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December 7, 2006

Senate voting to go electronic

Following the national trend, electronic voting is coming to the University Senate. Faculty will vote for their representatives on Faculty Assembly and for officers of the Senate via electronic ballots for the first time next spring.

Faculty Assembly voted Nov. 28 to amend the Senate’s bylaws to convert to paperless balloting through the portal.

The bylaws changes were introduced by Thomas Smitherman, chair of the Senate’s bylaws and procedures committee, which has studied the pluses and minuses of e-voting since fall 2005.

According to Smitherman, the issue was not without contention. He said the three most-debated topics were whether security and anonymity of the ballots could be ensured; the accuracy of e-balloting, and the potential for decreased participation in voting by medical school faculty particularly, many of whom only use their UPMC computer accounts, which will not support the Pitt account e-voting procedure.

The bylaws and procedures committee agreed that the last question was a School of Medicine — rather than a University Senate — issue, he said, and the committee urged that the medical school countermand the problem by educating its faculty.

On the plus side, Smitherman said, the committee agreed that e-voting is quicker and more efficient and has the potential to increase overall faculty participation based on the ease of completing ballots electronically and growing familiarity of faculty with computers and e-voting for academic societies, for example.

Participation in recent paper ballot elections generally has run at the 20 percent return rate, he added.

In addition, e-voting has proved successful in protecting secrecy and security for student groups under a system established by Computing Services and Systems Development (CSSD), the unit that would pre-test the faculty election process, he pointed out.

The bylaws and procedures committee also wrestled with whether a paper back-up ballot would be appropriate. “While a case can be made for developing printed ballots for confirmation, the current systems developed by CSSD do not support such a function,” Smitherman reported. “Furthermore, with the current systems, the printing of a paper ballot following electronic selection of candidates would threaten the secrecy of the ballots.”

Following Smitherman’s report, Faculty Assembly voted to change bylaws Article V, Section 7, paragraphs 3 and 4. The new bylaws call for: electronic distribution to all Senate members of ballots for Senate officers; Faculty Assembly electronic ballots to be distributed to all members of the Senate in the candidates’ unit, and instructions for completing the ballots.

Ballots also must be authenticated using a secure system for identification, and must be submitted no later than May 1 to be valid, the new bylaws state.

The vote did not terminate the discussion of e-voting, however. Assembly members questioned whether the electronic process is fully compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

The consensus of the Assembly members was that no faculty member should be kept out of the voting process for inability to vote due to a disability.

Assembly members decided to table action on ADA compliance matters until the Senate computer usage committee could raise the issue with Jinx Walton, director of CSSD, who reported to Assembly in October on the features of the e-voting system.

(See Oct. 12 University Times.)

Smitherman reiterated his report at this week’s meeting of Senate Council, which voted unanimously to approve the bylaws changes.

In other Faculty Assembly developments:

• Senate President John Baker announced that the topic for the Senate spring plenary session, set for March 28, will be “Balancing Public and Private Interests in Science.”

• Members heard a report from Steven L. Kanter, vice dean of the School of Medicine, who described the breakdown of medical school faculty by their full- and part-time status, by teaching and clinical duties, by clinical and basic science departments, by tenure/tenure stream and non-tenure status and by source of pay (Pitt, UPMC or the University of Pittsburgh Physicians).

Kanter’s report provided some background for the Assembly, and particularly for the bylaws and procedures committee, which is considering options to amend the faculty membership distribution of Assembly by units.

The issue is whether the proportion of faculty on Assembly who represent schools with the largest number of faculty, particularly the School of Medicine, should be increased to reflect that fact.

(See Oct. 12 University Times.)

• Michael Pinsky of the Senate’s ad hoc committee on “fitness for life” program initiatives postponed his report on the committee’s recommendations until the Jan. 30 Assembly meeting. Pinsky explained that his group’s recommendations still were being debated by the Senate’s benefits and welfare committee, which is chaired by Patricia Weiss.

Weiss said the group’s concerns included whether there would be universal access to services offered under fitness for life program, including for the regional campuses and retirees; whether subsequent changes to the UPMC Health Plan would be cost-effective; whether the fitness facility infrastructure is in place to accommodate future demand, and whether the fitness for life initiatives could spur the culture change needed for the desired healthy outcomes.

• Assembly heard a report from Tracy Soska, chair of the Senate community relations committee subcommittee, on community engagement. (See related story this issue.)

—Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 39 Issue 8

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