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Ric Evans

When Mark A. Nordenberg became Chancellor of the University nearly seven years ago, he had some work to do. Enrollment, morale, state funding, and the endowment were concerns. Under his leadership, those areas of concern have turned into extraordinary University victories.

The Best Is Yet to Come

Kris B. Mamula

 Chancellor Nordenberg chats with Melanie Carter, a third-year humanities major.

The family’s late summer arrival in 1977 marked the beginning of what was to have been a stay of one academic year. A husband, his wife, and their 3-year-old daughter came with a U-Haul stuffed with their belongings. The man—a 29-year-old “Midwestern kind of guy” with a mane of tousled hair—had been hired as a visiting assistant professor in the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

Fast forward 25 years to a Friday afternoon in late August 2002. That former visiting assistant professor still has a Midwestern presence mixed with an easy grin and youthful energy. But instead of meeting new neighbors, Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg is greeting the families of Pitt freshmen at the spectacular John M. and Gertrude E. Petersen Events Center. “This is an institution of great strength, measured against virtually any relevant standard,” Nordenberg tells the crowd at the freshman convocation.

He probably wouldn’t have said that in 1995, when he was named interim chancellor. Pitt was struggling. Enrollment had slipped nearly 4 percent, and the salaries of some 9,600 University employees were frozen. G. Alec Stewart, dean of the Honors College and physics professor, remembers those days. “He took over at an extremely difficult time. Morale was at an all-time low.”

What has taken place during the past seven years has been noticed—even by people from Nordenberg’s past. Following his convocation speech in August, the Chancellor joined parents and students at a cookout, as he did at other points throughout that weekend. He had three chance encounters with two former classmates and a former pupil—each with a daughter who chose to enroll at Pitt, in large part because of the University’s turnaround since that “extremely difficult time” when Professor Nordenberg became Chancellor Nordenberg.

One of those parents, Russell Stitt, remembers Nordenberg as a North Allegheny High School classmate who signed his yearbook. Stitt, who still lives in Pittsburgh, went into sales after he and Nordenberg graduated from high school in 1966. Throughout the years, Stitt has followed Nordenberg’s career in the newspapers.

And what a career it has been.

Born in Duluth, Minnesota, Nordenberg was educated at Thiel College (BA ’70) and the University of Wisconsin Law School (JD ’73). After joining the Pitt law faculty in 1977, he served as dean of the School of Law from 1985 until 1993. He also served the University as interim provost and senior vice chancellor for Academic Affairs. In 1994, he was elevated to the special faculty rank of Distinguished Service Professor of Law. The University’s Board of Trustees elected him interim chancellor in 1995 and chancellor a year later. The Chancellor is an award-winning teacher, too. In 1984, he was the initial recipient of the Excellence-in-Teaching Award, an award now presented annually by the Student Bar Association of the School of Law. In 1985, he was a recipient of the Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award, recognizing teaching excellence university-wide.

On the personal side, the Chancellor has been married for more than 30 years to his college sweetheart, Nikki Pirillo Nordenberg, who earned a PhD in education from Pitt in 1988 and maintains a counseling practice. The Nordenbergs have three grown children, each of whom attended the Falk Laboratory School at Pitt.

Stitt is particularly impressed with Nordenberg’s pursuit of academic excellence. “His leadership at the University stands out,” Stitt says. “The bar continues to move upward as far as who is admitted.”

He’s right. Freshman applications have more than doubled since 1995. At the same time, the acceptance rate has tightened up—55 percent of this year’s applicants compared to 79 percent in 1995. As the University has become more selective, the number of high-achieving students being accepted has risen. The number of Pitt freshmen from the top 10 percent of their high school classes— and that includes Stitt’s daughter, Danni—has nearly doubled since 1995.

Part of Pitt’s draw is the quality of teaching, which is of paramount importance to Nordenberg. He chaired the faculty appointments committee that in the early ’80s recruited Harry M. Flechtner, who became a three-time winner of the law school’s Excellence in Teaching Award and winner of the Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award. Flechtner, now a tenured law professor, has great respect for the Chancellor, his administrators, and staff. “Mark has an incredible work ethic,” says Flechtner. “His energy translates throughout the University.”

