PITTSBURGH — In 1995, when the University of Pittsburgh last went shopping for new leadership, a search committee considered 158 candidates nationally only to decide the best choice already was on campus, working as interim chancellor inside Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning.
The ensuing prosperity Pitt enjoyed under Mark Nordenberg, who plans to step down in August, 2014, no doubt will be cited by those who say Pitt’s next chancellor also should come from within, someone who would not need a crash course in the institution’s complexities or the region.
Others, though, likely will argue that Pitt’s rise in stature among national research universities presents an opportunity to bring in big-name talent from afar.
No matter which way it goes, one thing seems clear as the university of nearly 33,000 students readies for its first chancellor search in nearly two decades: It will have plenty of company.
In fact, the ranks of colleges and universities looking for new leaders includes elite public flagship schools not that far away, among them Penn State University, Ohio State University, and the University of Michigan.
Experts say Pitt, even with other top schools in the market, should have little problem attracting strong candidates, partly because of its improved standing and partly because heading a big university is still a very good way to make a living.
How many other jobs enable one to debate the most interesting issues of the day surrounded by vibrance, youth, and visitors ranging from U.S. presidents to CEOs to the Dalai Lama?
“If someone wants to make a contribution to community, to learning, there’s not much that compares to it. It’s a great job,” said Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, a professor and president emeritus of George Washington University in Washington.
Being a university president requires rock-solid skills but also allows one to be a bit of a visionary and dreamer.
Handicapping exactly how Pitt’s search will end up is next to impossible, though experience at other universities gives some clues.
The University of Georgia, for instance, named as its new president Jere Morehead, provost there since 2010. Other universities have recently elevated provosts to the presidency too, including Yale University’s Peter Salovey.
But Purdue University took a different tack. It chose as its 12th president the then-sitting governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels, who took the job at the conclusion of his second term.
He held other positions in industry and government, including a stint as director of the federal Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush.
Among doctoral-granting universities such as Pitt, 60 percent of presidents who were in office as of 2011 served previously as a provost or senior academic affairs executive, according to the most recent demographic portrait of American college presidents published last year by the American Council on Education.
The next largest share, 21 percent, previously served as president or campus chief executive, according to institutions surveyed.
Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, said it’s not usual for a handful of leading research universities to be seeking a new president at once. But the proximity of Pitt, Penn State, Ohio State, and Michigan make those near simultaneous searches unusual.
At Ohio State, the presidential transition has been rockier. E. Gordon Gee abruptly announced his retirement last month, amid controversy over recent remarks.
Michigan’s Mary Sue Coleman announced in April her retirement from the presidency she has held since 2002.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill Schackner is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.
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