Rubbing Elbows

The Catalyst: School Principles

Pinpointing your purpose


Illustrated image of Matthew Pittinsky

Grade point average was a point of contention in 1989 at Long Island’s Baldwin Senior High School.

With only a fraction of a point separating the school’s valedictorian, who received a GPA boost from honors classes, and the salutatorian, who didn’t earn a similar bump from her arts-heavy curriculum, Baldwin formed a committee to assess the fairness of its ranking methods. Among the members: Matthew Pittinsky, SPA/BA ’94.

The committee didn’t dismantle the status quo, as many feared dramatic changes might place the school’s college applicants at a disadvantage. Pittinsky’s perspective on education, however, changed forever.  

“You start to see something that’s familiar to you as strange,” says Pittinsky, a returning member of the AU Board of Trustees who also served from 2000–2008. “I began to look at schools and ask questions about why they are organized the way that they are.”

At AU, he nurtured that curiosity. In addition to meeting future wife Julie Cohen, SPA/BA ’95, Pittinsky was mentored by School of Education professor emeritus Fred Jacobs, who opened the aspiring middle school teacher’s eyes to education policy. He studied it as a graduate student at Harvard, then helped shape it as an entrepreneur. In 1997, Pittinsky and Michael Chasen, CAS/BS ’93, cofounded Blackboard, growing the learning management platform into a $1.64 billion company before selling it in 2011.

Today, Pittinsky is still taking a red pen to education as CEO of Parchment, a digital credential provider. One of the company’s newest services is the comprehensive learner record that equips students and registrar’s offices with a more detailed record of competencies gained through coursework.

“We’ve asked, ‘Why aren’t we reinventing the transcript?’” Pittinsky says. “Why has it become so static—course ID, course name, numeric grade, and credits—when so much of higher education is about learning outcomes?”

Thirty-three years after he first wrestled with rank, Pittinsky continues to push education out of its comfort zone.