Overheard with Chancellor Gallagher: Magic happens when a university turns outward.

Patrick Gallagher reflects on his tenure as chancellor and the unique opportunities universities present.
Photography courtesy of
University of Pittsburgh

This summer, Patrick Gallagher will step down as Pitt’s 18th chancellor, after nine years in the role. Under his leadership, Pitt has strengthened its status as one of the nation’s premier public institutions for higher education and research, including being named a top public school in the nation by U.S. News & World Report.

The former director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology came to the University after two decades in public service, drawn by what he calls the “best mission on the planet”—i.e., making the world a better place through knowledge and understanding. For Gallagher, fulfilling that mission has meant bringing different people together to address problems in new ways. During his time as chancellor, Pitt has formed new partnerships focused on innovation, entrepreneurship and community engagement. Those alliances have expanded the reach of the University’s research breakthroughs and expertise.

Such partnerships are especially important in the health sciences, which Gallagher calls “a heartbeat of the University.” The outgoing chancellor spoke with Pitt Med to reflect on his tenure and the unique opportunities universities present.

Editor’s note: As we went to press on our spring issue, the University announced that Joan T.A. Gabel will succeed Gallagher as Pitt’s 19th chancellor.

Pitt Med: First, congratulations. You’ve done so much in your time here. What initiatives here at Pitt are closest to your heart?

Patrick Gallagher: It’s always hard for me to answer that, because it’s like picking your favorite child. I prefer to just take joy in the whole family.

[That said,] I have a fondness in my heart for trying to turn the viewpoint of the University a little bit more outward than inward—looking at ways in which the University’s impact is there, even if you’re not a student or a member of the University community. [Editor’s note: See the timeline below for a few examples.]

I think most people are drawn to a university because they want to make a difference. And that’s individually true in the context of your studies, discipline or work. But I think it’s also collectively true: that our city, our region, our country should be better off because we’re here. And that, for me, is the real magic of what drew us all here, right? Like bugs around a lantern.

Pitt Med: In Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania, there are pockets that are thriving, and there are pockets, sometimes just down the street, that are left behind, in terms of equity or economic opportunity. How can a university make a difference?

PG: The intrinsic thing that we have as a university is deep expertise. We also have something that’s often forgotten, but really important: We’re a place to experiment, to try something new. With that comes this ability to convene and form partnerships. It’s no accident that many of the public-private partnerships, the newest companies, the nonprofits are often catalyzed out of efforts that started and were incubated in universities. A university is in the position to put the band together, if you will, to tackle a particular problem.

There’s been a bias embedded sometimes in science, engineering and technology: “If we can only come up with the answer, then good things will flow from that.” There’s certainly great benefit that comes from the technological outputs of what we do. But having the tools doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be used for those that have the greatest need.

We have to be the catalyst to provide new ways of thinking about questions like, “What does the problem of health look like when you’re not looking at it from the perspective of curing a disease or a specific condition, but more holistically, in a social context?” That’s going to look very different. It may in fact create new kinds of innovations that are either technological, or social, or policy.

Pitt Med: How did your training as a physicist and early career experiences influence your outlook coming to Pitt?

PG: A very formative experience for me was teaching high school for one year.

I was not trained as a teacher: They had lost a teacher, and they knew I was available. But it was life-changing. It was the first time I saw that I wanted to go deeper into the realm of teaching. I wanted to do it at a college level, and that’s what brought me to Pitt [for a PhD].

Of course, though, I failed. I never became a college teacher. I became a researcher and then an administrator. It’s only now, after this long career, that I’m in some ways finally realizing one of my initial dreams. [Editor’s Note: Gallagher will transition to the faculty of Pitt’s Department of Physics and Astronomy after stepping down as chancellor.]

What our educational experience, particularly in higher ed, does is not so much give you the pathway that you already selected coming in. It’s giving you an opportunity to explore and see what these other fields look like. I mean, how can it possibly be that a student who’s never come to Pitt knows all the things that you can do here?

Pitt Med: What about your role as director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)? How did that inform your leadership here?

PG: At NIST, there was a fundamental purpose behind everything we did. We were there to help understand measurement and how to apply it to the most important challenges that the country had. Everyone there bought into that. That sort of centering in your purpose is what made coming into Pitt so natural. Because let’s be honest—there’s no better mission than a university’s. We’re here to make the world a better place through knowledge and understanding.

Pitt Med: There was a recent Journal of American College Health paper about the University’s approach to the pandemic and how it could be a model for others. Of course, we’re hoping there isn’t another pandemic around the corner. But what do you think worked particularly well at Pitt?

