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November 12, 2015

Senate to address grad student issues

The University Senate student admissions, aid and affairs committee’s plan to join forces with Graduate and Professional Student Government (GPSG) to address graduate student concerns struck a chord with faculty.

In a report to Faculty Assembly on Nov. 4, student admissions, aid and affairs committee co-chair Robin Kear said, “What we’re trying to do right now is start a conversation and see what we can do.” One area being explored is whether a graduate student unit should be added, perhaps as part of Student Affairs, she said.

The committee will gather information and may present recommendations in spring, Kear said.

“We know there’s no ‘typical’ graduate student — they’re all very unique in what they need from the University and what they expect. But it has been brought to our attention that some graduate student organizations expressed that they feel disconnected from the larger University.”

John Stoner of history noted that competition and consumer pressures may underlie the many services and amenities aimed at undergraduates. Graduate students, however, come to Pitt for a particular program. “They choose to be here in a different way than undergraduates choose to be here,” he said. “We shouldn’t forget about them.”

Kear noted as well that graduate students’ connection with the University isn’t solely an issue during their years on campus, “especially considering that they become our alumni as well.”

While some graduate students access support services from their school- or department-level graduate student organization, not all do, Kear said.

Often programming falls to the student-run GPSG.

“I can see the need for more support,” she said.

Business faculty member Jay Sukits pointed out that graduate student isn’t a one-size-fits-all term. Students in the Katz Graduate School of Business’s master’s programs tend to be focused on completing their program and getting a job, he said, while PhD students are more closely tied to the school’s teaching and research. “It’s important to separate the kinds of students you group here.”

Clark Muenzer of German added that graduate students are a more complicated demographic than undergrads. Some are in their 30s and 40s, married with children; others are 23 and just beyond their undergraduate years. The challenge of developing programs for such a complex group bolsters the argument that a dedicated graduate student unit should be established and funded in Student Affairs, he said.

Nursing faculty member Marilyn Hravnak, a member of the Senate’s equity, inclusion and anti-discrimination advocacy committee (EIADAC), said the committee has been looking at the campus community’s international population. International graduate students “seem to feel there are little resources for them,” although undergraduates don’t share that view.

“It’s interesting to see that it’s not just international students but it seems to be graduate students in general,” she said.

EIADAC is discussing the perceived disparity, which may be related to the way resources are distributed, she said. Funds are more centrally disbursed for undergrads, whereas graduate student funds are more likely to be disbursed school by school.

Graduate students pay a $30 activity fee each semester. Half goes to their school and half to GPSG, said Joseph Kozak, GPSG president.

Kozak said GPSG holds programs and social events to bring graduate students from different schools together. “Graduate students are all siloed across their respective schools,” he said.

In addition, GPSG funding provides legal services and travel grants and pays for a part-time graduate student worker to provide administrative support.

GPSG is surveying graduate students about their concerns, Kozak said. He urged faculty who work with grad students to encourage them to take the survey via

Under past president David Gau, GPSG instituted an orientation and resource fair to provide new graduate students with important information. “We’ve been trying to grow that program,” Kozak said, noting that about 500 grad students attended.

Gau, a member of the student admissions, aid and affairs committee, said that Alberta Sbragia, vice provost for graduate studies, advocates on behalf of graduate students, but her office is small. “GPSG for the past couple of years has been trying to fill the role supporting graduate student life,” he said.

In addition to orientation, Gau said GPSG has been assisting with admissions and recruitment and leading campus tours. He added, “We’re limited as well because we’re all students and we’re not paid to do any of those things. It’s been pretty taxing for us.”

Gau said the goal has been to get the programs started “and hope someone else will take them at some point.”

Research committee report

Senate research committee co-chair Pat Smolinski told Faculty Assembly that the committee, formed in spring as part of a Senate committee reorganization, is drafting a mission statement. After review in the committee, the final statement will be presented to Faculty Assembly, he said.

He said that discussions have been underway with Mark Redfern, vice provost for research, and George Huber, interim vice provost for research conduct and compliance.

“We view this committee as a communication link between the administration and the various offices related to research, and the University Senate,” Smolinski told the Assembly.

Discussions have focused on research compliance efforts and information gathering related to a provost’s research policy review committee being headed by Redfern. Subcommittees of that provost’s committee are reviewing intellectual property, copyright and conflict-of-interest (COI) policies, Smolinski said.

Research committee co-chair Penny Morel said the committee will be discussing Pitt’s response to federal proposals to change institutional review board (IRB) requirements.

Clark Muenzer, faculty in German, noted that standards for what constitutes research — particularly in light of its impact on tenure or promotion — vary by discipline, adding that while research in STEM areas often has rapid applicability in the greater world, that’s not always the case for social science research.

“I hope that the committee at some point would think about the different kinds of questions that are relevant to the different disciplines,” he said, suggesting that the committee look into what standards are used to determine “research that counts — whether it’s for promotion or tenure.”

Muenzer said, “One wonders what impact institutional policy will have on determining what an assistant professor thinks they ought to be doing. It’s those kinds of questions that aren’t so obvious at first glance that distinguish the disciplines from one another, that at least ought to be initially discussed and identified as problems.”

Where Pitt focuses its funding will have an effect on the direction of faculty research, he said.

Morel pointed out there is broad representation on the committee and that conversations have ensued on the topic of what is research.

Seth Weinberg of dental medicine noted that similar concerns are arising in biomedical sciences, where questions include whether datasets should be counted as scholarship in matters of promotion or tenure. “It’s not just in the humanities, it’s all over the University,” he said.

Nick Bircher of medicine said the University “ought to embrace the notion that dollars are not the unique measure of scholarship. Historically what we see, particularly in biomedical sciences, is some of the schools have evolved to the point where that is the only measure. I think that is fundamentally wrong and a fundamental threat to academic freedom.”

Smolinski said the committee had discussed both funded and unfunded research. “Both are research and funding doesn’t necessarily grant that any more value than non-funded.”

Joe Costantino of public health added, “In that same vein, it’s teaching and community service that we all are supposed to do as the triumvirate of academic achievement. As has been pointed out, funding is the only one that seems to get the credit, at least in the biological sciences area. So don’t forget those two aspects also.”


In other business:

• Frieze reported that the provost has formed a working group in response to recommendations made by a University Senate ad hoc committee formed in 2014 to look into faculty evaluations and salary reductions.

Senate tenure and academic freedom committee co-chair Barry Gold is serving as the Senate representative to the working group. Gold, faculty member in the School of Pharmacy, chaired the ad hoc committee which, in a Sept. 3 report to Faculty Assembly, recommended that the provost develop University-wide guidelines for evaluating tenured faculty performance and define processes for appeals and for remediation of unsatisfactory performance. (See Sept. 17 University Times.)

• The Assembly unanimously approved an amended proposal to expand eligibility for emeritus/emerita status to non-tenure stream faculty members. (See Oct. 29 University Times.)

Under existing policy, emeritus/emerita appointments were reserved for tenured professors or associate professors with 10 years of honorable service immediately prior to retirement, although non-tenured faculty could be recommended in exceptional cases.

Emeritus/emerita faculty retain access to Pitt library resources, bus passes and email accounts, but typically are not granted office space, said Frieze.

—Kimberly K. Barlow    

Filed under: Feature,Volume 48 Issue 6

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