The chief academic officer of Pitt is Provost James V. Maher, who says the Chancellor combines a “marvelous, conscientious, hard-working, optimistic personal style with a willingness to work with people who report to him.” Nordenberg, in turn, credits Maher and the senior leadership team for the University’s momentum. “This team,” Nordenberg says, “is as good as any in American higher education.”

Agreeing with Nordenberg’s assessment is Pitt trustee Thomas J. Usher (ENGR ’65, ’66, ’71), who is chairman, president, and CEO of US Steel. “Mark has surrounded himself with good people,” says Usher, “and that’s the mark of a good leader.”

Clearly, Nordenberg’s diligence and hard work are contagious. He holds himself to such high standards and works so hard that those around him want to help him succeed, says Nikki Pirillo Nordenberg. She adds that her husband is usually at work by 6 am and doesn’t return until well into the evening. He is on the job more evenings than he is at home, she says. And it’s typical for him to work half days in his Cathedral of Learning office on Saturdays and Sundays.

Some of the Chancellor’s working hours are spent meeting with students such as Student Government Board President Kevin Washo, who can vouch for the Chancellor’s work ethic. He marvels at the energy Nordenberg displays, noting that he is “extremely focused and hard-working.”

While it’s commendable to work hard, getting results is what matters most, and that’s where Nordenberg deserves the highest accolades, says W. Edward Sell. Sell, whom Nordenberg calls his mentor, is Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus and Dean Emeritus of the School of Law and is in his sixth decade of teaching at Pitt, making him the longest-serving Pitt faculty member. Regarding Nordenberg, Sell cites raising the quality of the student body, renewing alumni interest in the University, and improving fiscal control as just some examples of “Mark’s accomplishments and evidence of his leadership ability.”

Another distinguishing feature of the “Nordenberg years” has been a dramatic increase in research funding. The Chancellor himself gives principal credit for that rise to Pitt’s “exceptionally talented and highly ambitious faculty.” However, it also is true that the University’s senior leadership team has tried to create an environment that fosters and supports the faculty’s creative efforts. Key steps have included institutional investments in facilities and equipment, determined efforts to recruit and retain outstanding researchers, and the assignment of a higher budgetary priority to the research development fund, which permits schools and departments to support promising projects.

Pitt’s research funding rose to more than $433 million in fiscal year 2002, up from $235 million in fiscal year 1995. These incoming dollars also have dramatic local impact. Nationwide studies indicate that every million dollars of research money supports, directly or indirectly, about 31 jobs. At Pitt, that translates into more than 13,000 local jobs. Pitt has become the “single most important institution [economically] in the region,” says Allegheny County Chief Executive Jim Roddey, a Pitt trustee emeritus. “That change can be attributed to Mark’s leadership.”

In the Health Sciences, for instance, the Graduate School of Public Health (GSPH) is coordinating a study of treatment options for patients with diabetes and heart disease. To do so, GSPH has received grants of more than $52.2 million from the National Heart, Lung, & Blood Institute; $4.2 million from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive & Kidney Diseases; and $15 million from Glaxo Smith Kline. The study is comparing the effectiveness of various therapeutic regimens in reducing the number of deaths from coronary artery disease among type 2 diabetics. Investigators aim to determine whether aggressive drug therapy is more effective alone or in combination with surgery in reducing mortality in this population.

Examples of other types of grants abound.

Last year, Pitt’s School of Social Work received a three-year, $60 million grant to train child welfare workers from across the state. Pitt is also helping shape how math and science are taught in cities nationwide. The University’s Learning Research and Development Center is co-managing a National Science Foundation $35 million project to reform math and science education in Los Angeles, Denver, Providence, and Madison, Wisconsin. The school districts represent some 900,000 students.

In October, Pitt received a $9.6 million grant from the NIH to create a chemical library of more than 50,000 molecules during the next five years. The library will be created through the chemistry department’s Center of Excellence in Chemical Methodologies in Library Development, which is one of the first two in the country.

