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November 25, 2015

Faculty provide more input on strategic plan

It was a case of quality, not quantity, at last week’s strategic planning engagement session for faculty when only a handful of participants turned up to offer their input on Pitt’s strategic plan.

While the William Pitt Union ballroom was set to accommodate 180 participants, only one-tenth that number appeared at the Nov. 17 session — with about half the attendees representing one of the strategic planning working groups.

The low turnout prompted a hasty shift from multiple small-group discussions to a single roundtable-style conversation that touched on engaging entrepreneurial students, partnering with the community, updating criteria for tenure and promotion, and fostering collaborations across the University.

The event, moderated by Steve Wisniewski, associate vice provost for planning, was one of a series of forums in which segments of the campus community are being asked to provide input on specific initiatives to advance the goals of Pitt’s strategic plan for academic years 2016-20. This was the second forum held for faculty. (See Oct. 15 University Times.)

The plan’s five goals are: advancing educational excellence; engaging in research of impact; strengthening communities within the University, in the region and globally; building foundational strength; and embracing diversity and inclusion.

Educational excellence

Chemical engineering faculty member Eric Beckman, co-director of the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation, urged Juan Manfredi, vice provost for undergraduate studies and chair of the working group on advancing educational excellence, to have his group consider the needs of entrepreneurial students as part of its strategy to provide personalized educational experiences.

“Entrepreneurs aren’t well rounded. That’s what makes them interesting. They’re obsessive,” said Beckman, co-founder of Cohera Medical Inc., a company formed to commercialize surgical adhesive technology developed here at Pitt.

Noting that many well-known entrepreneurs are college dropouts, he said, “Well-rounded makes us feel better, but it’s not what they need,” adding that entrepreneurial students may ace courses they deem important to their interests, but earn Ds in required courses.

“They’re very successful and it makes the economy go,” Beckman said, adding that such alumni also may become big donors to their alma mater.

Universities can identify entrepreneurial students at an early age, he said, noting that they typically have their first business experience at age 13.

Larry Shuman of industrial engineering advocated for creating a culture that values creativity and flexibility, lamenting that budgeting issues can get in the way of creating courses that span multiple units.

German department chair Randall Halle said that as a member of the Year of Humanities steering committee, he is seeing overwhelming faculty interest in cooperating across the University and a wealth of possibilities for interaction.

“There really is a reason to be creating abilities for us to work creatively,” he said, urging the Office of the Provost to foster those efforts. “In University-level conversation it’s very important that part of the outcome be that the University be able to work better together as a university. And that’s what the provost can bring to this, I think.”

Wisniewski, chair of the working group on building foundational strength, said that his group is contemplating how to break down silos as part of its strategy of enhancing the University’s ability to partner internally and externally.

Tracy Soska of the School of Social Work advocated for supporting faculty who are interested in community engagement, which reinforces students’ learning and develops their talents.

“We could be more strategic as students try to build their own portfolios here,” Soska said, adding, “Entrepreneurs aren’t just creative, they’re strategic.”

Research of impact

Mark Redfern, vice provost for research, said his working group on research is reaching out broadly across the University, “trying to understand what the schools want to do and then put together initiatives at the University level that support those initiatives as widely as possible” in their plans for the next five-10 years.

Fostering big-data initiatives — by providing tools and the means to bring people together in transdisciplinary research — is one aim.

“Another is the whole idea of integrating social sciences with the hard sciences and medical sciences more at this University,” he said. “The way we’re going to solve some of the biggest challenges and problems in this country is by bringing together the social sciences and the arts and medical sciences.”

How do engineering solutions get integrated into society and used? And how can technologies be brought to social sciences issues?

“This has come up over and over again,” Redfern said, adding his group is seeking ways to promote those interactions. “How do you move people into areas of intersecting, developing relationships and then moving forward?”

Beckman brought up the issue of how faculty are judged for promotion and tenure in light of the strategic plan’s stated strategy to “identify and engage in strategic research opportunities where we can have significant impact on society.”

The notion sounds good, he said, but promotion and tenure concerns would wipe out most of those opportunities.

