Power Shift in Education: What Is Driving Shifts in Leadership?

Social pressures, pandemic exhaustion and declining enrollment take their toll, but new leaders look toward fresh ideas and innovation.
221220 Pghmag Powershift Higheredgroup 58759rfinal


When Kathy Humphrey met with a nursing executive at UPMC last year, the Carlow University president asked what the health system needed. Was it more licensed practical nurses? More registered nurses? The response she got was: “I need it all.”

Carlow doesn’t have a program for licensed practical nurses. But because of the university’s conversations with UPMC and other members of the health care sector, they’re developing a program that will ideally launch next fall, Humphrey said.

221220 Pghmag Powershift Kathyhumphrey 58813r“That’s what I have to be, and Carlow has to be, constantly in pursuit of: What is the next great need that is connected to the work that we do every day?” she said.

Humphrey, who became Carlow’s president in July 2021, believes that connecting with other sectors to address community needs will help the university stay relevant. Since she took the helm, there have been plenty of new connections to make across local government, philanthropy and economic development — including with the new head of UPMC, Leslie Davis.

In the higher education sector, six out of 11 local universities have replaced their presidents or chancellors or have announced the departures of their current leaders since January 2021. As Allegheny County undergoes a changing of the guard, new university leaders are applying fresh perspectives and novel ideas to help revitalize Pittsburgh and develop academic offerings that align with the city’s shifting needs.

Nationally, the average tenure of university presidents was 6.5 years in 2016, down from 8.5 years in 2006, according to the 2017 American College President Study. Locally, university presidents have tended to stay longer, but that may be changing.

Chathan University President David Finegold Smiling


David Finegold, outgoing president of Chatham University, attributed part of that trend to economic pressures, political divisions and other societal issues. “In many ways, college campuses are little microcosms of that,” he said, creating “a challenging job these days.” He announced in September that he’s stepping down at the end of the academic year in 2023; he will have served in the role for seven years.

“It’s been a wonderful six-plus years now, but it’s also something where you’re pretty much on 24/7. And so, you know, that can take its toll after a while.”

221220 Pghmag Powershift Donaldgreen 58532rThe pandemic — and the work of serving students, clients and employees during that time — has exhausted many leaders across sectors, said Donald Green, who began serving as Point Park University’s president in July 2021. For others, it has prompted self-reflection about their career paths.

“You saw a lot of people who said, ‘There’s more to life than what I’m going through right now.'”

A decline in the number of high school graduates immediately enrolling in college presents leaders with an additional challenge, as they must evaluate the future of higher education, Green said — or decide it’s “not my fight.”

On Jan. 20, Green abruptly announced his resignation from Point Park for personal and family reasons.

While the societal pressures of recent years have contributed to the departures of some university leaders, they have also created openings for innovation.

Green, for instance, saw Point Park playing a key role in sparking growth and innovation Downtown as it rebuilds from the pandemic. He worked with partners such as the mayor’s office, the Building Owners and Managers Association of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Downtown Neighbors Alliance to help bring businesses back to the area, he said. The university has freed up a building on Wood Street to ideally serve as a business incubator.

Green envisioned the area surrounding Point Park having more residential housing, with the university serving as a hub for those who live there.

“What does that mean? Well, we can provide entertainment,” he said. “We can provide a safer, healthier environment, because we have a police department, and we feel like this provides for a more walkable city…We can provide labor and talent for Downtown businesses.”

With Green’s departure, his responsibilities fall to Michael Soto, provost and senior vice president of academic affairs, as the university’s Board of Trustees reviews options for finding a replacement.

Working with the city is also important to Humphrey, who came to Carlow because of its commitment to racial justice. In late October, the university invited about 175 Black leaders, including Mayor Ed Gainey, to a retreat to create measurable outcomes for improving the quality of life of Black people in Pittsburgh.

“We are supposed to be committed not just to ourselves, but to the greater society. And we have to role model that for our students,” she said. “It is a part of not only Carlow’s, it’s a part of all higher education’s job, to be a beacon for the city and to assist the city to create strong citizens.”

Despite the challenges, Finegold believes the higher education sector in Pittsburgh has generally been stable.



University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Patrick Gallagher will have served in the role for nine years when he steps down in summer 2023. He was not made available for an interview. Robert Morris University President Michelle Patrick, who took the helm in July after serving as interim president since April, did not respond to an interview request.

Leadership changes at that level are significant, said State Sen. Jay Costa, who serves on Pitt’s Board of Trustees. He’d like Pitt’s new chancellor to build upon Gallagher’s work. “I think the challenge is going to be how we incorporate with the public sector and the foundation community to be able to continue to have that strong working relationship that we have with those sectors,” Costa said. “That has to continue to exist, and I do think it will.”

Leaders in Pittsburgh may find it easier to make connections and work together due to the city’s size and tradition of collaboration, said former Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, who served from 1995 to 2014. He referenced the Pittsburgh Council on Higher Education as a “collegial” vessel for collaboration and noted the Allegheny Conference on Community Development has helped involve new leaders in valuable projects.

Pittsburgh, he said, “is big enough that there always are important things going on, but it is small enough that you can come to feel a part of the region in a relatively compressed period of time.”

Read more of the Power Shift Series

This package was produced in partnership with PublicSource, a nonprofit media organization delivering in-depth and investigative reporting to serve the Pittsburgh region at PublicSource.org. Emma Folts covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at: emma@publicsource.org  These stories were fact-checked by Punya Bhasin.

Categories: Power Shift