Michael Wolfe (LAW ’81) was pleasantly surprised to run into his favorite law professor while attending the convocation cookout. Wolfe, his wife, Mary, and daughter, Elizabeth, met Nordenberg following the Chancellor’s opening remarks. “He was so friendly to all of us,” says Wolfe, who is a corporate attorney practicing in Reading, Pennsylvania. “He remembered me right away.” Wolfe said that his daughter applied to a number of universities. “The turning point was a tour of the Pitt campus,” Wolfe says. “She was so impressed by the setting.” Elizabeth Wolfe is a psychology and pre-law major.

The timing couldn’t have been better for the Wolfe family visit. Pitt is seeing the most ambitious period of construction in the University’s 215-year history. Since Nordenberg was named chancellor, the University has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in new buildings and other improvements on all five campuses. In Oakland, those projects include construction of the Petersen Events Center and Sennott Square academic complex and the rehabilitation of the former Masonic Temple into Alumni Hall. “We recognize that building an attractive and functional campus and contributing to a community that is more broadly appealing also are critical to our future success,” Nordenberg told a group of architects, planners, and construction professionals at a conference last year at Carnegie Mellon University.

Growth hasn’t been limited to the Oakland neighborhood. Following the slogan “The city is our campus,” across town, in the city’s Point Breeze neighborhood, the University recently opened the $11.6 million library archival, preservation, and storage center. Last year, the University moved its football games to Heinz Field—also home of the Pittsburgh Steelers—on the city’s North Shore. And the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine—a venture between the School of Medicine and UPMC Health System—recently opened new offices on the South Side. The Duratz Sports Performance Complex and UPMC Sports Medicine Center had opened there two years ago.

While the campus helped lure Wolfe here, it was a full-tuition scholarship at the Honors College that swayed Erica Dollhopf to choose Pitt. Her interest is international studies. Smart choice. Pitt’s University Center for International Studies (UCIS) is world-renowned. The US Department of Education (DOE) has competitively designated as National Resource Centers each of UCIS’s area studies centers (Asian Studies, Latin American Studies, Russian and East European Studies, West European Studies) and the International Business Center (IBC). It’s particularly noteworthy that the IBC, a joint venture of Pitt’s Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business and UCIS, won its fifth consecutive multiyear grant from the DOE. The four-year, $1.4 million award is more than 25 percent larger than any previous grant to IBC. Pitt also is home to just one of a dozen European Union Centers that are located in North America but funded by the European Union.

Dollhopf’s father, the Rev. James Dollhopf, was Nordenberg’s classmate at Thiel College and—like Michael Wolfe and Russell Stitt—Dollhopf connected with the Chancellor while bringing his daughter to campus. Dollhopf and his wife, Jane, who live just outside Pittsburgh, praised the admissions staff for being friendly and personable, much, they say, like the Chancellor.

Under Nordenberg, the University’s endowment has grown, helping to make possible scholarships such as the one Erica Dollhopf received. Pitt’s endowment last year reached $1.1 billion, an increase of 141 percent since 1995. The University’s capital campaign goal is $1 billion, an extension of the $500 million campaign whose goal was reached last June, more than a year before the announced end of the drive.

The board of trustees endorsed Nordenberg’s recommendation to double the campaign goal. “Mark felt we were reaching a crest, that we shouldn’t stop now,” says Suzanne W. Broadhurst, chair of the board of trustees’ Institutional Advancement Committee, and director of corporate giving for Eat‘n Park Hospitality Group. Board chair William S. Dietrich II (FAS ’80, ’84) says Nordenberg is uniquely qualified to lead the campaign. “Mark has set the tone and pace at the University, and his leadership has made possible the doubling of the campaign,” he says.

The $1 billion goal puts Pitt in a class with only 19 other universities pursuing campaigns of $1 billion or more. “The fact that we are in a billion-dollar campaign is a statement,” Nordenberg says. “We are in the big leagues of fundraising, and that’s where we should be.”

But Nordenberg says the campaign is less about financial totals and more about the work the funds support. The new campaign goal is to create 1,750 endowed funds to underwrite scholarships, fellowships, professorships, and chairs. That’s roughly one-third more endowed accounts than exist today, and nearly twice the number in 1997.

