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April 5, 2001


University Senate Matters, Nathan Hershey

Chancellor Nordenberg delivered remarks at the February plenary session of the University Senate, the topic of which was, "The Open University: Is Pitt Open Enough?" At one point, referring to the time period before he became a dean, he said, "I cannot recall ever meeting with a Senate president or ever having a well-developed sense of the functions of the office."

As I heard these words, I sought to understand precisely why he said them and what he meant by them. From what I have seen and heard since becoming a Senate officer, I have learned that Chancellor Nordenberg chooses his words with the utmost care.

I confess I had not given much attention before I heard those words to identifying precisely the functions of the office. I have observed Senate presidents conducting public sessions I attended, such as Senate Council, Faculty Assembly and Senate meetings, and I had become familiar with Senate presidents from occasional contacts at some activities apart from public events. After hearing the chancellor, I decided to review the University Senate bylaws to determine the extent that document described the functions of the office. No bylaws section is devoted to the responsibilities and functions of any of the Senate officers. The bylaws do not even specifically state that the Senate president is to preside at the Senate, Senate Council and Faculty Assembly meetings, although they do provide that the Senate officers shall serve as officers of Faculty Assembly and Senate Council. Several paragraphs in the bylaws mention duties of the executive committee, which consists of the Senate officers.

A specific role for the Senate president is mentioned in a number of University policy and procedure documents. Usually the role is to either recommend, or to select, faculty members to serve on a committee or panel, although sometimes the president's role is to serve in some manner. Thus, for example, by virtue of Procedure 07-06-06, the Senate president serves on the committee that makes the final determination with regard to indemnification of faculty members by the University in some situations.

Readily apparent from the foregoing is that there is truly no Senate president position description. Apart from the few specific functions mentioned above, each Senate president can decide what he/she wishes to do with the office and title. Thus, it is no surprise that the chancellor, when he was a relatively new faculty member, had no "well-developed sense of the functions of the office."

I became aware, while I served as Senate vice president, that some faculty who believed that they had been unfairly treated in some fashion by a University administrator or office and either did not know of procedures they might invoke, or doubted that such procedures would be useful, would contact the Senate president, seeking assistance or guidance about avenues for redress they might explore. Thus, an informal function of the Senate president is readily discerned: the use of access to the chancellor and others in the University hierarchy provided by the office.

I don't know how many times my immediate predecessors were contacted by unhappy or distressed faculty, but I soon found, upon becoming Senate president, that some faculty members, wanting at least a sympathetic ear with regard to their problems, would seek me out. Most desired to keep the matter private; even some who were aware of the role of the Senate tenure and academic freedom committee chose not to contact TAF for help. Of course, some problems brought to my attention did not fall within TAF's jurisdiction and others clearly did not constitute a grievance according to University policy.

The Senate president has the opportunity to choose the subjects to which he/she wants to devote energy, besides the "designated duties" of the office. As University Times readers probably know, I have involved myself with health benefits issues, including same-sex partners benefits and the operation of the UPMC Health Plan. Believing a better relationship between board and faculty would benefit the University, I established a task force on the subject that led to the Take a Board Member to Class program, which flourished for a while. I believe also that department chairs can profit from being evaluated by those they lead, and so was born the Task Force on Annual Evaluation of Department Chairs, whose efforts led to a pilot effort that will probably result in such evaluations being routine in the future.

I first became involved with the Health Plan after a distraught University employee sought help from me because she and others were losers due to a struggle between the plan and Highmark. Throughout this academic year, I have spent considerable time in contact with the Health Plan and other parts of UPMC, in attempts to resolve a variety of billing and authorization problems.

I believe a critical function of the office of Senate president is to offer to faculty, staff and students the sense that there is someone who is willing to provide help that the University bureaucracy does not appear able or willing to offer. Of course, not all seekers of help necessarily have valid complaints.

On occasion I have sought to obtain an unofficial review of a complaint about a decision within the University, and the review has been granted. I feel more comfortable when I take on an outside force, such as the Health Plan, because it is easier for me to determine right from wrong in those conflicts. The way some faculty and staff view the office of Senate president is illustrated by an encounter I had during Discovery Weekend. As I was leaving the William Pitt Union, a female staff member greeted me with a smile and by name. I didn't recognize her and asked whether we knew each other. She responded that we had not met but, "I know you; you stand up for the people."

More faculty and staff are aware of the views and activity of the Senate president than formerly because the Senate president now has the opportunity to communicate regularly through the University Senate Matters column in the University Times. Begun by Keith McDuffie, when he was Senate president, and continued by Gordon MacLeod, during his year, and by me, this feature is an example of what makes for an open university. It is one thing for a university publication to report on a Senate function; it is far different for it to provide a valuable communication channel — a soapbox of sorts — to the Senate president, and I greatly appreciate it.

The chancellor functions, literally, on a worldwide stage. The demands on his time are enormous. The Senate president functions on the Oakland stage. I believe the chancellor needs the Senate president, whoever holds the office, to bring to his, or his key staff's, attention problems that may not appear to be amenable to resolution through the formal policies and procedures of the University. I have viewed my role as Senate president as seeking an "equitable intervention." Some individual complaints may identify administrative or system problems that can be avoided, or reduced, by changing existing practices; others, by the chancellor and his immediate staff ensuring that existing policies are followed, rather than ignored, by the responsible individuals. The existence of a channel for what I term equitable intervention is also a feature of an open university.

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