Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

September 26, 1996

LETTERS

Part-time faculty and unemployment compensation: A complaint and an explanation

To the editor:

As a part-time faculty member who leaves the University in April with no contract or other assurance of being asked to teach again in the fall, I have, for the last three summers, collected unemployment compensation. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, a person such as myself who finishes teaching one semester without any assurance that she will be asked to teach again is eligible for unemployment compensation.

This past summer, when I had once again been found eligible to collect unemployment, the administration of the University began spending a significant amount of money trying to block my claim as well as the claims of at least six other part-time faculty members. The University had an attorney from Reed Smith Shaw McClay present a case against me at a hearing in front of the Unemployment Compensation Board of Review. Present at the hearing to testify for the university were a dean from FAS and a person from my department. There was also a person from University Human Resources who was an observer. With the help of Mark Ginsburg (president, United Faculty) as well as the advice of an attorney, paid for in part by the United Faculty, the referee ruled in my favor. According to the order that was issued, I was found eligible to collect unemployment compensation from the time that I finished teaching my last course in April until I was asked to teach specific courses in the fall semester. The University's case against me was, hence, defeated.

The administration of the University will be quick to point out, I'm sure, that it won all the other cases that it brought against part-time faculty members who either applied for, or were collecting, unemployment. Well, of course, it did. All the other part-time faculty members whose unemployment benefits were challenged by the University felt that they couldn't afford either legal representation or advice and, therefore, walked into the hearing room without the training that I had received in how to argue the case or how the law in the area read. No other part-time faculty member was supported by the presence of a member of a faculty organization as I was, either. The University intimidated individual faculty members into losing their rights. That doesn't strike me as much of an accomplishment.

During the hearing, the attorney for the University argued that the summer term was not a "term." According to Pennsylvania Unemployment Compensation Law, teachers cannot collect unemployment compensation between terms. Hence, the attorney for the University argued that the summer term, instead of being (as its name would imply) a "term" was, in reality, just a period of time between the spring and fall terms. Next, the attorney argued that since I have been hired every fall and spring term for the last six years this fact alone should constitute reasonable assurance that I will be rehired in the future. The University, according to its attorney, was under no obligation to provide me with formal assurance of rehiring to block my unemployment claim. This I found particularly disturbing because I have asked my supervisors on several occasions if a part-time faculty member, who has worked at the University for years and years and years, could not feel somewhat confident that her past record of being rehired would mean that she would be rehired in the future and I have been told no. You are a temporary employee. Seniority has nothing to do with the rehiring of part-time faculty members.

Why, one can only wonder, did the University devote its time, energy, and scarce resources this summer to attacking the rights of the least privileged members of this community? On average, I teach four courses a year in the English department for which I am paid a sum total of only $10,000. I have collected approximately $2,000 in unemployment compensation each of the last three summers. How much money did the University spend to have three University employees and one highly paid attorney prepare their unsuccessful case against me and then traipse Downtown on two separate occasions to participate in a three-hour hearing in which it was eventually defeated? The University knows as well as I do how to keep a part-time faculty member from getting her foot in the door at the unemployment office. Give her a contract. If I had contract, I would — without question — be assured of returning to work in the fall and this (although difficult financially, surely) would make not receiving unemployment compensation during the summer at least palatable. I would feel as if I were a valued member of the community. I could make plans for the upcoming semester. I could prepare more thoroughly for courses. Instead, the University chose to create enormous ill will among part-time faculty members and further alienate the very people who, because of the number of courses that they teach, make undergraduate education at this University possible. Does the University explain to the parents of undergraduates that many of their children's instructors have no contracts and are often given little advance warning of what courses they will teach? Does it go on to explain that we don't even have tuition remission? If part-time faculty members want to continue their educations they actually have to pay Pitt to take classes (a fact that our salaries, for the most part, will simply not allow)? What message is Pitt sending to the most exploited members of this community if, instead of trying to improve our working conditions (and hence our teaching), by giving us contracts and tuition remission and increasing our ridiculously low salaries, it spends its energy and resources, instead, on trying to fight what is our right? With behavior like this can Pitt really make the claim that it cares about undergraduate education at all?

