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Point Park launches plan to bring students back to its Downtown Pittsburgh campus by 2030

A man wearing a suit smiles while standing next to a window looking out at Downtown Pittsburgh.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
Point Park University President Chris Brussalis believes the campus' downtown location is the university's comparative advantage.

When Point Park University’s board hired Chris Brussalis this summer to serve as its president, it chose someone who spent his career as a management consultant, rather than someone who had previously worked in university administration.

Brussalis said that his decades of experience leading his consultancy, The Hill Group, gives him a unique vantage point to steer the university now. “Management consulting is about change,” Brussalis said. “If organizations don't change, what happens? They eventually will die and be obsolete.”

And in recent years, Point Park appeared in danger of heading in that direction. Between 2017 and 2022, enrollment dropped by 936 students — a decline of more than 22%.

During that period, the university has had three presidents. Paul Hennigan led the university from 2006 until 2021. Donald Green was hired to replace Hennigan after a long national search but lasted less than two years in the role. Point Park’s board then appointed Brussalis — himself a board member at the time — as interim president, elevating him to the job permanently a few months later.

“Someone needs to kind of be the catalyst to say, ‘Hey, this is cool, but man, is there an opportunity to take it up a notch,’” Brussalis said.

At the end of October, Brussalis began to publicly promote a new seven-year strategic plan passed by the board — dubbed Pioneer Vision 2030 — that he hopes will turn around the university’s fortunes. One of the biggest measures of its success will be an attempt to bring its enrollment just above its peak level in 2017, a 30% increase from its current level.

To do so the university will have to overcome strong headwinds affecting institutions of higher education, where enrollments have been shrinking in recent years. It’s a problem likely to be more pronounced in the coming years as fewer students graduate high school.

“This market segment we're in, the private nonprofits, particularly in the Northeast, it's very challenging. You read the papers and you look at what's been happening in New England. You know, there’s a school going out of business every month,” Brussalis said. “It's a very challenging dynamic here. And our plan has to be transformational.”

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Brussalis said the university under his leadership has decided to focus on growing — rather than finding a way to survive at a smaller size — because its board sees untapped opportunities, he said. And one of those opportunities involves recruiting students from other parts of the region and country.

“There are other parts of the country that aren't suffering that demographic loss that also also lack the opportunity to attend a dynamic urban university,” Brussali said. “And so those are areas we're going to target.

Brussalis also plans to increase enrollment in areas where the university is already strong. The university plans to expand its performing arts consortium, which currently serves 845 students, by adding an additional 250 students. Such a bump would represent an increase more than three times the number currently on the performing arts conservatory’s waitlist.

Point Park also plans to ramp up its recruitment of transfer students by 15%. It’s going to create six new academic programs, one for each of the six schools it’s divided into. The plan also recommends adding six new athletic teams to increase its athletic enrollment by 10%. New tennis, lacrosse and wrestling teams will draw international students, Brussalis said.

One of the biggest opportunities of this moment, according to Brussalis, is that the nature of downtowns are changing. And Point Park, he said, is in a unique position to capitalize on it.

“Office workers unfortunately aren't going to come back in droves in sufficient numbers like they were pre-pandemic. And so we think that downtowns are going to transform and become centers of arts and entertainment and recreation,” he said. “And that's what we do. That's really our sweet spot.”

That means the university is planning to double down on its co-op and internship programs, allowing its students to engage in the vibrancy of a downtown through work opportunities. They’re also planning on opening a new community events center that will connect students to some of these downtown opportunities. Those initiatives would build upon the university’s work at its Downtown Pittsburgh Playhouse, which it owns and operates and is home to a professional and multiple student repertory companies..

Students are able to walk right out of their residence halls to a class,” he said. “They're able to walk to a business to apply what they're doing in the classroom.”

Brussalis said the university is also looking to increase its nontraditional student population — single parents, for instance, who are looking to go back to college to earn their degrees.

In order to achieve its goals, the university needs to improve its finances. The plan is to start a capital campaign to increase its endowment. And Brussalis said he is also reaching out to local political leaders, business leaders and downtown stakeholders to bring them on board.

A man wearing a suit smiles while sitting at a desk.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
Point Park University President Chris Brussalis says a new startegic plan must be "transformational" in order for the university to survive.

Some staff and faculty grew concerned about whether Brussalis believes in democratic shared governance at Point Park, after it was first reported by WESA that the university was considering joining a shared services consortium that would combine back office functions of several local colleges. Many of the staff members who spoke with WESA said they had not been informed about or consulted on the idea, and they were worried that it would lead to layoffs.

Brussalis said he plans to earn the respect of people who have been slow to embrace his leadership. “I'm not going to try to win people over. What I'm going to do is — what I'm going to try to do — I am going to earn your respect…,” he said. “And I know that, in the real world, you're always going to have a segment of the population that has high oppositionality no matter [what]. You put them in paradise, they're going to find fault with being in paradise.”

Brussalis emphasized that the university’s new strategic plan received input from stakeholders across the university for 18 months. At the event where the plan was unveiled to the university, he called it “your plan” because of the staff and faculty’s participation in creating it.

When Brussalis presented the new strategic plan to the university on October 30, the first question he was asked by staff was about his role in promoting the consortium. Brussalis received some criticism from staff for relying on the recommendations of a consortium study that was conducted by his own consultancy, The Hill Group, where he is an owner. Brussalis said the university would not do any more business with the Hill Group going forward.

Brussalis said that he has worked on university issues throughout his career. For example, he said, he led the effort at Point Park University to establish a co-op program a number of years ago. It wasn’t a new idea at the time, he said, but he was the one who brought it to Point Park.

“It's not like I've just fallen off the turnip truck or don't have an understanding of higher education,” he said.

The biggest test of whether the strategic plan is working will be to look at how vibrant downtown is, Brussalis said. Although he has emphasized bringing transformational change, he said he plans to see the plan through and continue on.

“I'll be in this position as long as the board will have me and as long as I'm having fun,” he said.

Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at WESA. He previously covered education, environment and health for PublicSource in Pittsburgh and, before that, breaking news and weekend features for the Wichita Eagle in Kansas.