By MARTY LEVINE
Members of the University Senate’s Faculty Affairs Committee got a preview of possible changes to two proposed University policies that have already seen faculty objections:
Thee electronic information technology accessibility policy, which was blocked by Faculty Assembly in November but finally approved this week and sent on to the Senate.
The nondiscrimination, equal opportunity, and affirmative action policy, which was pulled from faculty consideration by University administrators after faculty concerns about infringement on free speech and academic freedom.
Committee members on Jan. 28 were glad to see some policy changes and receive explanations from the Office of Policy Development and Management and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.
In particular, they were relieved to see a change in the time the nondiscrimination policy would affect an employee (switched from the date employment is offered to the employment starting date) and that the diversity office had added the availability of additional educational resources to that policy.
But committee members were disappointed that their main issues had not yet received a detailed response.
While the need to make websites and software accessible for those with disabilities is widely accepted, committee members continued to question how faculty will be responsible for implementing the new policy.
And some objected to implementing the new nondiscrimination policy at all. While that policy exempts discussions about academic materials, in and outside of class, from potential investigation by Pitt’s diversity officers, the policy still calls for the reporting of overheard suspected discriminatory speech. Faculty were still concerned that discrimination charges may result in investigations whose outcome — even findings that no discrimination occurred — will remain hidden from all those involved, such as witnesses who offered testimony, and may follow accused faculty around on their records.
Pitt administrators, faculty and staff on hand to answer committee questions included Tom Hitter, assistant vice chancellor for Policy Development and Management; Katie Pope, associate vice chancellor of Civil Rights and Title IX; and Angie Bedford-Jack, Pitt’s digital accessibility coordinator.
‘Chilling effect’ on speech feared
Committee members questioned the categories of people singled out for protection under the policy. Committee co-chair Irene Frieze, of the Dietrich School’s psychology department, recalled that Pitt’s original nondiscrimination policy was endorsed by faculty several years ago only because Pitt lacked such a policy entirely: “There was an agreement made, with Faculty Assembly, that it would be reviewed in more detail in a year, but it never happened.” In particular, she said, the list of protected categories remains undefined.
Committee co-chair Lorraine Denman suggested other categories might be appropriate. Denman, faculty member in the Dietrich School's Department of French and Italian, said she had received complaints from a student that a classroom was too small to accommodate the student’s size, and suggested the list also include medical status.
Pope said she would provide a guide to category origins in federal, state and local anti-discrimination laws.
Saying that portions of the policy are still “wide open for subjective interpretation,” business school faculty member Jay Sukits asked whether there was anyone against whom discrimination was effectively allowed, under the proposed policy.
“I could (refuse to) hire you because you are mean, but I couldn’t refuse to hire you because you have a baby — because familial status is a protected class,” Pope responded.
Anticipating the possibility of false accusations under the policy, Sukits added: “This can be weaponized by people who are disgruntled or who have some type of problem with other people.
“It seems terribly Orwellian to me that you could overhear a conversation and assume it is discriminatory when you don’t even know what the conversation was about,” he added. “I would take this away from any reporting” of alleged incidents, as a remedy for discrimination, “and put the responsibility on education efforts. I would much rather prepare students to be able to defend themselves,” especially in their future work environment, he said, where they may face negative comments from someone who is “just a jerk” – something that is not covered by any policy.
Denman asked that the policy’s link to a list of reportable offenses, now unavailable, be completed, while Frieze questioned whether Pitt would have enough people to handle complaints.
Pope said that her office was hiring a new investigator now and would add four additional employees over the summer. She said the nondiscrimination policy had been consciously formulated to echo procedures already instituted under the University’s policy mandating the reporting of sexual misconduct.
Concerned about mandatory reporting under the proposed nondiscrimination policy, Denman asked about the earlier sexual misconduct policy: “Do you have documentation on its effectiveness?”
Pope reported that, since implementation of the sexual misconduct policy in 2016, “we have seen a significant, marked increase in the number of reports coming into the office.” That’s a positive development, she said, since “typically it is underreported.”
The sexual misconduct policy also “has made a significant difference in the number of people we are able to reach out to, provide support to,” following their contact with her office.
Denman pointed out that the sexual misconduct policy requires the reporting of second-hand knowledge, such as a report to a professor from a student who alleges her roommate was assaulted.