Pat Harrington Wysor

Part-time Instructor

English Department and Vice President for Part-time Faculty United Faculty

************

Lewis M. Popper, general counsel for the University, responds to Pat Harrington Wysor's Letter:

The state unemployment compensation system was created to provide temporary financial assistance to individuals who have lost their jobs. It does not exist to provide supplemental income to individuals whose regular pattern of employment includes gap periods when they are not formally "on the payroll." Thus, individuals employed in instructional positions at Pennsylvania colleges and universities like ours, whether on a full- or part-time basis, never have been entitled to collect benefits by claiming to be "unemployed" during the summer months. This basic legal principle was upheld in each of the cases brought by Pitt part-time faculty this summer, including the case brought by Ms. Wysor.

Of course, if an instructor's employment actually does terminate at the end of the academic year and he or she is otherwise eligible, there would be a recognized right to unemployment compensation benefits. Under the governing law, then, the pivotal question would be whether or not the employee has been given "reasonable assurance" that he or she will again be employed in an instructional role when the new academic year begins. Ms. Wysor's decision was based on a referee's finding that she had not received such "reasonable assurance" until June, even though the English department thought that it had effectively advised her of her continuing status several months earlier. The referee also held that her right to benefits ended in June as soon as that assurance had been received.

The University's longstand-ing practice has been to facilitate the prompt payment of unemployment compensation benefits to former employees who are entitled to such benefits under the law and to object to such payments when the claims made are without legal merit. Highly decentralized claims processing may have led to some inconsistent applications of policy in the past. However, the University has never knowingly departed from this basic approach.

Pitt is a self-insurer in unemployment compensation matters, and we employ more than 600 part-time faculty. As a result, the basic principle presented by Ms. Wysor's case has real economic significance for the University. Our participation in this summer's proceedings, though somewhat routine in the legal sense, was important in terms of our overall efforts to conserve increasingly scarce institutional resources. It also reminded us to ensure earlier and clearer departmental communications to part-time faculty about re-assignments, which is a worthy step in enhancing their professional circumstances.

*****

Regular administrative turnover should be norm

To the editor:

Three times in the past 20 years I campaigned against faculty unionization, convinced that collective bargaining would doom Pitt to perpetual mediocrity. But I never supposed that faculty unions had a monopoly on mediocrity. On the contrary, at the Oct. 18, 1995, Senate Forum on Unionization, I charged Pitt with having developed "an administrative culture conducive to arrogance, at ease with mediocrity, and tolerant of incompetence" (emphases in the original). I further "commended" Pitt's administration for expertise at one thing — looking after its own — pointing to its notorious reluctance to remove indifferent administrators as an example. What I said was this: "Administrators are supposed to serve at the pleasure of their superiors, but in fact there is such a strong presumption of continuance in office that administrative appointments have become lifetime sinecures. Even the periodic review of academic administrators is biased heavily in favor of continuation in office. The issue in these reviews ought to be prospective — Do the person's character and record provide solid assurance of first-rate leadership for the period ahead? — but it has de facto become retrospective — Has the individual's past performance been so appalling as to mandate removal from office?" In the few months since Mark Nordenberg was named chancellor, a number of administrators who report directly to him have resigned or been removed, presumably because they failed the prospective criterion sketched above. Like other Pitt people, I rejoiced that a healthy new administrative culture was being forged at Pitt. And so I awaited the outcome of the performance review of FAS Dean Peter Koehler with optimism. (In addition to being a concerned senior member of FAS, I have a special interest in performance reviews of administrators. The impetus to develop a system of such reviews can be traced back to my 1976-77 service as president of the University Senate.) I was dismayed, therefore, when my Oct. 18, 1995, criticisms of Pitt's administrative culture seemed to be borne out anew by published reports of Koehler's performance review and by the two-year terminal reappointment given him by Provost James Maher. Additionally, I was shocked to learn that Koehler had leaked a copy of his confidential performance evaluation report to the University Times. Let me turn to this latter matter first.

