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Taking the Helm: Meet Pittsburgh's Newest College Leaders

Over the past two years, the leadership of the region’s universities has undergone an overhaul. We reached out to college and university presidents who are new on the job to ask why they came here and what they hope to accomplish during their tenure.



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William J. Behre
Slippery Rock University
July 1, 2018


Before joining Slippery Rock as its 17th president, William J. Behre amassed more than 20 years of experience in higher education as a professor, researcher, faculty leader and administrator. Most recently, he served as provost at Georgian Court University in Lakewood, N.J.

What was it about Slippery Rock that made you take the job? 
It’s a great place. By any measure of success, SRU has established itself as a leader within Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education, posting record enrollment, retention and graduation numbers. It has a faculty and staff that are rowing in the same direction and a student population that is genuinely happy to be here. That said, I believe our best days are still ahead, and I hope to contribute to our success. 

What is the most pressing challenge for Slippery Rock?  Remaining affordable. The PASSHE board of governors will likely provide more local control of tuition in the coming years. When they do, we’ll have to carefully plan our strategy. If, for example, we were to adopt a slightly higher base tuition, we could create a larger financial aid pool, allowing more financially needful students to attend SRU.  

What would you like your legacy to be? 
Having only been here several weeks, it’s hard to give specifics. Years ago, a mentor said to me, “Leave the woodpile bigger than you found it.” Simply put, that’s my goal. We have great people doing fantastic things to help students succeed. I’d like to foster these activities wherever I can.
 

Farnam Jahanian
Carnegie Mellon University
March 8, 2018


​Farnam Jahanian was appointed CMU’s 10th president in March after previously serving as provost and chief academic officer. He came to CMU in 2014 as vice president for research and brought extensive leadership and administrative experience to the campus. He has a master’s and a Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Texas at Austin. 

What was it about CMU that made you take the job? 
Located in a vibrant city, CMU has its finger on the pulse of the world. I was particularly attracted to the way in which this university intertwines science, technology and business with social sciences, humanities and the arts to advance knowledge and improve the human condition.  

What is the most pressing challenge for CMU? 
One of our greatest challenges is one that all colleges and universities face: How can we evolve our education and research to meet society’s needs in this age of digitization? We need to ensure that we are providing a strong foundation that will prepare our students for a lifetime of success in our knowledge-based economy.

What would you like your legacy to be? 
I would like CMU to continue to lead in the transformation of higher education. We have already pioneered interdisciplinary programs, including our Integrative Design, Arts and Technology (IDeATe) network; behavioral economics; neuroscience and computational biology. We are excited to launch the nation’s first undergraduate degree in artificial intelligence this fall. By continuing to leverage our strengths at the intersection of technology and humanity, we can deepen the societal impact of our research.
 

John C. Knapp
Washington & Jefferson College
August 1, 2017


John C. Knapp is the 13th president of Washington & Jefferson College. He is an author and speaker with leadership experience spanning the education, nonprofit and business sectors. Prior to joining W&J in 2017, he was president of Hope College in Holland, Mich.

What was it about W&J that made you take the job? 
The first thing that attracted me was W&J’s reputation as a well-respected liberal arts college with terrific pre-professional programs. When I visited for the first time, I really felt the community spirit on campus and knew it was a special place.

What is the most pressing challenge for W&J? 
Like many other institutions, we know it is more important than ever to help prospective students understand the value of the experience we offer. They rightfully want to know that the time and money they dedicate to their education will yield positive outcomes. I can proudly say that W&J graduates achieve great success in careers and post-graduate education thanks to our well-rounded but rigorous academic program. 
 
What would you like your legacy to be?  While I strive to serve the college in the best way possible, I’m less concerned with my own legacy and more with that of W&J. I consider it a privilege to steward a storied institution that has served society and students since 1781. We are now working collaboratively to develop a bold strategic plan to ensure that W&J remains at the cutting edge well into the future.
 

Dale-Elizabeth Pehrsson
Clarion University
July 1, 2018


Dale-Elizabeth Pehrsson received her graduate education at Idaho State University, earning degrees in community counseling and in curriculum, instruction and supervision and a doctorate in counselor education. She earned her undergraduate degree in liberal studies and associate degrees in nursing and liberal arts. 

What was it about Clarion that made you take the job? 
The strong faculty and well-prepared staff are committed to student success, and they prepare students for a life of continued learning. The university community, through academics and student life programs, teaches students to be self-reliant and think deeply about what matters in this world. Clarion is focused on teaching first — student learning is critical, and that resonates with me. 

What is the most pressing challenge for Clarion? 
Our challenges are similar to most northern universities: the population of high school students is declining in our region. We are asked to do more with less, and that strains all of us. Fundraising will help offset some of the concerns, but more is needed. We are building upon our strengths, capitalizing on domains in which Clarion is a leader.

What would you like your legacy to be? 
I would like to be recognized as someone who listens carefully to the needs of our constituents and the campus community, working together to build upon Clarion’s strengths and history. I want Clarion to be known as a leader in cultivating programs that meet the needs of this changing world, and I want to identify resources to support these goals.
 

Christopher B. Howard
Robert Morris University
February 1, 2016


Rhodes Scholar Christopher B. Howard, a distinguished graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, in 2013 earned a bronze star for service as a lieutenant colonel with the Air Force reserve in Afghanistan. He earned an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School and a doctorate in politics from the University of Oxford.

What was it about Robert Morris University that made you take the job?
I knew enough about Robert Morris University to know that it was on the right side of history. A college degree is a big investment, the biggest investment many families will make outside of their home, and they want to know their sons and daughters will get a great return in terms of professional success and personal satisfaction. RMU has always thought in those terms; it’s always promised to prepare students for great careers — and made good on that promise — without neglecting their personal well-being.

What is the most pressing challenge for RMU?
Our biggest challenge lies in having enough resources to provide opportunities for all students to succeed regardless of their background. Not every community has shared equally in Pittsburgh’s recent prosperity, but our entire region will suffer if all of our young people do not have the tools they need to participate in the economy. We have a moral obligation, not to mention a fiduciary responsibility, to make sure all our students arrive and thrive on campus, and get to and through to graduation. To help us meet this challenge, we’ve launched an initiative called Thrive RMU, which uses predictive analytics and highly customized academic interventions to boost retention and graduation rates.

What would you like your legacy to be?
Almost from the day I got here, I’ve said that I want Robert Morris University to be the preferred strategic partner for corporations, organizations, professionals and aspiring professionals in the Pittsburgh region and beyond. Now what does that mean? If you’re a Fortune 500 company, it might mean that RMU is where you turn when you want to provide leadership development to prepare young executives to move up to the C-suite. If you’re a K-12 school system, it’s where you go to prepare your teachers to become principals, and principals to become superintendents. If you’re a high school student, it’s where you go to get your bachelor’s degree, and then your master’s degree, and then, after you’ve become the president or CEO of your own company, it’s where you go to help your employees achieve their dreams. That is what I want my legacy to be.
 

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