Redfern said senior administrators are trying to figure out how to resolve the issue. “This is a discussion that comes up at the highest levels in this and every other university in this country, about aligning the promotion and tenure criteria with what we’re trying to accomplish now in the University.”

The University of South California is succeeding in pursuing strategic opportunities, Shuman said. “They do it by having somebody at a very high level in Washington whose job is to see what’s coming out and put people together on campus that may not even know each other but could get together creatively to go after these.”

Redfern said Pitt is following suit, adding that the process of bringing people together centers on developing relationships. “It’s not just throwing people in a room and saying ‘Hey, work together and go after this,’” he said.

“To do transdisciplinary research is going to be key for moving on some of the biggest problems coming up.”

Frank Wilson of Pitt-Greensburg said a key lament at a recent faculty forum on partnering in community engagement was the problem of culture. “That’s part of the explanation why you see so many non-tenure-stream faculty involved in this kind of research — because we’re least susceptible to the ‘You won’t get tenure’ argument.”

Wilson said he no longer buys the explanation that “that’s the provost imposing this on us,” he said. “It’s the current faculty.”

Beckman agreed. “We have an enemy and they are us,” he said. “We do things that are inherently self-destructive. And some of them are hard to change.”

One example, he said, is that in his school National Institutes of Health or National Science Foundation funding is more highly regarded than other federal funding, and federal money is ranked more highly than industry money. Why? “Because we’ve always done it this way,” he said.

Strengthening communities

Rebecca Bagley, vice chancellor for economic partnerships and chair of the working group on strengthening communities, said her group is examining how the strategy of increasing the economic impact of the University’s work melds with the strategy of realizing the social and economic impact of exchanging knowledge through external collaborations.

Bagley said that although it sounds self-serving, keeping focused on what’s best for Pitt  — and for furthering student knowledge, faculty disciplines and publication — will ensure the University’s efforts are sustainable.

Laurie Kirsch, who is chairing the subgroup on strengthening the Pitt community, said improving communication has been an ongoing theme. “One of the things that we’ve been struck by is how many initiatives currently exist in the University that don’t know about each other,” she said.

Jeff Gleim, associate vice chancellor for alumni relations and a member of the Pitt community subgroup, said work is underway with Student Affairs to promote a “Pitt for Life” attitude that encourages students to remain connected as alumni.

Shuman noted that students’ desire to retain their University ties often is based on the experience they had — primarily in their department — while they were here.

“In the end if people are going to think kindly about the University, it’s about the education they got,” he said.

The key, then, is to change the culture and become more supportive in the academic units, relative to looking at future alumni, he said.

Foundational strength

In the area of building foundational strength, Beckman urged that the University find ways to move faster. “We are really slow,” he said. “Everyone worries about mistakes. What about emphasizing speed?” he said, citing several examples from his own experience.

Shuman added that risk aversion is also problematic.

George Huber, interim vice provost for research conduct and compliance and a member of the foundational strength working group, agreed.  “The process is so conservative that it’s outdated,” he said, noting that a more decentralized decision-making process is in the works.

Soska said the University has had success in building strength, citing the recent establishment of the Office of PittServes to improve student engagement. “We built what I think was a really excellent structure to really change what wasn’t working well with student outreach,” he said. He reiterated that faculty have been asking for similar centralized support to aid faculty engagement in building community partnerships.

“We’re strategically challenged in this area,” Soska said, stressing the value of enhancing the work of faculty in ways that will help students develop their skills and their engagement in the community.

“We’re still a public university and are looked at for that kind of a role,” he said.

Diversity and inclusion

Soska advocated for partnering with community efforts to enhance the region’s diversity and inclusion. The goal of attracting and retaining diverse students, faculty and staff can suffer if the region isn’t viewed as diverse and inclusive as well, he said.

In response to several faculty who expressed the need for some new ideas for enhancing faculty diversity, Pamela Connelly, associate vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion and chair of the diversity and inclusion working group, offered training for search committees to help them focus on defining what they want in a candidate.


Details on the University’s strategic plan and contact information for members of the working groups are posted at

—Kimberly K. Barlow     

Filed under: Feature,Volume 48 Issue 7

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