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Editorial: Pitt and Posvar / He presided over the university's revival

Tuesday, July 31, 2001

Ten years ago today, Wesley W. Posvar officially retired from his post as chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh after 24 years in a career as diverse as the institution he guided for so long.

Dr. Posvar, who died Friday at the age of 75, inherited a university that had been in such financial difficulty that it took the unusual step of changing its status from private to state-related. Besides grappling with the loss of some autonomy, the campus was dealing with the student unrest that rumbled through campuses nationwide.

It was 1967. That alone was enough to prompt more than a few university leaders to abandon the ivory tower. But Dr. Posvar, whose background was an eclectic amalgam of intellectualism, subdued radicalism and military discipline, could hardly have been better prepared for the challenge.

Pitt's stagnant budget and enrollment multiplied many times over during his tenure. Buildings that housed the law school and biomedical sciences were erected, along with Forbes Quadrangle. Also created were the School of Health Related Professions, the University Honors College, the University Center for Social and Urban Research and the College for Over 60 program. He helped bring cohesion and high regard to the university's medical programs, precursors of what is now the UPMC Health System.

It's true that much credit for academic, medical and athletic advances at the University of Pittsburgh belongs to a cadre of other administrators -- such as Dr. Thomas Detre, the psychiatrist who assembled the university's renowned medical center -- but the credit for their recruitment belongs to Dr. Posvar.

Like many another long-serving leader, Dr. Posvar had his detractors, some of whom considered him arrogant and insufficiently collegial. Resentment came to a head at the end of his tenure, when it was discovered that a multimillion-dollar retirement package had been negotiated for him at a time when he was being sought by other institutions. Amid the controversy over the plan, Dr. Posvar decided to forgo some of the benefits.

Whatever one thought of that controversy or others, they cannot obscure Wesley Posvar's crucial role in the re-invention of the University of Pittsburgh as one of America's leading state-supported universities. In recognition of that accomplishment, Dr. Posvar was named president emeritus of Pitt in 1993. Last year the Forbes Quadrangle was renamed Posvar Hall to recognize his many contributions to the university.

It was an appropriate honor for the former fighter pilot, Rhodes Scholar and political scientist. His really lasting monument, however, is the institution he did so much to shape.

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