortunate that I was chosen to play my particular role, believe that my own talents have been well matched to Pitt’s needs, and remain energized by both the challenges and opportunities that present themselves each day. That being the case, deciding when to bring my term of service as Chancellor to an end has not been easy.  In dealing with that issue—as I trust has been characteristic of my service to the University from all of the many positions that I have held—my attention has been focused more on the best interests of the institution than it has been driven by personal considerations.

As I was preparing to assume the responsibilities of Interim Chancellor, one of my closest colleagues gave me a book entitled A Primer for University Presidents. The final chapter of that “guidebook,” written by a former president of the University of Texas, begins with this advice.

The day that you assume the presidency of a university you had better begin thinking about how you are going to get out with your health, sense of humor, and reputation intact. It is not good for any chief executive officer of any organization to remain in the position too long. It is not good for the organization or for the executive. There are exceptions, of course, that flow from extraordinary circumstances and extraordinary individuals, but saving those exceptions a president should attempt to realize his or her vision, achieve his or her goals, and make his or her contributions to the organization within a tenure of five to ten years.

The length of my own tenure as Chancellor reflects a fundamental disagreement with the shorter time limits suggested in that passage, and I have absolutely no doubt that our University has benefitted enormously from the stability of its leadership—if not within the chief executive’s office specifically, then certainly within its broader executive team. Still, recognizing that even good things must come to an end, aware of the fact that I had moved into the senior ranks of the presidents/chancellors of major American research universities a number of years ago, and not wanting either to outlive my effectiveness or to overstay my welcome, I have been engaged in discussions with our Board chairs about ideal departure dates—for many years.

I have taken two related lessons from those experiences. The first is that there are times when it really would be destructive to step down—when the institution is contending with the ravages of a worldwide recession or seeking to avoid draconian funding cuts would be two clear examples from our recent past. The second lesson is that there probably is no perfect time to leave a position like this one, since there always will be a steady flow of new challenges to meet and of new opportunities to pursue. However, I have come to believe that there are better times to step away and further believe that, for Pitt and for me, this is one of those times.

Together, we have met an extraordinary succession of challenges in recent years. Dealing effectively and collectively with those challenges added strength to our community, and perhaps somewhat remarkably, those challenges did little to slow our momentum. Instead, we found ways to deal with even large problems while continuing to forge an amazing record of progress.  That is the condition of the University that I always have wanted to leave to my successor, and to all who care about Pitt—an institution that is markedly better than the one that I inherited and an institution clearly heading in the right direction. And because I know how directly our successes have been driven by the tireless and inspired efforts of the absolutely outstanding senior management team that I have been privileged to assemble and lead, I also have wanted to leave my successor a strong team that can be reshaped by him or her over the natural course of time.

With those tests met, I have advised Steve Tritch, the chair of our Board of Trustees, that it is my hope to leave the Chancellor’s position on Aug. 1, 2014—after all of the work that needs to be done on the Fiscal Year 2015 budget has been completed but before the new academic year has begun. It is hard to know how long a search might take, but I never have felt that participatory processes need to be ponderous. To simply repeat what others have said, Pitt is a world-class research university, and given its strengths and its dramatic and ongoing rise within the ranks of the country’s finest universities, the position should be a very attractive one.

For any candidate, one especially appealing feature of life at Pitt will be the civil, collegial, and constructive culture that we have built together. Mutual respect and a commitment to the greater good have become defining features of our University, have made working here more satisfying, and have helped fuel our collective progress. This high-quality “campus climate” is something not found at every other place and is something that none of us should take for granted.

Considering my having moved into the Dean’s Office of the School of Law in 1985, the summer of 2014 will mark, for me, nearly three decades of working to advance Pitt from positions of academic leadership. Looking to the future, I plan to remain a contributing member of the Pitt community. There may be unique forms of help that I can provide to the Board and to my successor, and I have agreed to make myself available as requested. I also expect to return to teaching and to remain involved in civic initiatives intended to advance our home region. 

For the next year, though, I will remain in this office, as ambitious, energetic, committed, and busy as ever. I am grateful for all of your past support, treasure the triumphs we have shared, and look forward to working with you to extend our unbroken record of progress—in the next year and, even though it will not be from this position, for many years to come. Put even more simply, we clearly are a better university, so this would seem to be a good time to search for an even better Chancellor.