One on One:
Rich Colwell, returning head of SAC
Rich Colwell was elected president of the Staff Association Council this month, following the resignation of President J.P. Matychak to take a job outside Pitt — just 19 days after taking office.
This is the fourth term as SAC president for Colwell, who is senior client services technical lead in the Swanson School of Engineering IT group for the school’s freshman engineering program.
Colwell joined the Pitt staff in 1985 and a year later became a member of SAC. He served as vice president for steering for a term. He was elected to his first stint as SAC president in 1998 and served the maximum allowable three consecutive two-year terms, then held the vice president’s office a second time. In February 2011, he resigned the SAC vice presidency due to increased job duties, but in the election later that year was defeated by Matychak for the same office.
Colwell also has served as the chair of several SAC committees, was a SAC representative on the University planning and budgeting committee and to the University Senate, as well as on several University search committees.
He was born and raised in the city’s Greenfield neighborhood, worked in the local steel mills and is a Vietnam veteran. He is involved in the Pitt Amateur Radio Club and has a son who is a Pitt graduate in electrical engineering and computer science.
Colwell says he joined SAC after his frustration seeking a campus parking permit led him to push for a fairer system of permit distribution. Of all of his accomplishments on SAC, he says he is most proud of having advocated for employees to retain up to a year’s seniority after leaving the University and of preventing established employees from being subject to the same salary cap as newly hired employees.
He sat down last week with University Times reporter Marty Levine to talk about his new term as SAC president.
UNIVERSITY TIMES: Why did you decide to come back after sitting out the most recent elections in June?
COLWELL: I saw who was running and who won, and I was very confident in J.P. Matychak and how he was working with the new officers and with the new bylaws. With J.P.’s resignation, I had lots of staff people and SAC people coming to me and asking if I would run. J.P. and I talked and he explained that all the people were excited about being officers and it would be more proactive and it wouldn’t require all the time it used to take to work.
In the previous terms, I knew most of the people in the administration, and believe it or not most of the people in the administration are still there. The only one I haven’t sat down and talked to is the new provost. Everyone else I can pick up the phone and talk to.
What lessons have you learned from your previous terms in office?
I’ve learned that you can’t do it by yourself, that you need to rely on your officers and chairs and members to help you. If you try to do it yourself, you’re just going to burn out. No matter what you do as an officer … your commitment is going to increase by 10-15 hours a week if you want to represent SAC.
What issues do you see as important to tackle right away in your term?
It’s not an issue, it’s an organizational thing. We’re under new bylaws, and the structure is different. I actually don’t understand the structure totally. We need to get organized, let the staff know that we’re still here, and fill all the required committees. We’ve got to get our voice out there. We need to be more visible to the staff. If we start participating in the committees and get our voice out there, they’ll start to hear us.
We’ve got a bunch of good people. We’ve got officers who want to participate, we’ve got chairs who want to be active, so if we give them the opportunity, I know we’ll be back in there.
We’ve already called the chancellor, the provost’s office and have set up a meeting with (Executive Vice Chancellor) Mr. (Jerome) Cochran. I’m trying to set up a meeting with the Senate Council president. I think the concerns of the staff and the concerns of the faculty are the same. It would be nice if we were on the same page.
What issues do you see on the horizon?
You always have your common issues that have been here since I’ve been a president:
• Salary compression for long-term staff and people hired at the same position: If you’ve been here a long time, you’re going to find yourself next to someone who was hired from the outside and they’re being paid the same as you.
• Salary raises: What can we do to increase our raises or at least make it that low-end staff members can see a raise in their pay? Due to the high cost of health benefits and parking, that consumes the raise for the low-end staff person.
• Health-care costs: Being recently on the medical advisory committee of Human Resources, I was always very vocal in that committee, sticking up for all the low-end staff and all the staff about the medical costs. My personal opinion, last year, I felt that the costs of the Panther Gold health care (HMO) really took off.
• It’s extremely important that the new chancellor coming in is supportive of shared governance and the true meaning of shared governance. Shared governance gives the faculty and staff a chance to voice their opinions. With (Chancellor Mark A.) Nordenberg’s replacement, it is critical that we grow from what we currently have and not go backwards. He is a very hard person to replace. I sat on the first search committee. I saw all the candidates who went through. I know we got the best candidate.
Do the work and opinions of SAC carry any weight with the administration?
Yes. I believe the organization is respected. There are a lot of behind-the-scenes things that happen that the staff doesn’t know about — late-night phone calls, early-morning phone calls — but things have always changed and gotten better. We can call any of the administrators and ask for a meeting and get a meeting. So our concerns are listened to.
How much of the University’s budget problems should staff shoulder, and in what way?
Staff have shouldered a lot over the past 10 years – a couple of years with no raises, all the years with about 3 percent raises. The VERP (Voluntary Early Retirement Program) had an effect on reorganization of some people’s job responsibilities that has feathered down, although there have been some new hires. I think staff have shouldered their portion of budget responsibilities over the years.
How will you and SAC deal with the changing benefits picture for staff, especially the cost of health benefits increasing at a faster rate than raises, and particularly for lower-paid employees?
Due to the changing health-care laws, there are a lot of uncertainties that still exist. In order to deal with these changes, SAC will continue to do what it has done in the past, and that is to be the voice of staff in the shared governance process. With representation on the Board of Trustees, the Senate Council and their subcommittees, SAC will ensure the staff’s voice is not lost in the coming discussions.
How can SAC address the problem of long-term employees being paid less than newly hired employees in comparable positions?
In order to address this or any other salary-related issue, SAC needs representative data. The salary and job classification committee, which has now been assimilated into the staff relations committee, was working on a survey for staff before the end of the fiscal year. The staff relations committee will further this effort in order to hopefully shed some light on the underlying causes of salary issues.
Do you believe campus security will be a continuing issue? If so, what should SAC do to address it?
It is a high priority issue and I do believe that we have the best police department and leadership any campus could ask for. I personally feel safe on campus and I feel confident that if anything would happen we have the proper resources to address it.
I participated in an active-shooter training on Friday in the School of Engineering. It was a four-hour training … and we actually had a live training exercise with the third floor of Benedum blocked off. The training that we were taught in the last four hours kicked in and everyone participated. My recommendation is that all staff participate — at least go to the training and get an idea of what the other people are doing so you can pile on.
What role will SAC play with Harrisburg in the future?
Two years ago I went to Harrisburg because the community relations department was encouraging SAC members to go. I sat down with the governor and one of his assistants. I expressed the concerns of the staff, and coming home we noticed some differences in the budget items. So maybe we did make a difference.
When you go out and talk to the people and you have voted for these people, they are hearing your stories. They need to hear it from you. They hear it from the administration, but it’s not as good. They need to hear it from you.
I would recommend all SAC and staff members participate in the event at Harrisburg. The bus ride was fun too.
Pitt Kennywood Day returned in 2013. What other programming, new or returning, do you see SAC undertaking in the future?
Brown bag benefit workshops are coming back — and the dissemination of information for what’s going on in the University. My plan is to disseminate the information from what the officers and the committee chairs know to the staff of the University. I think if you’re a member of the Staff Association Council and you come to the meetings, you should take something back to the staff members in your area. And you have to get their concerns and bring them back to SAC. It’s not all about me and the officers, it’s about the staff at the University of Pittsburgh.