The 1993 Guidelines for Performance Review of Academic Administrators prescribe a "stringent policy of confidentiality" incorporating "rules of confidentiality … as rigorous as those used in reviews for promotions and tenure for faculty." These guidelines state unambiguously that "No one other than the individual under review and official reviewers, including the supervisor and the chancellor, shall have access to review reports." Yet, in an Aug. 29 memorandum to the Council of Deans, Koehler wrote as follows: "Since all of you are potential candidates for undergoing the University's performance review for academic administrators at some point, you may have been concerned to read in today's issue of the University Times that the paper obtained a copy of the report that had been prepared by the Fact-Finding Committee as part of my review, thus breaching the confidentiality guidelines under which such reviews are to be conducted. I hope it will ease your concerns to learn that I was the one who shared this information with the writer from the University Times. I decided to do so in response to speculation on the writer's part that my recent decision to resign from my administrative position was prompted by the outcome of my review." Imagine the outcry that would have been raised if some hapless faculty member had leaked this confidential report! Notice, too, Koehler's motive: to quash speculation by the University Times that his resignation was prompted by the outcome of his performance review. (Ironically, it was Koehler himself who several months ago provided ample grounds for such "speculation" by incautious remarks to the University Times about his future as dean of Arts and Sciences.) And consider, finally, the pressure that Koehler's precedent now puts on fellow administrators to violate confidentiality by releasing the reports on their performances. Those who refuse to leak them will be judged to have received unfavorable performance reports. After all, if these reports are favorable, why not leak them — as Koehler did? But unless he believed that the old retrospective criterion of administrative reappointment were still in force, it is hard to see why Koehler thought that the contents of his performance report would quash, rather than fuel, speculation that his resignation was less than voluntary. (The report seems to provide no reason to believe that Koehler's performance was so appalling as to mandate immediate removal from office. I say "seems" because I must rely on published accounts of the report rather than on the report itself.) Perhaps, then, Koehler himself viewed the Fact Finding Committee's report as highly laudatory. By contrast, the customarily sober University Times conceptualized the report as "a somewhat mixed review." Close reading of the University Times article on the Fact-Finding Committee's report suggests to me an administratively challenged dean who is more reactive than proactive, slow to make decisions, prone to micromanage, unable/unwilling to delegate, lacking vision, and ineffectual at external fundraising. This unflattering picture is reinforced by the recent Report of the Ad Hoc Committee on Restructuring the Arts and Sciences, which unlike the Fact-Finding Committee's report is a public document. One wonders, therefore, why Provost Maher would not only reappoint such an administrator for two additional years but also entrust him with a pair of special major responsibilities: to oversee the administrative reorganization of FAS and to implement a long-range academic plan. One cannot help but ask whether Pitt's chief academic officer still clings to the old retrospective criterion of administrative reappointment.

In Pitt's old administrative culture, administrators viewed it as shameful to be asked to step down. And they did so with good reason, for by and large only scoundrels or screw-ups were pressed to resign. But regular administrative turnover is to be expected in a healthy, efficient university. In particular, the default option for a dean after a decade in office should be replacement, not reappointment. In such a culture no stigma would attach to resignation, or even removal, at natural junctures. I appeal now to the University Senate, and to individual faculty members, to press Provost Maher and Chancellor Nordenberg to make this ideal, and the prospective criterion of reappointment that undergirds it, Pitt realities.

Gerald J. Massey

Distinguished Service Professor of Philosophy and Director Center for Philosophy of Science

*****

Appreciation expressed for Koehler's work as dean

To the editor:

We are writing to express our appreciation for Peter Koehler's stewardship during the last decade. As faculty who have worked closely with him in a number of capacities, we know at first hand his commitment to scholarship and learning. We know, too, of his decency, honesty and compassion. The University has benefited in many ways from his academic and personal integrity, his collegiality, and the spirit of openness with which he has done his job. He has enriched our scholarly lives, and for this we are most grateful. We are fortunate indeed to have had him as a dean, and we look forward to associating with him as a colleague.

Fritz Ringer

Mellon Professor of History

Gerald Martin Mellon

Professor of Spanish Language and Literatures

Alvin Roth Mellon

Professor of Economics

Dennis Looney

Associate Professor and Chair French and Italian Languages and Literatures

Martin Greenberg

Professor Department of Psychology

Hugh Kearney Amundsen

Professor of British History

Seymour Drescher

University Professor

Department of History

Nancy Condee

Professor Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures

Janelle Greenberg

Associate Professor Department of History

***********

Another opinion: Koehler's performance doesn't justify expansion of authority

To the editor:

Several reasons prompt me to write this letter:

(1) Peter Koehler has been reappointed FAS dean with enhanced authority for two more years;

(2) The University Times (Aug. 29) reports that some faculty members have suggested that Koehler's authoritarian ways can be laid at the door of a climate attributed to former Chancellor Posvar's allegedly autocratic style, whereas I maintain that they are an expression of Koehler's own bent of mind.

(3) In an Aug. 29 memorandum to the Council of Deans, Koehler confessed to "breaching the confidentiality guidelines under which . . . reviews [of the performance of academic administrators] are to be conducted" by leaking a copy of the Fact Finding Committee's report on his performance to the University Times. Avowedly, he did so to head off "speculation" that he was resigning as dean under pressure.