Kenneth M. Lehn is an example of how the capital campaign benefits Pitt faculty. Former SEC Chief Economist Lehn, now Samuel A. McCullough Professor of Finance in the Katz Graduate School of Business/College of Business Administration, says the endowed professorship has supported his research into issues of corporate governance. At its core, corporate governance involves ensuring that executives diligently pursue shareholder interests rather than their own—pretty timely stuff.

The endowed funds also support the scholarships of Dollhopf and Pitt senior Daniel Evan. Evan is from Pittsburgh and the oldest of four children. He is also the first person in his family to attend college. Last year, the Robert E. Rumcik Scholarship in Materials Science and Engineering allowed Evan to spend the summer researching the oxidation of copper. His findings were published in a trade journal and may one day help to better predict when electrical components need to be replaced.

Nordenberg’s overall management of the University’s financial matters draws accolades from two Pitt trustees who are known for their financial acumen.

Frank Cahouet, retired chairman, president, and CEO of Mellon Financial, is widely credited with saving Mellon from financial collapse in 1987. He is also chair of Pitt’s budget committee and an admirer of Nordenberg, calling him a rock-solid steward of University resources. What’s more, the Chancellor has the “unique talent for developing a consensus kind of thinking,” says Cahouet.

Trustee Richard P. Simmons, chairman emeritus of Allegheny Technologies, offers a similar assessment. “Mark’s done a great job and has been a steadying influence on the University,” says Simmons, who, with his late wife, Dorothy, endowed a center for education and research on interstitial lung disease as well as a chair in pulmonary research, both in the School of Medicine. “I really like Mark.”

Faculty and staff also give the Chancellor high marks. Under Nordenberg’s leadership, “money has been spent to attract exciting new people,” says Distinguished Service Professor of Resuscitation Medicine Peter J. Safar, world renowned as the father of modern cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and founder of the Safar Center for Resuscitation Research at Pitt. He adds, “The academic side of doctoring has been saved, to a large extent, by Mark.”

Marlin H. Mickle, the Nickolas A. DeCecco Professor in Pitt’s School of Engineering and professor of electrical engineering, computer engineering, telecommunications, and industrial engineering, says Nordenberg’s success is readily apparent. “He’s done an outstanding job,” says Mickle (ENGR ’61, ’64, ’67), who also directs the University’s Center for Motion Control Research. “Look around campus. Everything seems to be blossoming.”

Just one example is Pitt’s University Library System, which was recently invited to join MIT, Harvard, and other Ivy League institutions in the Northeast Research Libraries Consortium. The consortium, based at Yale University, comprises 22 academic research libraries with the shared goals of cost containment, joint licensing, and possible joint deployment of electronic resources.

Another blossoming area is athletics. During the first week of November, and for the first time since 1991, the Panthers football team was ranked among the nation’s top 25 teams in the two most prestigious polls—the AP Top 25 and the Coaches Poll. This follows on the heels of the men’s basketball team that began this season ranked fourth nationally in the Coaches Poll and last year reached the “Sweet 16” in the NCAA Championship Tournament, which was the team’s first appearance there since 1993. Pitt Coach Ben Howland was the consensus coach of the year nationally, and junior point guard Brandin Knight was named co-player of the year in the Big East.

In part, the Chancellor’s overall impact is tied to extensive community involvement—personally and as the leader of Pitt. He serves on several important regional boards, and he is founding co-chair of the Pittsburgh Digital Greenhouse and the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse. Both greenhouses are state-funded programs designed to bring new technologies to the marketplace by capitalizing on the region’s strength in university research. He co-chairs the boards of both organizations with Carnegie Mellon President Jared Cohon. Pennsylvania Governor Mark Schweiker praised the Nordenberg-Cohon relationship as “unprecedented.”

