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April 1, 2010

University Senate presidential candidates on the issues

Nicholas Bircher

Nicholas Bircher

This year’s election for the University Senate presidency matches two School of Medicine professors: former Senate president Nicholas G. Bircher against incumbent Michael R. Pinsky.

Bircher is associate professor of anesthesiology and critical care medicine. He served as Senate president in 2003-04 and 2004-05 and currently serves as chair of the Senate bylaws and procedures committee.

Pinsky, who is seeking his second term as president, is professor of critical care medicine, bioengineering, translational and clinical research, cardiovascular diseases and anesthesiology.

Michael Pinsky

Michael Pinsky

The Senate elections are expected to be conducted via electronic balloting beginning tomorrow, April 2, and running through April 17. Short descriptions of the candidates’ academic and service-oriented experience, as well as position statements, will be posted online along with the ballots.

(For the slate of Senate officer candidates, as well as candidates for Faculty Assembly slots, see related story, this issue.)

Last week, the presidential candidates responded in writing to questions posed by University Times staff writer Peter Hart.

Candidates were asked to limit each response to approximately 250 words. Some responses have been edited for length.

What have you accomplished as a member of the University Senate? What issues will you focus on as president?

BIRCHER: Over the course of my career in the University Senate, beginning in 1997, I have built collegial relationships with faculty, staff, students and the administration. I have had an enormously positive experience. When the faculty representatives (the president of the Senate chief among them) are willing to do our homework with reasonable due diligence, my experience has been that our colleagues in the administration are very receptive to finding common philosophical ground and working toward a mutually beneficial solution to any problem. This requires candor and flexibility on both sides. As president (2003-2005), several potentially contentious issues were ultimately resolved amicably, and we all worked together to make Pitt a better place. The issues on which I hope to focus are (1) increasing faculty engagement in the University Senate by providing them with detailed information about what we have achieved historically and what we can achieve in the future, and (2) fair and equitable management of University resources in times of economic hardship.

PINSKY: I have been a member of the University Senate and held various offices for the past 10 years. I would continue the work I have begun this year in support of three initiatives I have promoted as well as  faculty rights, transparency in administrative practices and striving to improve the overall effectiveness of the workplace. We have lived through a very tough time of budget reductions, questionable state support and a year-long salary freeze. I have worked closely with the administration through our budget policies committee to insure that these restrictions are both fairly applied and quickly removed once the fiscal crisis ends. The initiatives I started this year include: First, I initiated the development of CERTS (community engagement for research, teaching and service) through the Community Outreach Partnership Center (COPC). The program aims to unite faculty from all colleges in a faculty-led research/service-learning agenda at Pitt and developing community partnerships for faculty and students (significantly graduate students) for research and scholarship through community engagement. Second, I have re-energized the creation of an email information system for Senate communication directly with all faculty. Within this context I developed a University Senate outreach program to energize the faculty toward Senate activities directly of interest to them. Third, I have continued my efforts to develop an effective Fitness for Life program for faculty and staff. My prior initiatives include addressing overly restrictive interpretation of Institutional Review Board policies on conducting University-wide human research, job security for School of Medicine non-tenure stream faculty, resolution of duplicated email routing errors and strong support of our University Senate sustainability subcommittee.

What issues are facing Pitt’s next provost? What characteristics and experience should the ideal Pitt provost possess?

BIRCHER: The external issues with which the provost will need to deal are (1) fiscal constraints in a marginal economy, (2) a shrinking number of children coming of college age and (3) a more competitive market for education. The ideal provost will be able to balance the interests of the faculty and the institution fairly. Of the nine CEO functions, finance is first. The provost, however, has the responsibility for the strategic management of the academic enterprise. The outstanding choices of investments in specific academic initiatives over the past decade have not only led to meteoric growth, but have also set the stage for further diversification and maintained agility to adapt to changing funding streams. In addition, profound changes in technology have resulted in profound changes in the nature of scholarly publishing. The next provost needs to have the same extraordinary expertise in the management of the IT infrastructure that Provost Maher does. Good IT choices support the faculty, and bad IT choices can be a substantial hindrance. The preservation of academic freedom, passion for excellence, diligence, leadership, prudent strategic management and alacrity in general decision-making in a scholarly and timely fashion will all be requirements for a successful provost.

