CUPPA dean retires from UIC

Michael A. Pagano
CUPPA Dean Michael A. Pagano

Ask retiring College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs Dean Michael A. Pagano where his story starts, and he’ll tell you it began in many ways with the U.S.-Soviet space race. After the launch of the satellite Sputnik in 1957, the American government poured billions of dollars into the National Science Foundation, to keep the country apace with its Soviet counterpart. Pagano’s father, Anthony Pagano, had already had his life changed by the GI Bill avoiding a hard life working in Pittsburgh’s mills. With the aid of NSF funding, the elder Pagano pursued an EdD at Penn State and eventually moved to the small town of Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania, for most of Pagano’s childhood. Despite the rural idyll his early life presented, Pagano credits moments of sheer happenstance like this as foundational to his life trajectory.

“The opportunities my father was able to take advantage of were opportunities that you could have never predicted: a war, the GI Bill, and a race to the moon with the Soviets,” Pagano said.

As the dean moves toward retirement at the start of the fall semester, looking back on a lifetime of accomplishments proves bittersweet. Particularly in his time within CUPPA over the last two decades, he’s witnessed changes within the programs that will continue well past his retirement, fulfilling the college’s promise as a premiere research program for those interested in studying cities and government structures.

Soon after starting at UIC in 2001, Pagano began several projects that would help to define his experience at the college. Pagano began co-editing Urban Affairs Review until 2014. (Today, the journal is co-edited by UIC professors Joshua Drucker, Phil Ashton, Yue Zhang, and Jered Carr, joined by Soka University of America Professor Peter Burns.)

“I fell in love with the city as soon as I got here,” Pagano said. “When I arrived I thought I was tiring of higher education, but being at UIC in the city of Chicago just gave me a surge of energy that’s continued over the last two decades.”

With his work on the City Fiscal Conditions reports with the National League of Cities and Urban Affairs Review, Pagano distilled his focus on urban governance and budgeting. In collaboration with other CUPPA faculty, he noticed a unique opportunity to establish the university as a national leader in the area.

“As I started looking at the faculty and their scholarship UIC, I realized that there were so many scholars at UIC with that research focus than at almost any other university in the country,” Pagano said.

That observation led to the founding of the Government Finance Research Center in 2018, kickstarted with a million-dollar grant from the MacArthur Foundation and supported with a $2.1 million gift from an anonymous donor. Now one of the college’s most productive research centers, it has solidified CUPPA’s reputation as a leading institution in state and local government finance research. According to Urban Planning and Policy Professor Rachel Weber, that kind of center, which bridges CUPPA’s dual emphasis on urban planning and public administration, would not have happened without the kind of bridge-building efforts that Pagano brought to the college.

After serving as the head of public administration for six years, Pagano began his tenure as interim dean for CUPPA with the retirement of Robin Hambleton in 2007. He took over the position formally the next year, and has served as the dean for more than a dozen years since.

As dean, Pagano established a group initially known as the Board of Visitors, now known as the Dean’s Council, in 2015. The Council, which connects CUPPA’s efforts to the rest of the wider world through the guidance of several important civic leaders, has bolstered CUPPA’s reputation as a public-facing institution. Stephen B. Friedman, president and founder of SB Friedman Development Advisors, a development consulting firm, credits the Council with drawing in previously unconnected planning and public administration thinkers in the city to CUPPA, further enhancing student’s opportunities for future employment as well.

“The Council became a vehicle for building awareness of the College in the professional/business community and also for that community to provide feedback on the programs [CUPPA offers],” Friedman said. “These relationships can transcend Dean Pagano and provide a basis for the new Dean to continue to build these kinds of bridges.”

Through the council and other outreach efforts, Pagano has further strengthened the college’s fundraising efforts, securing nearly $18 million in donations and overseeing the creation of 14 new endowment funds during his tenure.

Joshua Hahn, a MUPP alumni who currently serves as the president of the CUPPA Alumni Association, said that Pagano has transformed the college, putting it in an admirable position moving forward.

“The college is 100 percent in a better place today than it was when he got there – it’s now an established college that has a national reputation that punches well above its weight when it comes to influence and impact,” Hahn said. “Students and staff account for a lot of that, of course, but the dean always set the tone at the top. He is tireless, he is passionate and committed, and he cares greatly about the mission of the college and its people.”

As Urban Planning department head Nik Theodore noted, Pagano has served as dean during several acute challenges for higher education, including an era of declining support for public institutions, and the shift to remote learning during the pandemic in 2020. In that climate, Theodore says Pagano has provided the essential leadership that it needed.

“Despite these challenges, the academic departments have added new degree programs; expanded their undergraduate offerings; and increased their visibility locally, nationally, and internationally,” Theodore said. “Throughout this challenging period, Dean Pagano has held true to his core principles of fairness and transparency, setting the standard for future CUPPA Deans in terms of involving college stakeholders in decision-making and budget matters.”

According to Public Administration department head Jered Carr, Pagano effectively kept the college’s unique balance between academic departments and research centers humming along effectively, a kind of steadying leadership so vital in the midst of major challenges, which also included the renovation of CUPPA Hall and the adjoining Art and Exhibition Hall (AEH) in 2014-18.

“Mike was able to effectively lead the different parts of the college, keep us working as a unit, and figure out how to make the complex finances of the college work somehow,” Carr said. “He brought us through it all, kept us moving forward, and ready for the next opportunity.”

Noting Pagano’s administrative leadership, Constance Dallas, former interim co-director of the Insitutte for Research on Race and Public Policy noted, “Michael Pagano set the gold standard for administrators for me during my two-year stint as Interim Co-Director of IRRP. Michael has the rare ability to see and value a person within the context of the situation. So, rather than managing the situation, Mike provided information, guidance, and support. And he’s such a great listener! I always felt valued. I always felt heard. UIC will be diminished by his loss. I wish him great adventures.”

On top of his commitments to CUPPA, Pagano also briefly served as interim dean of the College of Business Administration from 2010 to 2012 as it sought a permanent dean. He’s also contributed to multiple search committees, administrative reviews, and strategic priorities committees across the university, actions which UIC Chancellor Michael Amiridis credits with strengthening the overall position of UIC.

“I greatly appreciate Dean Pagano’s work and dedication to the University of Illinois Chicago over the last 20 years, and I have relied on his insight and perspective on both UIC and the city of Chicago since I arrived here in 2015,” Amiridis said. “UIC and the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs have gained recognition for our work nationally and internationally and are better places because of Dean Pagano and I thank him for his accomplishments and kindness.”

While the list of accomplishments Pagano has tallied up across his half-decade career speaks for itself, it’s impossible to limit his achievements to the number of books he’s written or journals he’s edited. For those who have worked alongside him throughout his career, Pagano’s academic accomplishments are only a small portion of what they find most inspiring.

As Pagano notes, retirement is not something he’s done before: asked to reflect on what the next chapter might look like, he remains unsure, save for many postponed trips with his wife, friends, family, and his five grandchildren. Still, the chance to reflect on the impact he’s had on his colleagues, friends, and the college over the last several decades has helped the dean appreciate the legacy he’s built, one that will continue to resonate throughout the college for years to come.

Read more about Dean Michael A. Pagano’s journey and achievements.

Professor David Merriman has been appointed CUPPA interim dean.

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