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April 3, 2003

Senate president candidates square off on issues

This year’s election for the University Senate presidency pits Nicholas G. Bircher, an associate professor of anesthesiology and critical care medicine, against Thomas A. Metzger, an associate professor of mathematics.

Each has served on Faculty Assembly and Senate Council. Bircher is the Senate’s current vice president, Metzger his immediate predecessor in that office.

Each professor has amassed a lengthy vitae of service on Senate committees as well as University and school-specific task forces, search committees, and planning and budgeting groups.

(Full descriptions of the candidates’ academic and service-oriented experience appear on the University Senate election ballots mailed recently. April 21 is the deadline for returning completed ballots to the Senate office, 1234 Cathedral of Learning.)

Last week, the University Times asked Metzger and Bircher to reply in writing to the following questions.

At last month’s Faculty Assembly meeting, some professors complained that faculty salaries have not been getting enough attention here. But with Harrisburg cutting state funding, how can the University raise faculty pay except at the expense of staff compensation, or by raising tuition even higher than it’s been hiked in recent years, or by lowering academic quality?

Bircher: Fairness in dealing with decreased overall revenue is the crucial concern and is a reasonable expectation by both faculty and staff. The interests of the faculty and staff are inseparable from those of the University as an institution. Decreasing academic quality cannot improve faculty compensation on its own, and may further worsen the decline in revenue by making the University less attractive to students.

Increased workload improves the budgetary situation only if the increase produces an exodus of faculty. This is not a hypothetical situation in the School of Medicine. This type of exodus, however, cripples the academic mission. The antithesis of fairness is the Iron Law of Distribution: “Them that has, gets.” The University should avoid this strategy, particularly in times of economic downturn.

Metzger: The problem/complaint about faculty salaries has been simmering below the surface for a few years now. As long as inflation was low, the small increases that faculty received seemed adequate. What prompted this recent outcry were the large salary increases given to senior administrators and a large increase in tuition this year, combined with small raises for the majority of faculty and staff.

The main reason that Pitt has fallen in the AAU [Association of American Universities] salary comparisons is that other universities gave out large raises during their “flush periods.”

One way to address this problem would be finding more funding from donors, foundations and the commonwealth. A second possible way would be to increase the amount of money transferred from our endowment to the University’s E&G [education and general] budget. I would be adamantly opposed to reducing staff compensation or lowering academic standards or quality.

What letter grades would you award to Pitt’s senior administration and the Board of Trustees for their job performances during the last few years?

Bircher: Board of Trustees Chairperson Bill Deitrich: B+. Trying hard to understand complexity of the situation, as well as to fairly consider the many sides to each question.

Board of Trustees overall: B-. Very well-intentioned and hard-working as individuals, but typically completely out of touch with faculty, staff and students.

Chancellor Mark Nordenberg: B+. Solid effort in a very tough job. Some loss of style points for selling off medical school faculty into the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC)’s subsidiary practice plan. Extra credit for advising the Board of Trustees that his latest raise was going to be a political liability.

Provost James Maher: A-. Generally fair and impartial. Goes further out of his way to consider faculty, staff and student needs than most.

Executive Vice Chancellor Jerome Cochran: C-. Has been to law school, but seems to dislike presenting evidence to support his positions.

Metzger: To the senior administration, I would give a B. I believe they have done an excellent job in helping to raise money and increase the quality of our students. Where they have not done so well is in the area of same-sex benefits, the Environmental Law Clinic case and faculty/staff compensation.

To the Board of Trustees, I would give a D. They do well in the financial/money-raising aspects and even say all the right words when it comes to academics. But they have failed in the same-sex benefits issue (I have yet to hear a member of the board speak out forcefully on this), the law clinic problem (again, silence seems to be their preferred M.O.) and, finally, the raises for senior administrators was/is a PR fiasco. I believe it is the board’s responsibility to worry not just about finances but also to work to improve Pitt in collaboration with the faculty, staff and students.

What letter grades would you give to Faculty Assembly, Senate Council and University Senate officers?

Bircher: Senate President Jim Cassing: B. Good effort, reasonable initiative.

Immediate past president Nathan Hershey: A. Well-organized, showed initiative, generally got things done despite bureaucratic swamp in which we all live.

Faculty Assembly: B-. Faculty certainly could be more participatory. They need to both show up and speak up, i.e., have the courage to engage in frank and collegial discussion, including careful, open scrutiny of all available evidence combined with scholarly and disciplined analysis.