PINSKY: The new provost faces challenges that are both similar and different to those addressed by retiring Provost Maher. We are now a major academic player relative to the best national public and private institutions. Our faculty are highly regarded nationally and internationally and the overall quality of our student body has continued to improve to the level of the best schools in the nation. Although the new provost shall need to sustain these qualities, he or she will have to do so within a known environment of reducing state funding. Bold collaborative initiatives that leverage our strengths and create sustainable academic growth while maintaining our core academic values will represent the primary problems to be addressed. I have proposed to the University administration that we consider creating a Pittsburgh research institute, similar to those present at several first-rate universities (e.g. Stanford, MIT) potentially in collaboration with Carnegie-Mellon University and UPMC, so as to take advantage of the strengths of the University while also taking advantage of the strengths of CMU and UPMC, with whom we have a strong history of collaborative ventures. In this way financial growth and fiscal stability may be achieved outside the state funding route, allowing the University to sustain salaries for faculty proportional to other similar universities both here in Oakland and at the regional campuses.

Recent statements from state legislators indicate that state-related universities’ appropriations could be eliminated from the state budget. What’s the best tactic to convince legislators otherwise, given the economic climate, particularly with stimulus funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act due to end in the near future? Are there other revenue streams Pitt should pursue?

BIRCHER: The best tactic is to convince the legislature that the return on investment in Pitt makes it an outstanding use of public funds. Pitt is a major economic engine on its own, and greatly facilitates the market position held by UPMC. The education, research and health sectors are robust even in a downward-turning economy. Public research universities create jobs within the state that funds them in a fashion that is difficult if not impossible to replicate in other state or private agencies. Further, education is one of the most important and most rewarding investments each individual can make.

The commonwealth’s role in facilitating excellent education at reasonable cost is essential in furthering an economy in which real innovation creates new jobs. Alternative revenue streams, particularly private foundation funding, unfortunately tend to reflect the general economic condition as charitable donations tend to go downward with the economy. Pitt’s agility and widely diverse set of research capabilities, however, allow expansion of the scientific and scholarly enterprise in part based on Sutton’s Law, i.e., go where the money is, and based in part on the highly competitive expertise of the faculty.

PINSKY: The University of Pittsburgh is a major economic engine not only for the southwestern part of the state but all of Pennsylvania. On a statewide level we not only educate many students who go on to become productive professional members of the society but employ a large number of people at various levels, create innovative programs from which startup companies develop and are a magnet for new growth both economically and in community enrichment. One may well ask these legislators what would they prefer, leading or following growth, having home-grown engineers, lawyers and physicians, business people and an educated electorate whose salaries would support through taxes better lifestyle initiatives, like public education, public safety and environmental protection, or would they prefer to outsource our future to other states whose vision has not been obscured by myopia?

When the mayor called off his attempt to tax students’ tuition, the University agreed to contribute an unspecified amount to the city and to help city officials lobby for more state support. Are these good strategies? What is the University’s responsibility toward its neighbors and the city? What do you see as the faculty’s and the administration’s role in good community citizenship?

BIRCHER: Donations in lieu of taxes are just one of many ways in which Pitt gives back to the city. Pitt also has a long history and outstanding degree of civic engagement and public service. These strategies have formed a mutually beneficial relationship between the city and the University. The University’s responsibility is to continue to build on the several successful programs already in place. The faculty and the administration have the responsibility to further this growth, and to provide innovative means of community service, as the needs of the community shift over time.

PINSKY: The mayor’s assertion that we do not contribute to the community and the city as a whole is incorrect and potentially malicious. The University employs the second-largest number of people in the City of Pittsburgh, whose city taxes go directly to support the city. The University’s Police Department oversees all of the Oakland area so that no city-funded police patrol these streets. Most of the calls the University police respond to do not involve University of Pittsburgh students. Thus, we are materially supporting the primary functions of the city. However, we are also strongly supporting local public welfare groups through numerous public service activities coordinated by the School of Social Work and the University administration through COPC. Furthermore, our recent faculty initiative, referred to above, called CERTS, aims to fortify this programmatic effort by inserting academic merit initiatives into the efforts so that a sustainable faculty and student involvement in community improvement can be developed. I am most excited about this program and feel it will bear community outreach and community improvement benefits well into the future. On a totally different level, I question the mayor’s assertion that the budget deficit needs University financial support. As I listed above, tangible financial support already exists and furthermore the city and county need to merge services and reduce their labor force owing to redundant services and inefficient use of existing services. Second, the pension under-funding is not a local Pittsburgh problem but a statewide problem that should be addressed on a statewide level.

Has the salary freeze had any effect on faculty recruitment and retention?

