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November 10, 2016

Provost reports on strategic plan implementation

The University is well positioned to move forward, Provost Patricia E. Beeson said at Tuesday’s Faculty Assembly meeting, where she reported on the implementation of Pitt’s strategic plan.

“I think that if we can take this next step, really moving to this new Pitt 3.0, we can become a University that’s really the envy of the rest of the country, one that defines a public research mission in a unique way that’s well suited to Pitt,” Beeson said. “And at the same time we will advance on the standard measures that are used by our peers.”

Having succeeded in advancing to the top ranks of public research universities, the University’s focus under the new strategic plan ( has shifted to defining its own success.

The University culture historically has focused on having an impact, she said. “The question became how do we define what having an impact means?”

Beeson cited a strong faculty, more engaged students, a committed staff, renowned education and research programs, improved facilities and a growing commitment to diversity and inclusion as key factors.

Impact through education
External rankings often focus on graduation, retention or job placement rates. “I think the impact that we have through our educational programs is the impact that those graduates go on to have through their lives. What did they do with that education that made a difference?

“That’s a lot harder to measure than to say, ‘Did we graduate them?’”

Educational factors that correlate with success in later life include having a mentor; being engaged in the classroom; participating in experiential learning through opportunities such as internships, research and study abroad; and having an inclusive environment.

“If we want to move to the next level in our educational programs in terms of having a long-term impact, we need to make an effort to have those sorts of things happen to the students when they’re here,” Beeson told faculty.

“The other way of having impact through our educational programs is not just by what our graduates go on to do, but by who it is that we graduate, who it is that we admit and enroll here at the University of Pittsburgh,” the provost said.

She cited efforts to increase diversity as well as new programs designed to prepare middle- and high school students, and to offer micro-scholarships to help make Pitt more affordable.

Impact through research
Measuring the impact of University research must go beyond the typical measures of research expenditures, research citations and journal publications.

“Who’s reading that work and who’s using it is important, but it’s not everything,” she said, adding that we need to look as well at whether faculty are helping to shape their disciplines and having impact on the scholarship and direction of their fields. And the University must support faculty whose impact includes translating research into practice — including in schools, in health professions or through commercialization, she said.

Pitt is taking action in these areas. She noted that intellectual property and conflict-of-interest policies are being updated and the Innovation Institute is being strengthened. Processes and operations are being streamlined to support collaboration and interdisciplinary work. Investments are being made in high-performance computing, including the new School of Computing and Information. And community engagement centers are being developed to provide the infrastructure for faculty work in the community.

Support for faculty and staff
To prepare students for a lifetime of success, “we need to have a faculty in place that’s committed to Pitt, and to our students and to their success,” Beeson said.

“We need to support innovation and effective teaching practices,” and engagement in the classroom, she said, citing the new University Center for Teaching and Learning. (See July 7 University Times.)

Efforts are being made to increase the number of non-tenure-stream faculty on fulltime contracts and those with multiyear contracts “so that they feel the commitment to Pitt and to students because we have the same commitment to them,” Beeson said.

“It’s my hope that by consolidating these positions and lengthening the contracts, and with the system of promotion we have in place, this core of non-tenure-stream faculty who are exceptional at their teaching and their research are going to be able to help lead us forward in our plans and help us to really engage with students and with the other faculty in the department to become truly a faculty together,” the provost said.

Beeson also said she has worked with deans to expand tenure-stream faculty positions in some areas by 5 percent or more.

“It may seem like it’s a small number but it’s a big step given our current budget situation — and we’re hoping that over time we can expand that even further,” the provost said.

“We need to be equally committed to the staff,” she said. “We need to provide more pathways to promotion, more opportunities to advance, professional development opportunities, the appropriate technological support, if they’re going to be able to be as successful in their jobs as we are in ours,” she said.

“We’re also looking at how we can provide appropriate compensation for both the faculty and staff” in order to retain them. “I’d like to get to the point where it’s less and less of a challenge to keep people, where we’re recognizing and rewarding the faculty and the staff,” she said.

“Most fundamentally, we are, at our core, a people business. So we really need to invest in and strengthen our people,” Beeson said.

Beeson fielded questions and comments from the faculty. Several focused on how faculty are evaluated.

Maria Kovacs of medicine asked about ensuring that schools’ criteria for faculty evaluations align with the University’s broader goals.

“These plans are made at a high administrative level and they have to be implemented by the deans,” she said. “At least within the medical school, it really is a travesty that many of the goals that we stand by — which is teaching, which is involvement in the community on campus — they are worthless. When you look at faculty evaluation at the end of the year, those things do not count.”

Beeson responded that the schools’ missions and responsibilities vary considerably. “When you think of the size of the medical school faculty relative to the number of students who are taught, it’s very, very different than if you’re looking at arts and sciences and the ratio of faculty to students,” she said. Likewise, the role of research varies from school to school.

“It makes it very difficult to have one uniform set of standards. But you are correct that we should all have a common attitude toward these things and I think that we are actually quite good on that,” the provost said.

Nick Bircher of medicine commented that as a University-wide policy on evaluating tenured faculty is developed it must be aligned with the current set of goals and should include provisions for enforcement.

“If the policy comes out and one or more deans choose to ignore the policy and continue business as usual, in my opinion there will need to be a substantive plan to deal with that.”

Eventually that set of rules should be extended to non-tenured faculty as well, he said.

Senate Vice President Robin Kear of the University Library System commented that Beeson’s discussion of measuring faculty work and shaping disciplines lends importance to the spring plenary session’s focus on faculty evaluation.

“Among the goals of the plenary is creating principles for how existing tools are currently used and how to respond when new ones come up,” Kear said.

Beeson added that evaluation of teaching also is being addressed through the University Center for Teaching and Learning and among the deans. “If we’re going to be more effective in teaching, we need to have measures that allow us to see if we are being effective. A component of that is student evaluations of teaching, but it’s only a component,” she said. “We need to think about how we can be better at that.”

Similarly, the provost said, the multiple dimensions of research productivity can be captured in different ways. “We need to think about and understand what those different measures mean” to effectively move forward both individually and collectively as a full faculty, she said.


In other business:

A Senate working group on the evaluation of teaching, made up of members of the educational policies committee and the computer usage committee, wants to be constituted as an ad hoc committee, Senate President Frank Wilson reported.

Relatedly, Kear said the Senate plenary session planning group has decided that it will focus the spring plenary session on the evaluation and principles for research metrics.
“We did discuss many aspects of evaluation, including the teaching versus the research evaluation question,” she said. Given the complexity of the topics and the time that would be needed to cover them, the planning group opted to limit its scope.

Wilson said additional forums and presentations would cover other facets of the evaluation of teaching.

—Kimberly K. Barlow 

Filed under: Feature,Volume 49 Issue 6

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