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December 8, 2016

Assembly votes down revised relationship policy

Faculty Assembly acknowledged improvements in a revised University draft policy on consensual relationships, but again rejected the proposed policy, which included provisions that some argued could put faculty at risk of baseless accusations or administrative abuse.

Existing University policy (Policy 02-04-03) prohibits intimate relationships between a faculty member and a student whose academic work, teaching or research is being supervised or evaluated by the faculty member.

The proposed policy ( would expand that ban to prohibit relationships between staff and students and would prohibit supervisors from initiating consensual relationships with employees under their area of responsibility.

Of most concern at Faculty Assembly was a provision concerning relationships with students that stated: “Consensual relationships that harm the academic atmosphere, undermine professionalism, or hinder the fulfillment of our academic mission are also prohibited, even if there is no supervision or evaluation involved.”

A motion to endorse the policy failed Tuesday in a 19-12 vote with two abstentions.

At its October meeting, the Assembly, without voting, took issue with perceived gaps and nebulous language in an earlier, lengthier draft presented by Laurie J. Kirsch, vice provost for faculty affairs, development and diversity. (See Oct. 13 University Times.)

Kirsch, chair of a provost’s ad hoc committee that also revised Pitt’s updated sexual misconduct policy (see Sept. 1 University Times), returned to the Assembly with a new draft consensual relationships proposal that she said simplified and clarified the policy’s language, removed punitive-sounding wording and eliminated redundancies and portions already covered under other policies and procedures.

Noting that some in the University community “strongly believe there should be a complete ban on faculty-student relationships,” Kirsch said the proposal represented a compromise.
“It’s a compromise, but the revised policy is true to core principles that we share: Trusting and respectful relationships between members of the Pitt community are fundamental to who we are as a University. The well-being of our student population is a primary concern and of utmost importance to us as a community.”


Assembly member Chris Bonneau of political science, who serves on the University Senate tenure and academic freedom committee, commended Kirsch’s committee for the revisions, but strained at the “vague standard” underlying the ban on faculty-student relationships outside of supervisory authority that “harm the academic atmosphere, undermine professionalism or hinder the fulfillment of our academic mission.”

“To me this is ripe for subjectivity and administrative abuse,” he said.

Nick Bircher of medicine expressed concern for the rights of someone accused. “It does not require one shred of material evidence … to sanction a faculty member,” he said. “If we have a policy that allows the construction of perception of damage to the academic environment, proceeding directly to sanctions without any due process, I think that’s problematic for the faculty.”

He suggested requiring “material evidence of disruption rather than mere ephemeral perception of disruption or harm to the academic environment” to better protect faculty.

“I don’t think anybody here has any issue with the need to protect students,” said Bircher, past president of the Senate, chair of the Senate bylaws and procedures committee and a TAFC member. “Nobody’s debating protecting students. It’s just that the policy as stated is too vague to protect against administrative abuse.”

Kristin Kanthak of political science commented, “Consensual relationships between faculty and students or faculty and staff don’t always look one particular way.”

Kanthak, whose husband earned a degree at Pitt using her faculty spousal tuition benefit, said the policy could deter spouses from attending Pitt. “What do we do with those people who have chosen to become students at the University of Pittsburgh to take advantage of this excellent program, who are now students?” she asked.

“If one of his fellow students had said, ‘I feel this harms the academic atmosphere and undermines professionalism,’ and I have a supervisor who doesn’t like me anyway, I could be in big trouble,” she said. “In my family, the effect of this policy would have been that he never would have gone to school here.”


Under the University’s shared governance system, the Assembly’s endorsement is not required in order for the University policy to move forward.

Kirsch could not be reached for comment prior to the University Times publication deadline.

Bircher said the administration could ask Senate Council for its endorsement, or could simply implement the policy without the Assembly’s endorsement.


In other business:

• The Assembly unanimously approved a revised research integrity policy that was endorsed by the University Senate research committee.

The proposed policy revisions:

— Allow the respondent (the individual alleged to have committed research misconduct) to object to the choice of the deciding official and appeal to the provost.

— Address the case where a dean is the source of the allegation.

— Allow anyone to appeal the choice of the deciding official (dean) and allow for a different deciding official to be chosen by the provost, if needed, to provide for a fair and competent inquiry.

— Require that testimony at the inquiry stage be recorded and a transcript be provided to the witness.

— Require that a respondent who is prepared to admit to an allegation be informed of their rights under the policy.

— Explicitly state that anonymous allegations may be brought forward and that they will be acted upon, provided that sufficient detail is provided.

— Strengthen the requirement that an audio recording or stenographic record of the investigative board hearing be sent to the respondent.

— Provide a simplified method, modeled on those used at peer institutions, for handling a case where allegations were made “not in good faith.”

• In his report, Senate President Frank Wilson said that reports from Senate ad hoc and special committees are expected early next year on part-time non-tenure-stream faculty issues and on fossil fuel divestment.

He added that the special committee on diversity, inclusion and core values in January will continue its work to develop a statement of core values. Given the political climate, he said it will be advantageous if the committee can move swiftly.

Jeffrey Guterman, Pitt-Bradford’s representative to Faculty Assembly, noted that UPB’s faculty government last week passed a statement confirming its support for a “friendly, inclusive, safe, diverse and student-focused academic environment” after faculty observed that some students felt safe on campus, but not as safe in the community.

“I think it’s really important for us to put these messages out there for all to see, not just within our own community but those connected to us,” he said.

Agreed Wilson: “While we grapple with the idea of an institutional statement of core values, I think that it’s worthwhile and may be really necessary for individual units and schools within the University to be having this discussion themselves.”

Faculty Assembly’s next meeting is set for 3 p.m. Jan. 17 in 2700 Posvar Hall.

—Kimberly K. Barlow 



Filed under: Feature,Volume 49 Issue 8

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