Regionally, Pitt and CMU are partners in several renowned projects. One, in collaboration with the Westinghouse Electric Company, is the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center (PSC). Last year, thanks to a $45 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, PSC installed the Terascale Computing System, the most powerful system in the United States committed to unclassified research. It can do six trillion calculations per second. This fall, PSC shared in another $35 million NSF grant to tie in the system with four other research centers to establish a unified national resource called the TeraGrid, with a capacity of more than 20 trillion calculations per second. Such speed enables scientists to do extraordinarily extensive research in a number of fields, including earthquake modeling, storm-scale weather forecasting, and protein genomics modeling, which is integral to the development of new drug therapies.

Another Pitt-CMU project is the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition (CNBC). CNBC studies the vast numbers of neurons that make up the brain and the way neural activity gives rise to human thought. In researching this fundamental scientific question, CNBC integrates the strengths of the University of Pittsburgh in basic and clinical neuroscience with the strengths of CMU in psychology, computer science, and statistics.

An especially timely example of the Pitt-CMU partnership is the BioMedical Security Institute, which was established two years ago to coordinate research by the universities into ways to prevent, detect, and respond to terrorist activity and natural outbreaks of disease. The institute caught the attention of the White House. President George W. Bush toured the institute last winter. Afterwards, he said, “Pittsburgh used to be called Steel Town. You need to call it Knowledge Town.”

The potential benefit to the region from the Pitt-CMU cooperation is “huge,” Cohon says. “I’m tempted to say, ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet,’” he says. “Mark has the leadership and skill to move along the collaboration in a way that doesn’t disadvantage the rest of Pitt. He had a tremendous work ethic, and the role he has played personally has been crucial.”

For Nordenberg, community involvement is up close and personal. In March 2001, he co-chaired—with Superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools John W. Thompson—the Greater Pittsburgh Measles Immunization Task Force. The Chancellor helped nearly 11,000 public-school students meet state requirements for measles, mumps, and rubella vaccinations, thereby avoiding mandatory school suspensions. Stephen B. Thomas, the Philip Hallen Professor of Community Health and Social Justice in GSPH and Pitt’s School of Social Work and director of the Center for Minority Health in GSPH, chaired the task force’s executive committee.

In a front-page feature story about Thomas and the Center for Minority Health that appeared last summer in the Wall Street Journal, reporter Barbara Martinez describes Nordenberg “at the parking lot of the Giant Eagle supermarket talking to parents and kids as they got their shots from the mobile units” during one of the weekends before the state-imposed deadline for vaccinations. “There was the sense that we’re all in this together,” the Chancellor is quoted in the article. “We’re talking about our neighbors.”

Nordenberg’s personal touch is apparent in his interaction with students. Herbert P. Douglas Jr. (EDUC ’48, ’50), Pitt trustee emeritus, remembers once leaving the Cathedral through a revolving door with Nordenberg. Coming in the same door was a student with her parents. The student motioned to Nordenberg, then said to her parents, “That’s the Chancellor!” Douglas says Nordenberg went back through the revolving door into the Cathedral and introduced himself. “He loves people,” says Douglas, the first native Pittsburgher to win an Olympic medal, the bronze in 1948 for the long jump.

Margaret M. Mahoney, professor of law, agrees wholeheartedly. She should know, too. As associate dean of the law school between 1986 and 1993, Mahoney worked on a daily basis with Nordenberg when he was law school dean. The family law expert and first woman to earn tenure at the law school says, “Mark has shown an amazing ability to run a major institution while making everyone feel like he or she is getting personal attention.”

Russell Stitt, James Dollhopf, and Michael Wolfe know all about that personal attention. And their daughters’ enrollments at Pitt illustrate, in part, how well Nordenberg has met the trustees’ blueprint adopted early in his term as Chancellor—to improve undergraduate education, strengthen graduate and professional programs, upgrade educational facilities and technologies, enhance student life, expand community economic development, and increase the University’s endowment.

Nordenberg acknowledges the remarkable progress made in each of these areas, but in keeping with the same Midwestern-values persona he displayed 25 years and one U-Haul ago, he adds, “Many, many people deserve credit for our successes, and much work remains to be done. Though the University of Pittsburgh has seen many good days in the recent past, I have no doubt that the best times are yet to come.”

Kris Mamula is senior editor of this magazine.
The Pitt Magazine staff contributed to this story

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