“Hearsay reports are more difficult” to assess for possible investigation, Pope allowed, but said they are nonetheless valuable, should the reporting student, or her roommate, need to be connected to supportive services.
Committee member Tom Songer, epidemiology faculty member in the Graduate School of Public Health, expressed concern about records of accusations and investigations becoming a factor in promotion decisions for faculty, especially appointment-stream faculty.
“Is there an opportunity to limit the records?” he asked. “Is there an opportunity for expungement ... in a faculty record? That has longer-term implications. This is something we need to think about.”
Pope promised to provide the committee with current Pitt rules in such situations.
On the other hand, Denman said, because the outcome of investigations would not be announced to anyone but the accuser and the accused, witnesses and anyone else aware of the case “may be left with this kind of negative view of a colleague,” even if the colleague is exonerated. “It will have effect in the long term on the life of the employee.”
“We don’t have a good answer for that,” Pope replied, “because the privacy of the parties is of primary concern in these cases.” Her office also faces employment law that prevents some reporting, she added, but she hopes to work with individual departments on how to handle such cases and prevent gossip.
“If I don’t hear any more, I’m just going to assume there is a problem with professor X,” added Frieze. “That is the chilling effect we’re talking about. It expands beyond” the two parties in a discriminatory speech complaint.
Hitter admitted the policy formulation group was still working on their response to committee concerns about this policy and called for more discussion with the committee — in particular about the overall “chilling effect” the policy may have on speech. He said the group creating the policy wished next to meet with the Senate’s Tenure and Academic Freedom committee, then to regroup before coming back to Faculty Affairs with other changes.
Committee member Pat Loughlin of the bioengineering program in the Swanson School requested the policy formulation group respond in writing to Faculty Affairs’ proposed changes in preparation for their next meeting.
“I was quite disappointed that the Policy Office had not responded directly to any of the concerns we raised in our formal letter to them on the nondiscrimination policy,” said Frieze after the meeting. “As I noted at the meeting, the earlier promise that we would have a clear rationale for the list of protected groups was not met either.”
IT accessibility policy costs still questioned
Hitter and colleagues also had revised the electronic IT (EIT) accessibility policy “to emphasize the support this University has for implementing this policy,” he said, especially in the face of faculty concerns about the cost in time and effort. He also said revisions had been made to “soften” what has been perceived as “draconian language” in the policy.
“That was our committee’s primary concern,” Denman said, “that faculty and departments were ultimately responsible” for implementing and paying for the policy.
“I don’t think the policy says faculty are responsible for implementing the policy,” said Bedford-Jack. Her office will provide “tons of staff support,” she noted, including a website detailing how to use SiteImprove software to locate and suggest needed changes to department websites, as well as many workshops, checklists and guidelines to the accessibility process. The University will depend on faculty expertise mostly to create accessible resources in their particular subject areas, she said.
Will faculty be given money or dedicated time for accomplishing this task? Frieze asked.
“There is an implementation plan that will be implemented by each school or unit,” said Bedford-Jack, meaning that individual schools will decide how much money or time they will request the University offer faculty.
Are there any immediate funding and resources this summer, including workshops to prepare for fall? asked Denman.
“We don’t have any concrete plans now,” said Bedford-Jack, but added that her office may create workshops with the University Center for Teaching and Learning. With deadlines set four to six years after the policy takes effect, she emphasized, and leeway given for less essential websites, implementation should not be out of reach. But she also cautioned that “Penn State has been working on this for 10 years and they are not compliant” yet with federal rules on accessibility. “But we need to set a goal to start working toward this.”
Denman also expressed concern about how the University will police progress with the new accessibility plan: What evaluation procedures will be adopted by the University? Will there be sanctions for noncompliance?
“Oversight for the most part is self-reporting,” Bedford-Jack said, with her office using SiteImprove to do broad scans of Pitt websites for trouble spots, but “not to sanction folks,” she added, only to offer more help. Once deadlines begin to be missed, however, there may be a bigger push for compliance, she said.
“It was encouraging to hear that the policy committees are committed to working with its various stakeholders, including committees in the Faculty Senate,” Denman said after the meeting. “The changes to certain sections of the EIT policy seem to lessen the burden on faculty, and I was glad to hear that the timeline for implementation was longer than I expected.”
She predicted correctly that the EIT policy would pass when presented to Faculty Assembly, but said, “The non-discrimination policy still has a ways to go before I think it would be acceptable to the Assembly.”
Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-758-4859.
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