Professor Kevin Kearns celebrates retirement after impactful 35 years at GSPIA

June 2, 2022

“We all stand on the shoulders of other people,” said Dr. Kevin Kearns, humbly acknowledging his own mentors and family members who helped him shape his legendary 35-year academic career as a beloved GSPIA professor. When over 150 of his students, colleagues, friends, and family joined together to thank him for the difference he made in their lives, Dr. Kearns retires knowing that he has certainly paid it forward. 

Since 1987, Dr. Kearns has taught the next generation of leaders and helped shape the field of public and nonprofit management. Among several other accomplishments, he was the founding Director of the Johnson Institute for Responsible Leadership and the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Forum, two programs that promote ethical leadership in public and nonprofit institutions.  

Last week, GSPIA hosted a Zoom celebration to honor Dr. Kearns and congratulate him on his retirement, abundantly attended by his GSPIA colleagues and former students—including the pictured bunch who logged on early to surprise him with signs of appreciation. 

Dr. Kearns and his wife, Lorna, will enjoy retirement in Cape Cod, where he will teach his final (virtual) class in the Spring semester, volunteer, sail and ride his bike, and author his fourth book. 

Below are merely a fraction of the sentiments shared with Dr. Kearns, highlighting stories of his extraordinary impact.  

The full Zoom recording will be shared here as soon as it is available. 

"Professor Kevin Kearns"
Professor Kevin Kearns, who retires after 35 years at GSPIA, has guided the next generation of leaders and helped shape the field of public and nonprofit management.

John Lydon, colleague: “Thank you Kevin for showing us all how to be the consummate professional both in the non-profit sector and in teaching. Your focus on helping your students succeed both inside and outside the classroom is unmatched. And you have impacted so many agencies like Auberle through your service to the Forbes Funds, through the Johnson Institute and giving students a Board experience, and the great student projects that continue to influence agencies years after. Thank you for all of that.” 

Allie Quick, former student: “That's what's so special about you, your humility your service to others. You focus on engaging and making others feel so special and important and seen. One of my earliest memories of you dates back to the fall of 2001, when I was in your nonprofit leadership class. We were with you during 9/11, and I remember how you so beautifully maneuvered through course discussions, putting aside curriculum to give everybody the space to be seen and heard and communicate and cry and just talk about what we needed to do, and, to me, that represents who you are at heart ... You always bring heart to every situation. You've shaped so many students and colleagues and individuals through your teaching and I'm grateful to have been part of each of those.” 

Tracy Soska, colleague: “Your career has been one we always strive for in education, and I know in the academic circle, we have three missions: teaching, research and service. Your career has been one that's boldly connected all three of those in really rich ways. You've led with your service to enhance both your teaching and your research, which has been hugely impactful on the lives of your students and on the life of the nonprofit community here and everywhere.” 

Lynsey Wood Jeffries, former student: “I remember so clearly being worried about what to do next, when I was approaching graduation and sitting in your office and you saying, ‘Lindsay take a breath. Just take the best next step … and the path will reveal itself,’ and that is advice that I continue to give to our staff at higher achievement, many of them were asking their own career path questions, and I quote you regularly. You may not know that, but you're showing up in many ways.” 

Peggy Outon, colleague: “I want to tell you a story that I think is really an important story about Kevin's legacy. So I'd only been here a year, so I didn't know much of anybody, and I was thinking that we needed to do a wage and benefits study for the nonprofit sector. … I asked Dr. Kearns if he would be a part of the committee that was working to design this study, so that we get the best possible information, and he graciously agreed to do that and help. And then there was a little pushback. Somebody from our funding agency did not want us to measure the difference between women’s salaries in nonprofits and men salaries, and they didn't want racial information included. And I will to the day I die, Kevin, love you for saying, ‘Oh no, I will not put my name on this on this effort if we do not get that information.’ That gave us the ability to gather that information which went on to become the 74% Project which has helped bring the attention of the community to pay equity issues for women in nonprofits. 74% of the nonprofit workforce is women. In 2010, when we began this particular effort, women were making 74 cents on the dollar, and in the last study that we did in 2021, it was 92 cents on the dollar. So, congratulations, Kevin, you helped women in the nonprofit sector in a demonstrable way and we are grateful to you.” 

Andrea Gruber, former student: “Congratulations from Hungary. It is really unbelievable that I took your nonprofit leadership course more than 20 years ago. Though we haven't been in touch for those decades, I very frequently think of you as I struggle with nonprofit existence in a now very authoritarian country. Thank you for the inspiration and instruction.” 

Vera Krekanova, colleague: "Thank you so much for your mentorship and friendship! I can trace everything I professionally accomplished here in Pittsburgh back to you. You were among the first people I met here and you gave me two of the most transformational career advice I so needed then. I owe you for a lot of things … but I will always love you for introducing John and me to sailing. Enjoy the transition to uncharted waters!” 

Briana Mihok, former student: “Dr. Kearns, prior to taking your Strategic Management class, I never would have considered that I had anything to offer to a nonprofit board. Your course and subsequent encouragement led me to a BoardWorks match program, and as a result I am now concluding my 12th year as a member of North Hills Community Outreach. Your class had such an impact on the trajectory of my life, and I can't help but think of the many, many other students who were similarly inspired by you. What an amazing ripple effect you have had on this community! Thank you for your care and support over the fifteen years I have known you!” 

Emily Francis, former student: “Dr. Kearns, Congratulations! After one conversation with you, I enrolled in any class you taught and joined the JI research team. It was because of the way you speak to people, about people and their work, and make an effort to listen that I wanted to learn from you as a human as much as I did as a student and professional. Those are some of the best decisions I made while at GSPIA. So thank you for showing such compassion while navigating complex discussions and for always looking to connect and empower others – you have had such an incredible impact on the nonprofit sector and countless people. I am so SO happy to be working at The Forbes Funds getting to see that impact every day. You are so appreciated. This is so well deserved!" 

Wesley Speary, former student: “I would say that Dr. Kearns casts a long shadow, but, based on my experience, he only spreads light, not darkness."