Senate Council: B. Provides a good public venue for airing of issues. More input from Faculty Assembly would likely have improved the number of issues that were dealt with definitively and in a timely fashion.

Metzger: As I have been a member of both Faculty Assembly and Senate Council, and have served as a Senate officer, I will let others grade our performance. The one thing I will say is that my experience has been that members of these groups really care about the University and are working to make it better.

Some professors have decried what they call the growing “corporatization” of Pitt. What’s your opinion?

Bircher: Adopting salary, fringe and overhead dollars as the definitive measures of scholarly merit (“NIH or nothing”) is a crushing blow to academic freedom. Scholarly excellence should be the measure to which we aspire, rather than exclusively fiscal well-being.

Metzger: All universities are being corporatized. In many ways, this is not a bad thing. For example, economic development will help to generate more revenue for the commonwealth, which hopefully will translate into larger appropriations for Pitt.

I should also note that the emphasis on research dollars and top pay for “stars” is not new. This has a long history in academia. The troubling aspect of this is the matter of double-digit raises for administration. This is a newer phenomenon and one that needs to be monitored carefully.

Chancellor Nordenberg says that his administration will continue to be guided on the same-sex benefits issue by the June 2002 report of the special committee which recommended that Pitt offer health benefits to employees’ gay and lesbian partners eventually — but that doing so now, in the face of state lawmakers’ opposition, would not be prudent. Do you agree with Chancellor Nordenberg and the special committee?

Bircher: The committee recommended future action to offer these benefits. Offering “the check is in the mail” repetitively has diminished the credibility of the chancellor, the Board of Trustees and the University in general. If this benefit is not included in this year’s health benefits package, soon to be announced, the University can reasonably expect this issue to promptly re-emerge.

Metzger: My personal belief is that offering such benefits is just plain “the right thing to do.” (It may not be the prudent thing, but it is the right thing.) In his public statements, the chancellor has consistently cited the report and interpreted it as saying: “Not now.” I sincerely hope that he is working hard behind the scenes to persuade the “powers that be” in Harrisburg that this is something we must do ASAP.

In regard to the argument that the civil lawsuit [seeking to force Pitt to extend health benefits to its employees’ same-sex partners] is putting things on hold or slowing the process, I am sure that the chancellor, as a lawyer, is well aware that most suits of this type are settled out of court. Offering these benefits would surely settle the case.

What would you hope to accomplish as University Senate president?

Bircher: Immediately upon taking office: Review the new health care benefits package. The Senate president has a fiduciary responsibility to ensure that the process and outcome are optimal. Entwined with this issue are the ongoing issues of salary and total compensation. Domestic partner benefits need to be a part of the next health care package, if not included in this one.

Over the summer: Compile a legislative history of the University Senate. One important component of getting that job done now is understanding the lessons of history, which include the unresolved issues as well as what works to effect change and what doesn’t work.

Metzger: If elected, I plan on prodding the administration on various issues: faculty/staff salaries and fringe benefits, same-sex benefits, academic freedom, our relationship with UPMC and shared governance. As the Senate Council can only recommend actions, I will not promise that any of our recommendations will be adopted. But I can promise that there will be a followup to track what the disposition on these actions will be.

Why should faculty vote in University Senate elections?

Bircher: Many issues brought to the administration’s attention in the Senate Council by the faculty, staff and students are resolved amicably with the administration. One project I hope to accomplish, if elected, is to complete a 10-year legislative history itemizing issues that have been so resolved.

The alternative for the individual to voting [in Senate elections] — i.e., to cease to have input into the University as a whole — is a hopeless, helpless and thoroughly unacceptable option which cannot possibly serve the interest of the individual member of the University community or Pitt as an institution. Ultimately, a demoralized and disenfranchised faculty, staff and student body hurts the University.

Metzger: The Senate is a body of faculty, staff, students and administrators who discuss and vote on issues of interest to the entire University. These vote results are then sent to the appropriate administrator as recommendations. In the sense that we can only recommend, we are toothless. However, these discussions and votes do carry some weight. The University Planning and Budgeting System is a product of Senate action. Some other Senate initiatives include the system for evaluating job performances of deans and department chairs (which should commence this term) and Pitt’s teaching innovation awards, an initiative of the Senate’s educational policies committee.

So, vote. Make your wants/needs heard. Change can be effected not by grumbling in the coffee room or in hallways but by voting, telling Faculty Assembly members your concerns and participating in shared governance.

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