(4) Koehler says his resignation came about as follows: In early August 1996, he reflected on "other things I still want to accomplish during the remainder of my professional life" ( Aug. 27, 1996, memorandum from him to the FAS membership, entitled "My Future Plans"). He then decided: "When my appointment as dean concludes, I look forward . . . to teaching and research as a member of the Department of Physics and Astronomy." And, in his interview with Bruce Steele, Koehler said that during a 1998-99 sabbatical, he would "prepare his courses and catch up on developments in his research specialty of particle physics." Furthermore, "Koehler, 58, said he determined the timing . . . during an Aug. 22 meeting with Provost James Maher." Thus, as Koehler would have it, the initial motivation for this change of career first arose only earlier that same month during his vacation. But this story raises doubts. In April 1996, Steele interviewed Koehler a propos of the report on Restructuring the Arts and Sciences, which contained numerous criticisms of Koehler. What Koehler had told Steele in April gave Steele a reasonable basis to infer four months later that Koehler's purported sudden inspiration to become a professor was not spontaneous. Yet Koehler tried to justify having leaked the review of his job performance on the grounds that he wished to counteract Steele's inference. Reporting on that April interview while Koehler's job performance evaluation was still in progress, Steele quoted Koehler as saying (University Times, April 25, 1996, p. 4): "This report [by the Ad Hoc Committee on Restructuring the Arts and Sciences] does not make me want to make changes in my career plans. However, the evaluation might make the provost want me to make changes in my career plans, in which case he would not have to wait very long to get my resignation if he ever wants it." Only last April then, Koehler had every intention to remain in the deanship — if the Provost would allow him to do so. It strains credulity to suppose that, four months later, Koehler resolved spontaneously to take on, at age 61, a professorship with the quixotic onus of catching up in particle physics after a hiatus of more than a dozen years. To balance the reported judgment about his integrity and honesty (University Times, Aug. 29), I now recapitulate some of the history of Koehler's stewardship. Soon after his appointment in 1986, it became clear that the known efficiency and willingness to delegate of his predecessor, Dean Jerome Rosenberg, was supplanted by Koehler's personal micro-management and glacially slow administrative processing. This, even though the new dean at least tripled the size of Rosenberg's staff. Complaints naturally reached the then-Provost Donald Henderson, who told me that Koehler had declined his offer to supply the funds for the appointment of one or more associate deans to reduce his load. This episode alone suggests an unwillingness to share power, and an insistence on keeping total control, no matter what the cost in efficiency. And it negates the excuse that Koehler is an "administrator working hard to perform a job that may be too massive and complex for any one person to handle" (University Times, Aug. 29). The Fact Finding Committee's euphemism that "he [Koehler] communicates poorly with distinguished faculty" does not do justice to the testimony of his clearly unacceptable behavior toward three chaired professors of which I have first-hand knowledge. This evidence must be seen against the backdrop of his remark to another dean that "the faculty has too much power here." Avowedly, he has a "market-driven" salary policy which measures faculty achievement not by the usual criteria of academic merit but by outside offers. This policy must be clearly distinguished from one that is merit-based but allows for the retention of intrinsically meritorious faculty by meeting competing offers. Deans at many other institutions judge merit by the time-honored, received criteria, as did our previous FAS Dean Rosenberg. Koehler's policy actually jeopardized a gift of at least $1 million to our Center for Philosophy of Science. In 1990, an industrialist whom I had taught at Lehigh University in the mid-1950s asked me how he might pay back the indebtedness he felt to me for my teaching. I told him that I had long hoped to obtain an endowment for our Center for Philosophy of Science to insure its durable survival. The prospective donor had no reason to give money to Pitt other than his connection with me. And since a substantial gift from him and his wife to the center would, therefore, morally oblige me to make a lifetime commitment to Pitt, he asked me whether I had any concern about doing so. So I told him candidly about the dean's market-driven policy, because a lifetime commitment to Pitt would, in effect, penalize me under that policy. Hence I asked Koehler for credible reassurance that, upon receipt of the gift, my salary thereafter would be merit-based, rather than market-driven.