BIRCHER: The working hypothesis is that the freeze did have an effect. The magnitude of the effect is somewhat difficult to measure, as faculty move from one institution to another for a variety of reasons. In the current economic circumstance, however, the freeze was a prudent move. Careful stewardship requires the willingness to make reasonable investments in recruitment and retention.

PINSKY: I believe that in the short term neither faculty retention nor recruitment has been materially hurt by the year-long salary freeze. I hold this position because the financial crisis is worldwide and felt by every household nationally. Thus, the problem is universal and all academic institutions are struggling to stay solvent. Several prominent institutions, including CMU, had voluntary salary reductions to prevent layoffs. Other prominent institutions have declared bankruptcy. Pitt chose to freeze salaries rather than lay off faculty and is financially stable enough to sustain activities, albeit at a reduced level, until this crisis passes.

That we are coming out of this recession speaks well for the long term but in the short term the focus should be on keeping fixed costs low, like the cost of health care insurance. As a member of the budget policies committee, I have been working hard to help the University keep benefits constant and minimize real costs to the faculty and staff. We shall need to reinstate salary raises and hopefully that will occur in the fall, but fiscal reality demands that we remain solvent and may need to balance salary raises for all versus those who have not seen them for a while and the real potential of force reduction.

Besides the salary freeze, what other economies have you seen the University undertake? What other measures should Pitt be taking?

BIRCHER: I really have not seen very drastic cuts in most programs. As the economy continues a sluggish recovery, very careful attention to financial detail will be required. Investment in the University Club as a revenue stream in my view is a good strategy, as is continued careful attention to short-term liquidity, as Mr. [Arthur] Ramicone and his team have done so well. Faculty, staff and the administration need to collaborate to find real economies in our system, as opposed to the false economies sometimes created by across-the-board cuts.

PINSKY: The University is embracing sustainability and energy use reduction and is seeing the economic benefit of this action. In the cafeterias of the student dormitories they have eliminated trays and added more locally grown fresh vegetables.  They have found that the cost of foods is less, owing to lower transportation costs, student throw away less food and what is bought is eaten and what is eaten is healthier. In the dormitory rooms and all public spaces lighting is by energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs and all incandescent bulbs are being systematically replaced. The University is becoming paperless, meaning that more activities are done online including student projects, term papers and reports, while schools and departments provide notices electronically and have their reporting structure that way as well. We have not eliminated paper, and that is probably good, but we have markedly reduced its use. Also, as part of the cost saving, the University has markedly limited new hiring, though this position will remain cost-effective only in the short term as overwork and missed work will prove to be the tipping point.

With technology creating new abuses in the classroom, such as the covert recording or posting of lectures or the disruptive use of cell phones, should the University implement certain policies regarding classroom decorum, civility and privacy?

BIRCHER: Disruptive behavior is unacceptable in any context. The faculty for each course have to make very careful and well reasoned choices as to what the students must know themselves and what they can look up.

PINSKY: This is a threat to all academic institutions that promote openness.  I was materially involved in most of the aspects of the above referenced event and was very impressed with the actions taken by the faculty member and the Provost’s office. In essence, we already have a policy that deals with this issue directly. The classroom is a place where students and faculty can exchange ideas, openly discuss positions and form new opinions based on this free interaction. The sanctity of the classroom is central to open discussion. What student would ask a question if they thought the whole world would know that they did not know the answer? What sort of posturing would faculty and student take if they knew their words were being publicized? We would end up with the public circus seen in most legislative bodies, not classrooms.

Faculty leaders at the regional campuses recently expressed frustration at the process for establishing an appropriate faculty salary benchmarking group. Is shared governance slipping at Pitt?

BIRCHER: I don’t perceive a general decline in shared governance. The response at Faculty Assembly to the events that led to the faculty frustration was, in my view, very carefully measured so as to be proportional to the events. I think that the clear message was sent not to dwell on the past, but at that same time (as another physician wrote) “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

I also believe the ability of the shared governance system to address this variety of frustration is a sign of a robust system rather than a weak one. Denial is a poor approach to problem solution. Commitment to problem solution requires candid discussion, with a focus on specific corrective actions. When missteps occur, our system of shared governance is sufficiently robust and candid to offer constructive advice regarding making relations more collegial.

PINSKY: No response submitted.

Is the tenure system healthy at Pitt? What protections do you see for non-tenure stream faculty?

BIRCHER: I believe the system is generally healthy and provides fair and equitable treatment for both tenured and non-tenured faculty. One protection afforded the non-tenured faculty is careful valuation of their own performance. To the extent that they make the institution work, they are likely to be kept around.

