What’s driving shifts in higher ed leadership? Social pressures, pandemic exhaustion and declining enrollment
Dozens of the Pittsburgh-area’s top institutions are going through leadership changes. The turnover could echo for decades.
When Kathy Humphrey met with a nursing executive at UPMC last year, the Carlow University president asked what the health system needed. Was it more licensed practical nurses? More registered nurses? Her response, according to Humphrey, was: “I need it all.”
Carlow doesn’t have a program for licensed practical nurses. But because of the university’s conversations with UPMC and other members of the healthcare sector, Carlow is developing a program that will ideally launch this fall, Humphrey said.
“That’s what I have to be, and Carlow has to be, constantly in pursuit of: What is the next great need that is connected to the work that we do every day?” she said.
Humphrey, who became Carlow’s president in July 2021, said she believes that connecting with other sectors to address community needs will help the university stay relevant. Since she took the helm, there have been plenty of new connections to make across local government, philanthropy and economic development — including with the new head of UPMC, Leslie Davis.
This package was produced in partnership with Pittsburgh Magazine, which has been covering the city and western Pennsylvania since 1969.
In the higher education sector, six out of 11 local institutions have replaced their presidents or chancellors or have announced the departures of their current leaders since January 2021. As the county undergoes a changing of the guard, new leaders are applying fresh perspectives and novel ideas to help revitalize Pittsburgh and develop academic offerings that align with the city’s shifting needs.
“We are supposed to be committed not just to ourselves, but to the greater society,” said Humphrey. “And we have to role model that for our students.”
What’s driving these shifts in higher ed?
Nationally, the average tenure of university presidents was 6.5 years in 2016, down from 8.5 years in 2006. Locally, university presidents have tended to stay longer, but that may be changing.
David Finegold, outgoing president of Chatham University, attributed part of that trend to economic pressures, political divisions and other societal issues. “In many ways, college campuses are little microcosms of that,” he said, creating “a challenging job these days.” He announced in September that he’s stepping down at the end of this academic year. He will have served in the role for seven years.
“It’s been a wonderful six-plus years now, but it’s also something where you’re pretty much on 24/7. And so, you know, that can take its toll after a while.”
The pandemic — and the work of serving students, clients and employees during that time — has exhausted many leaders across sectors, said Donald Green, who began serving as Point Park University’s president in July 2021.
For others, it has prompted self-reflection about their career paths, he said.
“This ‘Great Resignation,’ when people think about it, they don’t necessarily think about executives and organizational leaders,” he said. “You saw a lot of people who said, ‘There’s more to life than what I’m going through right now.’”
A decline in the number of high school graduates immediately enrolling in college presents leaders with an additional challenge, as they must evaluate the future of higher education, Green said — or decide it’s “not my fight.”
On Jan. 20, Green abruptly announced his resignation from Point Park for personal and family reasons.
What are the visions of Pittsburgh’s new university leaders?
While the societal pressures of recent years have contributed to the departures of some leaders in higher education, they have also created openings for innovation.
Green, for instance, saw Point Park playing a key role in sparking growth and innovation Downtown as it rebuilds from the pandemic.
He worked with partners such as the mayor’s office, the Building Owners and Managers Association of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Downtown Neighbors Alliance to help bring businesses back to the area, he said. The university freed up a building on Wood Street to ideally serve as a business incubator.
Green envisioned the area surrounding Point Park having more residential housing, with the university serving as a hub for those who live there.
“What does that mean? Well, we can provide entertainment,” he said. “We can provide a safer, healthier environment, because we have a police department, and we feel like this provides for a more walkable city. We can provide fitness facilities. We can provide labor and talent for Downtown businesses.”
With Green’s departure, his responsibilities fall to Michael Soto, provost and senior vice president of academic affairs, as the university’s Board of Trustees reviews options for finding a replacement.
Working with the city is also important to Humphrey, who came to Carlow because of its commitment to racial justice. In late October, the university invited about 175 Black leaders, including Mayor Ed Gainey, to a retreat to create measurable outcomes for improving the quality of life for Black people in Pittsburgh.
“It is a part of not only Carlow’s, it’s a part of all higher education’s job, to be a beacon for the city and to assist the city to create strong citizens,” she said.
For the Rev. Asa Lee, president of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, engaging with other sectors in the city and county has been an ongoing process. Since officially taking the post in June 2021, he’s sought to inform government and business leaders about the seminary’s role and centuries-long presence in the community. He’d like his institution to be a resource and partner for tackling issues such as food insecurity, racism and community redevelopment.
Despite the challenges, Finegold said he believes the higher education sector in Pittsburgh has generally been stable.
University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Patrick Gallagher will have served in the role for nine years when he steps down in summer 2023. He was not made available for an interview. Robert Morris University President Michelle Patrick, who took the helm in July after serving as interim president since April, did not respond to an interview request.
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Leadership changes at that level are significant, said state Sen. Jay Costa, who serves on Pitt’s Board of Trustees. He’d like Pitt’s new chancellor to build upon Gallagher’s work and continue to develop relationships between the city’s higher education sector and foundation community, among other efforts.
“I think the challenge is going to be how we incorporate with the public sector and the foundation community to be able to continue to have that strong working relationship that we have with those sectors,” Costa said. “That has to continue to exist, and I do think it will.”
Leaders in Pittsburgh may find it easier to make connections and work together due to the city’s size and tradition of collaboration, said former Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, who served from 1995 to 2014. He referenced the Pittsburgh Council on Higher Education as a “collegial” vessel for collaboration and said the Allegheny Conference on Community Development has helped involve new leaders in valuable projects.
Pittsburgh, he said, “is big enough that there always are important things going on, but it is small enough that you can come to feel a part of the region in a relatively compressed period of time.”
The local universities make an effort to “put out the welcome mat” when new leaders take over, Finegold said. When Green came to the city from Georgia, Finegold made a point to get lunch and offer himself as a resource.
He hopes that Chatham’s next leader will value partnerships and view the university’s and city’s advancement as mutually beneficial. The next decade may pose even more challenges for university leaders, he said, and the institutions that innovate and adapt quicker than others will thrive.
Finegold recognizes that numerous leadership changes happening at once can be daunting, but he doesn’t view the shifts as a crisis.
“I think there’s a great opportunity in here to focus on getting exciting new leadership in place,” he said, “but that the same spirit of cooperation that has characterized it should continue.”
Emma Folts covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at email@example.com.
This story was fact-checked by Punya Bhasin.
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