He promised to get back to me before I was to meet with the donor some weeks later. Our center reports directly to the provost, so an endowment gift to it would be no feather in Koehler's cap. Perhaps that is why he simply walked away from the problem, never thereafter saying one word about it to me, although he knew that he was jeopardizing a major gift to the University. To obtain the assurance essential to procuring the gift, I turned to then Provost Henderson 16 months after I had asked Koehler for it. After telling me that Koehler's criterion is "against University policy," Henderson gave me a letter containing the required reassurance without ado. One month later, the industrialist and his wife announced an initial gift of $1 million. But the donors told me that Koehler's conduct had undermined their confidence in Pitt's administration, and that they decided to make their initial gift considerably smaller than it would otherwise have been in order to put the University to the test. Furthermore, Koehler's obstructionism was not redeemed by his own performance in raising external funds: His own faculty and chairs rate him as "not an effective external fund-raiser" (University Times, Aug. 29). The experience of an FAS colleague, now a chaired professor, illustrates the dean's modus operandi when dealing with distinguished faculty. This colleague was nominated for a special professorship by his department, and the chairman sent the required supporting documents to Koehler. Well over a year after that submission, the candidate had heard nothing from the dean. In exasperation, he wrote him that he had been repeatedly embarrassed when the prominent outside referees who had written supporting letters asked him whether he had a new title. Koehler did not answer this letter. Upon inquiry by the department chairman, Koehler told him that he had received only photocopies of the external letters and had then simply forgotten about the matter without calling for the originals without which he was bureaucratically unwilling to proceed.

In a second case of appointment to a special professorship within FAS, Koehler informed the candidate that he had allocated to him a special merit-increment in recognition of his anticipated promotion, an increment that was paltry as compared to what Koehler authorized for others in the same department upon their promotion to a chair. Nary a word from him to this candidate that in all the other cases he had also routinely authorized such perks as research terms and funds for research expenses.

When the candidate confronted Koehler with these inequities, he first just hunkered down. Thereupon, the candidate threatened out of self-respect to renounce the chair publicly, and out of social conscience to expose publicly that Koehler does not make salary determinations on the basis of merit, this at a time when the faculty union movement was gaining momentum. Koehler then underwent an immediate conversion, said that he "goofed" in his original salary allocation, tripled the amount, granted that colleague the same perks as in other such cases, and promised in writing to supplant his market-driven compensation-policy by a merit-driven one, a solemn commitment that has remained unfulfilled. This episode discredits the claim that Koehler is characteristically scrupulously fair and honest. And it shows that in dealing with him, sweet reason is unavailing; what counts is force majeure.

In his Aug. 27 letter to the FAS faculty, the dean gives a firm assurance: "Let me assure you also that I am taking steps to address aspects of my performance which were criticized." But why did he not mend his ways much earlier when he was repeatedly importuned to do so? Is it because he is now being forced to behave differently? Koehler's new rules for nominations to chaired professorships exhibit the autocratic disrespect in which he holds faculty members.

It had been the perennial practice in the philosophy department, which I presume is similar to that in some other departments, for the already chaired professors to evaluate and vote on a departmental colleague for promotion to a special professorship, and for other members of the department to be polled informally. It was then unthinkable that only the department chair would be allowed to nominate a colleague for a titled professorship without a prior discussion and vote of the relevant members of the department. Unaware that Koehler had instituted the latter policy, I wrote to him several times to say that I wished to nominate a philosophy department colleague for one of the special professorships, and I asked him what procedure I should follow to initiate the process. Again, he did not answer me at all.

After I told one of my colleagues, an eminent scholar and chaired professor, that I had received no response from the dean, this colleague decided to assemble an extensive dossier on the candidate, likewise unaware of Koehler's new requirement. But when he informed the dean that he was doing so, he was told to butt out. Koehler took action only when the then department chair, who favored his new rule, nominated the candidate. Once the latter had made the nomination, every member of the department received a letter from the dean, which read in part: "In conformance to our procedures, this nomination was not preceded by a discussion and vote of the faculty of the Department; rather, the views of the Department's faculty members with regard to this nomination are solicited by the FAS Dean." Thus, this presumptuous policy of disallowing prior faculty discussion of the candidate's merits is avowedly applicable throughout the FAS.

Far from having trickled down to Koehler from Posvar's purported style of administration, this new authoritarian policy was an authentic expression of Koehler's own attitudes.

Yet my experiences with the dean were by no means entirely negative. He skillfully handled a delicate case in which one member of a department demanded the censure of another. And when a colleague and I asked him to postpone a tenure decision on a then junior colleague, because of drains on her from the grave illnesses of her parents, he compassionately approved our requests. In 1990, he provided generous financial support for an international conference here on my scholarly work.

Adolf Gr├╝nbaum A.W. Mellon

Professor of Philosophy Research

Professor of Psychiatry

Chairman Center for Philosophy of Science


Leave a Reply