PINSKY: The tenure system is not healthy throughout the United States, so why should it be healthier here in Pittsburgh?  As a tenured professor for the past 17 years I say this with a certain degree of regret. We are witnessing an evolution of higher education academia. As salaries continue to increase and alternative teaching and research job opportunities evolve, younger faculty are going to have less opportunities to realize the perceived security of tenure nationwide. What we do have we will keep and the promises made yesterday will be kept into the future. What we need is a clear unvarnished discussion with the academic leadership and administration as to exactly what tenure will mean at Pitt in the future and what we can say to our junior faculty who undertake a life of higher education teaching and research. We already have clear documentation as to what criteria are needed for awarding tenure.

Is the University’s three-pronged mission of teaching, research and public service in the proper balance?

BIRCHER: Proper balance is a matter of perspective in this complex set of priorities. Pitt has an excellent mix in my opinion, which has been largely responsible for its great success over the past decade.

PINSKY: Not all faculty perform each of these tasks equally, nor should they. We should, however, give credit as appropriate for community service within the academic realm when its efforts reflect academic achievement. I believe that our initiative to make the creation of generalizable knowledge from community service a definition of academic achievement will go a long way toward making public service more universally applied.

However, the issue is not imbalance but lack of overall emphasis. We so focus on teaching loads and student evaluations, as well as “defensive” research to sustain research funding, that we often lose track of why we are at the University. We are here to teach the next generation of leaders today and discover knowledge that will make them and society even better tomorrow. To this extent I was instrumental in getting the faculty handbook changed to reflect this concept.

My platform is “academic freedom, academic merit and academic responsibility.” We need to support existing defined academic criteria for retention and promotion and create better and more open ways of sharing those activities with the junior faculty. I envision taking our message to the faculty at large through their elected representatives. I would task the Faculty Assembly representatives to hold “town hall” meetings to discuss local issues and give faculty feedback on existing activities as well as to garner from them their concerns, which would be brought back to Faculty Assembly for debate. If general themes of discontent, concern and frustration exist, then they will be discussed with the administration to find reasonable solutions.

What are other universities doing that you think Pitt should emulate?

BIRCHER: As a Harvard alumnus, I, of course, think fondly of that institution. The effort to carefully match financial aid to tuition and fees for qualified students is an important strategy. Continued efforts for maintaining research competitiveness have been a characteristic of a successful university of late, and Pitt is no exception to that rule.

PINSKY: I think that all universities are a product of their regional environment, funding, scholastic standing, faculty and physical plant. As I travel around the country to various universities, I am struck by how some use their environment to match with their physical plant to improve the normal flow of daily activities from commuting and parking to eating and drinking. To a large extent Pitt is limited in what it can do and within those limitations is doing exceptionally well.

I do regret not having the football stadium on campus, but apparently student attendance at football games has never been higher. One item that has bothered me since coming to Pitt 28 years ago was the abysmal state of the faculty club and related social centers. This lack of social centers is to me one of the greatest flaws on our main campus. However, the University acquired the University Club and placed within it a new faculty club. It houses a meeting area, restaurant, bar and health facilities, and all at reasonable prices. I was one of its strongest supporters and joined once it opened. I have asked that the Faculty Assembly meet there, as this is our area. I look forward to sharing a meal or drink with faculty in our new faculty club. Finally, the Fitness for Life wellness program with exercise centers around campus creates an environment of exceptional quality, one that we can all be proud to call our own.

Do you perceive a change in faculty involvement in Senate Council and Faculty Assembly activities? Why should faculty be involved with the University Senate?

BIRCHER: The steady improvement in a system of shared governance requires that those governed participate vigorously. Complacency leads directly to a loss of voice in important decisions. At present, there seems to be general satisfaction with how things are going, and that seems to limit interest. I hope to restore the sense of engagement which the faculty have felt historically, and that faculty will be willing to work to enhance the collegial problem-solving opportunities afforded by the University Senate.

PINSKY: This last year I initiated a University Senate outreach program to have all Faculty Assembly representatives present our portfolio to all faculty through their respective department and school meetings at least twice a year.  This program has not fully achieved these goals but is a start. Next year I hope to fully realize these efforts. As mentioned above, I have finally created a University-wide faculty distribution list so that faculty can be informed of all the events we are doing and the issues behind the headlines. These and related activities will only increase as we face external threats for funding from the state, increased revenue demands from the city and the salary limitations by global economic realities. More than ever, the faculty need the University Senate and we need to be their voice in this important process of shared governance.

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