Retired PNC executive will be 1st woman to lead Pitt's board of trustees
Eva Tansky Blum has lived a life full of firsts.
The retired PNC executive is a first-generation American, the daughter of immigrants who came to Pittsburgh from Russia and Poland. She was among the first generation in her family to earn a college degree. Now, she is poised to become the first woman to chair the University of Pittsburgh's board of trustees in 228 years.
Friends and colleagues say it seems like a natural progression for Blum, 65.
She spent countless hours volunteering at Pitt over the years. She was president of the Pitt Alumni Association, co-chaired the final stage of the university's successful $2 billion capital fund campaign, chaired the student affairs committee and most recently chaired the national search committee that hired Chancellor Patrick Gallagher last year.
The last chapter of her professional life as executive vice president and director of community affairs for PNC and president of the PNC Foundation focused on PNC's “Grow up Great” program, the 10-year, $350 million effort promoting quality early childhood education for disadvantaged youngsters,
“If you put gender aside, what could be a better set of qualifications for chairing the board?” said Marlee Myers, a fellow Pitt trustee and friend. “This is not an affirmative action. I think she was just perfectly situated to become the next chair.”
A high energy, petite powerhouse who counts golf, cooking and reading among her pastimes, Blum, who retired from PNC in March, will take the baton from outgoing board chair Stephen Tritch when the Pitt board convenes in Oakland for its June 19 meeting.
Tritch, a Pitt-educated engineer who retired as CEO of Westinghouse Electric Co. in 2010, has chaired the board for five years. He said chairing a Division I public research university with a $2 billion a year budget, 11,000 employees and 32,700 students is nothing if not time consuming.
That's fine with Blum.
She began her career as a lawyer with the Department of Commerce in Washington before returning to Pittsburgh, where she raised her daughter, Hannah, as she moved up the ranks at PNC.
“I'm very excited to take this next step and honored that the members of the board have honored me with their trust,” Blum said during an interview in Pitt's Cathedral of Learning.
Blum, who is divorced, grew up in the East End and graduated from Peabody High School, commuted during her first two years of college. While at Pitt, she worked as a tour guide in the Cathedral's Nationality Rooms.
But she knew just how special Pitt's towering gothic skyscraper was long before that.
“Every time we passed the Cathedral, my mother would say ‘I own a brick in that building.' They'd had a fund drive during the construction where they asked children to donate a dime to buy a brick. I don't know where my mother got that dime, but she was very proud of it,” Blum said.
She is the youngest of three children of Harry and Jeannette Tansky. Her brother Burton became CEO of Neiman Marcus, while her sister, Shirley Gordon became a preschool teacher in Pittsburgh.
Blum said her parents, who had their own educations stalled by the Great Depression, instilled the importance of learning in their children from an early age.
She took their passion to heart, graduating from high school a year early, moving on to Pitt and winning a full scholarship to the university's law school.
“We didn't have a lot growing up, but my parents always stressed that we had a responsibility to help others who had less. When I won that scholarship, I knew from that day forward that I had a responsibility to help other students. That law degree opened doors for me that I never dreamed were possible,” Blum said.
Pitt has grown dramatically since Blum graduated in 1970.
Back then, the budget was $120 million a year and there were 21,100 students. Most of them were from Pittsburgh and the surrounding area. Many were commuters who had few other options for college.
“Pitt was the last resort for a lot of students in the early days,” Blum said.
Today, high-achieving students from across the nation and around the world compete for a seat in the freshman class, which posted an average SAT of about 1,300 last year.
Pitt is considered a vital part of Pittsburgh's economy and part of the ‘eds and meds' economic engine that helped revive the region after the collapse of much of its manufacturing base in the early 1980s.
Shepherding Pitt's Division I athletic programs and protecting the medical school's groundbreaking research and its relationship with the UPMC health system are among the issues that weigh on the board chair.
But other concerns go to the very heart of Pitt's mission.
Tritch, who also attended Pitt on a scholarship, said one of the biggest challenges Blum and her board face is keeping Pitt an affordable option for today's talented first-generation students.
It is a point of pain for many in Oakland that Pitt and Penn State are typically the priciest public flagship universities in the nation.
Pitt officials point to declining state subsidies as a major factor in that ranking.
Blum said she will work with state and federal officials to ensure their support so Pitt can continue to change young lives, the way it changed hers.
“Educating our young people is the future of our country. How can we walk away from that responsibility?” Blum said.