As a junior in high school, I joined a volunteer organization called Amigos de las Americas [Friends of the Americas], which was a non-denominational, youth-based organization modeled after the Peace Corps. We trained during the school year to administer basic health care programs while learning Spanish and building inter-cultural skills. Then we spent one or two months in-country in Latin America as community volunteers, all with no adult supervision. By my second year in the program, I was promoted to route leader, supervising a group of approximately 10 volunteers in different communities. When I went back for a third year, I became an assistant project director and was managing the well– and latrine-digging programs on the north coast of Honduras. In year four, I was project director for all of Ecuador and was managing about 70 volunteers. That was a huge responsibility. I had to negotiate with government officials as to what our programs would be, canvass for people to donate space, and raise the resources necessary to train and house our volunteers. At the time, I didn’t think of it as “management,” but much of my training at Amigos de las Americas was indeed management training. That experience helped me to recognize some of my innate abilities. I enjoyed establishing conditions within which others could succeed.
I grew up in Albuquerque, N.M., and lived there my whole life until I left for college. I never thought of mine as being a particularly remarkable upbringing, but it was a happy one. I went to good schools and had many good friends. But I don’t ever recall feeling like I was exceptional or gifted in any way. To me, I was just a normal kid, doing normal things.
Albuquerque was growing in those days, but it was more or less a “one-company” town. Sandia National Laboratories was there, and that’s where my dad worked, as an engineer. Mom was at home. Having a major scientific lab nearby exposed me to interesting things, even though much of its work was secret. We weren’t allowed to visit but, once every four years, the company had “Family Day,” during which they put away all the secret stuff and invited us in. They held workshops in this and that, and I got to see some early computers and some of the first imaging machines, all of which was cool, especially for a geeky kid.
My mom and dad were both from Pennsylvania: mom, from Pittsburgh; dad, from Philadelphia. So another part of my upbringing was our family’s summer visits back east. That’s when I attended my first museums (Carnegie in Pittsburgh and Franklin Institute in Philly) and experienced my first amusement parks, not to mention the great Allegheny Observatory. When I think back on all the career dreams I had as a kid, many of them were influenced by those summer trips. I wanted to design roller coasters. I wanted to be an astronomer at one point, too. But in hindsight, I probably ended up in a science and research-based career because of the Sandia labs. I was interested in science. And I was always building (and destroying) stuff as I pulled things apart to see how they worked.
As a young man, I was very independent and did not want to stay in my hometown and go to college there, so I picked an institution, sight unseen, because it was the farthest one from home that accepted me: Benedictine College, a small liberal arts school in Atchison, Kan. It was a liberal arts school, so I tried a lot of different things while I was there. I studied philosophy, which I really enjoyed, and physics, which I figured could get me a job.
As an undergraduate, I took part in student government and got pretty involved. Then I went on to grad school in physics and wound up managing the labs in our research group, even as a post-doctoral student. I’ve always had a tendency, conscious or not, to lean toward management jobs, and this has continued throughout my career. When someone is needed to organize and lead, I tend to step forward. (Or maybe everyone else tends to step back.) But what I have discovered is that management and leadership aren’t only innate skills. They can be learned. I consider myself fortunate. Because of aptitude or by sheer happenstance, I learned how to work with others and how to deal with challenging situations. I discovered what works and what doesn’t. I’ve had many experiences that have prepared me for management and leadership roles. And I got better with practice.
I don’t believe in destiny but, as I look back on it now, my life sort of makes sense, even though I never felt like things were making sense during the journey. I often felt great uncertainty and experienced many unexpected twists and turns. My life has not been one in which I had a clear goal, but I’ve always wanted to make a difference. I wanted a meaningful life and to use my talents. But as tenets by which to live one’s life, these are pretty ambiguous. I always try to do the best I can, and my experience has been that unseen doors open all the time and one must be wise enough to know when it’s time to walk through them.
What I have discovered is that management and leadership
aren’t only innate skills. They can be learned.
Even when I graduated from college, I was not entirely clear about what I was going to do. “Maybe teaching,” I thought. But I had not pursued teaching credentials in school, so I was working at Bennigan’s restaurant in Topeka, Kan., and taking some education classes on the side. Then lo and behold, the new principal of a Catholic high school in St. Joseph, Mo., contacted me about an immediate opening for a science teacher. Because it was a private school, I didn’t have to be certified. So I was hired, on the spot, and taught a full teaching load at this high school. It was probably the hardest job I’ve ever had. I was teaching physics, chemistry, and geometry: three preps and six continuous classes in a row! I had three minutes between each and couldn’t have lunch until the end of the day, by which time I was a zombie. To make matters worse, the salary was so bad that, to help me out, the school gave me a coaching job. I coached the cross-country team and, if you ever saw me run, you would realize how ridiculous that was.
Now, I loved teaching, but couldn’t see a career path there. The only way upward was to leave the classroom and become an administrator. I thought, “What a crazy system. The only way to move up is to move out of what you love to do.” And so I thought, “Well, since I like teaching, maybe I should try to do it at the collegiate level.” That’s what’s got me to Pitt, initially. I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in physics in hope that, one day, I could become a professor. But a funny thing happened during grad school. I discovered that I actually enjoyed research, too, which I wasn’t even thinking about when I started. And after I got my Ph.D., I was firmly on a research track. I was still thinking, however, that I would eventually like to become a professor. And, of course, being a professor involves both teaching and research. It seemed like the perfect mix.
