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"If we don't convince American society that we are adding something
essential to the future, American society will neglect us and we will wither."

PITT PROVOST JAMES MAHER GREETS ME warmly at the door of his eighth-floor office in the Cathedral of Learning. He takes my coat, invites me to a comfy chair near his desk. He is unfailingly courteous; his voice measured, his manner unruffled. He patiently answers all my questions, even as the hour-long appointment trips into 90 minutes.

But the pacific exterior is something of a ruse. Maher is charged with changing things at the University, and he's doing it. Now.

Maher is the point man for academic change. He oversees all undergraduate and graduate programs in 17 schools, four regional campuses, the University Library System, and all non-medical research centers. As the University's principal academic officer, Maher sets academic priorities, approves tenure.

But that job description fails to explain how Maher, erstwhile chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, found himself as academic head of this large and complex university. Nor does it begin to encompass the myriad challenges now facing higher education at the close of the millennium.

The secret to deciphering Jim Maher might well be found on Saturday mornings when he works at his lab in Allen Hall--his one-and-only chance each week to reconnect with his life as a physicist.

Maher studies the physics of disorder, a relatively recent line of inquiry in physics. "If you're shown pictures of six snowflakes," he explains, "your eye immediately tells you they're snowflakes, even though no two are alike. I study materials that are disorderly and try to understand the balance between order and disorder."

Technological companies often need to produce uniform samples of materials for testing, but sometimes end up with proverbial snowflakes. "The fact that you couldn't make a uniform sample," he says, "means you can't make the device that you wanted to make."

And that may be how this physicist-turned-administrator understands the problems of higher education: as a puzzle to be solved, a big, chaotic physics problem involving long hours of analysis, modifications, refinements, corrections. The university, Maher points out, is one of the few places where teaching and research can be combined, to the benefit of a greater good.

Maher, who came to Pitt in 1970, still finds his research energizing. After receiving his doctorate in physics from Yale in 1969, Maher was a post-doctoral research associate at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. "I could've stayed there," he muses. "It would've been pure research and no teaching, but I didn't want that. There were also small colleges that offered teaching, but no research--and I didn't want that either. So the university was right for me."

It's Maher's passion for university life that led him into administration. "One of the exciting things about providing leadership at a university is a chance to create new possibilities," he says. "Universities have very profound effects on the societies in which they are embedded and on the societies that follow them."

His devotion to higher education, however, has not blinded him to the job ahead. "My view of the challenge of this job has evolved," he says. "I have been somewhat surprised to see the extent and the depth of the skepticism toward higher education." That criticism, he adds, may be the product of success. "In the last 50 years, 'having a college education' has gone from something that was largely available only to the upper-middle-class and the wealthy to being available to a very large percentage of the population." But that influx of new students has meant new pressures--more financial strain on families, more competition for jobs after college. "It's not unusual for people to become disillusioned. That's had a profound effect on the public perception of universities," he notes.

Restoring the public's faith in higher ed, Maher says, means altering how Pitt and other universities operate. And this is where Maher's job description comes to life. "Approving tenure" and "setting academic priorities" means making difficult, often painful, decisions about who gets what piece of the slimmed-down budget pie.

"My biggest challenge is to help all of our people cope with a culture change forced on us by societal and economic reality," he says. "We're talking about a real changeover to a customer orientation, stressing the importance of both the quality and cost-effectiveness of everything we do, so that our graduates leave here prepared to do well in American society. I'm purposely using language that comes from business. To use less shocking language would allow us to gloss over the fact that if we don't convince American society we are adding something essential to the future, American society will neglect us and we will wither."

This blunt assessment has led to a pointed response. Since Maher became provost in 1994, his office has been issued several formal tasks by Chancellor Nordenberg, reflecting goals agreed to by the chancellor and the Board of Trustees. The objectives have different names, but the theme is the same: Make us better.

And Maher, working in conjunction with other University departments, has responded. In the past few years, Pitt has recruited freshmen with better SAT scores and higher placement in their senior class than previous freshmen; attracted students from a larger geographic and ethnic pool; funded 30 new four-year, merit-based scholarships to the University Honors College; strengthened undergrad tutoring, especially in introductory science courses with high failure rates--biology, chemistry, and physics; expanded recreational facilities for students; beefed up campus security; committed to providing Internet access to the more than 3,000 dorm rooms; and soon hopes to guarantee on-campus residence to next year's incoming freshmen for all four years of their college life--a Pitt first.

"The fact is we have a lot of good things to brag about," he says. "I'm always grateful when I get an opportunity to make our case."

Perhaps, again, it's Maher's background in physics that allows him to enjoy his multifaceted tasks. "It's exciting to try to understand as much as possible about the physical world in terms of a few simple principles," he had told me earlier in the interview, "trying to understand as much as you can by seeing apparently disparate phenomena as manifestations of the same general principles."

And perhaps this is the true description of Maher's job: finding unity among disparate elements, understanding complex systems, sticking to a few key principles--exactly the approach it will take to solve higher education's problems in the next century.

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