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April 3, 2003


Pitt’s Board of Trustees and/or top administration have been the target of considerable criticism this year. The serious financial problems of the commonwealth — manifested in part by the two 1 percent freezes of Pitt’s current state appropriation and the great likelihood of a 5 percent cut in next year’s appropriation — suggest that, whatever decisions are made by the University in response to the reduced state funding, there is almost certain to be plenty of criticism of Pitt’s leadership this year, too.

When the current academic year began, many hoped that the same-sex partners health benefits issue would soon be put behind us, and would no longer provide fodder for the local media. That has not been the case; the plaintiffs in the litigation have decided to again pursue it because the University has not taken any action since Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg’s committee on domestic partner benefits issued its report last June.

Also directing attention to the benefits issue was Temple University’s announcement that it would grant health benefits to same-sex partners of some employees (although Temple will not pay the benefits costs) and Penn State’s establishment of an endowed employee special assistance fund, through a $2 million gift, which can be used for “medical insurance for uninsured members of employee households,” among other purposes. Some saw Temple’s decision as a positive step that Pitt should emulate. Statements on behalf of our University indicated that Pitt was not prepared to go forward, partly because of fear of legislative retaliation. The Post-Gazette, in an editorial, praised Temple and chided the chancellor for being unduly cautious.

Perhaps gaining more sustained attention than any other single issue was the increase in the chancellor’s compensation. In addition to receiving a pay increase of approximately 14 percent, the chancellor also became eligible for other financial benefits. Few members of the University community or, for that matter, the wider community, believe the chancellor is overpaid, given his responsibilities and job performance. There seemed to be concern, however, given last fall’s 14 percent tuition hike, that granting a pay increase of nearly the same percentage was insensitive.

Justifications for the pay increase, by Pitt trustees and others, were criticized because insufficient information was provided in the explanations. A good bit of faculty criticism seemed aimed at the way in which the matter was handled, or perhaps mishandled, by trustees and those who assisted them in mounting a defense.

Also this year, a newspaper article charged that the scores of some entering freshmen were not included in Pitt’s reporting of SAT scores. The University’s response admitted this fact. It also said that Pitt did not intend to mislead users of such information and asserted that the reports of many institutions exclude the SAT scores of some categories of entering students, such as athletes and other “special admits.” Nevertheless, the fact that some scores were excluded had become known only after the issue surfaced in the news media, which created a credibility problem.

There is a lesson to be learned from Pitt’s handling of these matters. It was not the action that the University took, or did not take, that appeared to place Pitt in a bad light. In some discussions at Faculty Assembly, Senate Council and Senate committees, and in other venues both within and beyond the University, individuals have said that Pitt’s public statements have seemed less than candid. Some have suggested that a particular University response would have been more convincing if its tone had been less antagonistic and strident. This is particularly true when the response appears to indicate that an attempt is being made to shift blame or responsibility to others.

In contrast, consider the chancellor’s responses to queries and his occasional printed information pieces to the University community. Whether or not his positions are consistent with what the listener or reader desires to hear or read, they are very carefully stated. The chancellor’s legal education and experience may account for his ability to explain his position without seeming to be combative.

Pitt’s communication issue is becoming more and more important, given the increased demands on University resources that will require hard choices. Many decisions will be publicly criticized, requiring a University response. To the extent possible, when action is to be taken that is likely to engender criticism, stating the rationale clearly may mute criticism. Justifications or explanations after the criticism has been expressed are less persuasive than those accompanying the action.

Given the anxiety of many faculty and staff about the cost of health benefits in the coming year, providing descriptions of the options and explanations of the decisions made in Pitt’s health benefits selection process will be a test of the communication skills of those responsible for informing University employees.

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