In physics, it is normal to do post-doctoral work, so I got a two-year appointment at Boston University. I worked in the lab there and ended up kind of managing the place. I had a couple of opportunities at the end of my time in Boston and a job possibility at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) came up late, actually. I had to hold off another option to go down and interview with them. My wife, Karen, and I liked the idea of living in Maryland, which is where NIST was located. It was close to Pittsburgh, and we still had a lot of friends in the area from my grad school days. So I went to NIST to do research on a temporary appointment. A couple of years into that, I was managing their Instrument Development Group. And I learned a lot going in. You always learn the most when you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, and I was pretty far out of it. But I remember thinking, “I better start looking for my next job, because I’ve got a family now.” (My wife and I have three boys). I was starting to put out feelers when the director at the NIST neutron facility called me into his office and said, “I understand that you’re looking. But, before you get too far, I have something you should consider.” And he laid out this interesting job at NIST, which was almost pure management. I knew at the time that, if I went down that road, my career was going to unfold in a very different way. If I accepted that job, it would likely signal the end of my research career. It would also make it highly unlikely that I would become a professor. But I really enjoyed working at NIST and was very happy with the decision to stay there, once I had made it.
So I had taken a new and unforeseen path and was enjoying my work when, one day, I received a cold call from a headhunter who asked, “Do you realize that the chancellor position has opened up at Pitt and that your name has been mentioned as a potential candidate? Are you interested?” Headhunters called a lot when I was at NIST and I always thanked them and said “no” right away. My appointment was a government position and if you say anything other than “no,” under government rules, you’re in negotiation with them, which is a conflict of interest. But this was one to which I said, “I’ll get back to you.” And I remember talking with my wife about it that night, saying, “It isn’t the timing we talked about, but this is Pitt, and it’s a very unique opportunity.” Chancellor positions don’t really open up too often.
I really had not been thinking about being the head of a university with any seriousness but, I guess that I knew it was one of the possibilities. And so what I said was, “I’d be interested enough to explore things further simply to learn more about the opportunity.” The journey was one of mutual discovery. And that made sense because, in the end, it had to be a good fit, for both sides. So the process unfolded. The increasing comfort level between me and the university was very satisfying. Initially, it wasn’t clear to me that it all made sense. But in talking with university leaders and learning where they were at that point and what they were looking for, I believed that I could contribute and make a difference. Once the job was offered, I decided to accept it because of three factors: first, Pitt was in a great place and the opportunities were significant; next, it was in Pittsburgh, a city that had meant so much to my wife and me, where we had deep ties; and finally, what is happening in the region is so magical. A great city is reinventing itself, and I wanted to be part of that.
Following Mark Nordenberg, however, is going to be a real challenge. He was beloved here. But I don’t have to be a clone of Mark. I’m not him. We have different attributes. My view is that institutions pull from their leadership what they need. Institutions are dynamic and their needs change over time. It’s much more like a relay race. Mark was the perfect chancellor for where Pitt was going 20 years ago and he did a masterful job. During Mark’s tenure, I don’t think any university anywhere managed to create as much momentum academically in research and rise so dramatically in reputation, particularly coming off what had been a rocky period just before that. Mark and I have talked and he has told me that, given where the university is today, and where the city is going in the areas of technology, growth and economic development, the job really plays to my strengths. And so what I get to do is write another chapter in Pitt’s growth. It’s the next leg of the race.
I believe that great universities must tackle great challenges. We are in a position to make a substantial impact in terms of research related to societal changes. We are a giant in health care, which is one of the huge challenges that our country faces. And we are extraordinarily well-positioned to be a national leader in this regard, particularly when you consider the coalescence of the two biggest revolutions that are happening in research today: medicine and digital technology. The debate in this arena over the last 20 years or so has taken place right here, in this city, and at this university.
But I think that same spirit of being at the forefront is true internally at Pitt in terms of education. Higher education has never been more important than it is today. If you look at the economic outcomes over a lifetime between those who get college degrees and those who don’t, the gap has never been wider. And, yet, as a society, we are questioning the value of public education in ways we haven’t before, certainly, in my lifetime. We have new technologies that are changing the way education is supported and delivered. It’s a time of great upheaval. And my instinct is not to wait until the upheaval is over. We must dive in and be a first-mover. Success is going to come from being one of the initiators of change.
To increase the individual’s overall ability to contribute and participate in a culture, society and economy that’s increasingly knowledge-driven is why we exist. We will become more knowledge-driven as technology continues to replace more menial tasks in the workplace. We must put a premium on a baseline of education. After all, Microsoft and Apple wouldn’t be the empires they are today if they hadn’t had so many young, educated professionals to help them along. The story of the lone wolf in the garage inventing the next big thing is largely an American myth. In truth, the enabling infrastructure that allowed Bill Gates and Steve Jobs to really take off and do great things was, in fact, built on education.
The story of tools and the story of the human race can’t be separated. My view is that what sets us apart from all other creatures is that we are toolmakers extraordinaire. We have always adapted to the tools we’ve made, and they have changed us: tools of industry and commerce, communication and computation, and tools of war and peace. They’re all part of the human story. And that’s why I think that technology doesn’t erode our humanity. In many ways, it accentuates it. Can we understand how these new technologies will change the way we think and live? I believe the fact that these currents are moving through the university and through our society make it a magical time to be alive. It’s exciting to live in a time of great change, even though it’s unsettling when big questions are being asked. That’s not scary for me. I think that it’s out of this kind of chaos that the biggest ideas and advances always come.