PG: When I look back to that experience, it was defined by three things: One is complete uncertainty; the fog of war problem was enormous. The second was the speed and the scale. It was a great teachable moment, but exponential dynamics are just not something human beings are very good at. How small things became massive so fast defied a lot of expectations we had about how things should work. And the final one was, unlike almost any other emergency that you can imagine facing, it wasn’t contained. The pandemic was the whole globe, everywhere, everybody. It stressed all of our organizations. And look, there was a lot of stress for us, too. We were not immune in any special way. But our community, even when it got tough, in the end came together.

Craig Fugate, a former director of FEMA, once told me that places that experience natural disaster either tip in or tip out. The ones that tip in, everyone is out there, working together, and they rebuild the city. And the ones that tip out fall apart, and it’s never the same. Pitt tipped in.

Pitt Med: Thinking about your next life chapter, are there any issues that you plan to tackle, whether societal, scientific or whatever?

PG: No, at this point, my goals are very modest. I want to be a good professor, but I’m a rookie. What I’m planning to do is to reconnect with the world of physics, but also to learn both the art and science of teaching.

Pitt Med: We all went remote for a while during the pandemic. What do you think are the advantages of gathering, learning and living on campus? Do you think that will still be valued in 10, 15, 20 years?

PG: I don’t know, but I hope it matters. Technologies allowed us to do dramatic things like pivot to online teaching and keep most organizations operating with very few employees working together physically as they traditionally did. They were amazing. But the penalty we paid for that has been quite high.

There is a magic that comes from direct human contact. I think that’s true if you’re a student: learning from your peers, interacting with them, living together; being away from home and trying on adulthood for the first time in a supportive environment. It’s very difficult for me to see how technology supplants that without consequences. And students seem to be, in some ways, voting with their feet on that.

Education, exploration, scholarship—yes, they’re knowledge activities, but they’re social activities. And I think it’s important to maintain that. Otherwise our relationships change and are distorted, and some of those changes and distortions may not be to our advantage.

Edited for space and clarity.

Nine years later

Chancellor Patrick Gallagher announced in April 2022 that he plans to step down this summer. Gallagher’s tenure saw Pitt evolve as much as the world around it. Facing new challenges and rising toward new ambitions, the University made major strides. We highlight several here.

KEY: Expanded mission | Access and affordability | Health and safety | Infrastructure investments

AUGUST 2014: Patrick Gallagher is appointed the 18th chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh, succeeding Mark A. Nordenberg.

MAY 2015: Pitt appoints its inaugural vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion. During Gallagher’s tenure, the racial and ethnic diversity of Pitt employees increases by 58%.

APRIL 2017: The new Office of the Senior Vice Chancellor for Research strengthens Pitt’s push to grow research funding. Today, the University receives more than $1 billion a year.

JUNE 2017: Pittsburgh Public Scholars offers all valedictorians and salutatorians in Pittsburgh Public Schools guaranteed admission to the Pitt campus of their choice.

FALL 2017: The School of Computing and Information enrolls its first cohort of students, preparing them for the workforce’s growing demand for technological proficiency across fields.

JUNE 2018: The Opioid Abuse Prevention and Recovery Task Force issues a 48-page report that outlines a framework to address the growing substance abuse crisis.

OCTOBER 2018: Pitt’s first Community Engagement Center opens in Homewood. “A front door to Pitt in neighborhoods,” the centers strengthen the University’s connection to the community. A second opened in the Hill District in 2021.

DECEMBER 2018: Panthers Forward welcomes its inaugural class—students who receive $5,000 in debt relief as well as mentorship from Pitt alumni. As of fall 2022, the program had helped 600 students pay off $3.75 million in debt.

FEBRUARY 2019: The Pitt Success program is announced, restructuring financial aid by matching the U.S. Department of Education’s Pell Grants across all five Pitt campuses.

SPRING 2020: Pitt launches COVID-19 prevention and response efforts, focusing on mitigation, communication and targeted surveillance testing. The University’s approach has been studied as a possible model for other institutions to refer to in the future.

MAY 2022: The Assembly opens in a former Model T factory in Bloomfield, bringing researchers of diverse disciplines together to build the next generation of cancer treatments.

SEPTEMBER 2022: The Campus Wellness and Recreation Center breaks ground. The 270,000-square-foot facility will feature a recreation pool, jogging track, weight-lifting equipment and courts for basketball and volleyball.

SEPTEMBER 2022: A new, 5,500-square-foot building opens for the Big Idea Center, Pitt’s hub for student inventiveness and entrepreneurship. The health sciences schools are also a major source of commercialization for the University. Leaders are establishing partnerships and an ecosystem for further life sciences innovation.