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May 1, 2003


The first newspaper I read with any regularity as a youngster growing up in New York in the 1930s and early 40s was PM. It was new, and unique because it carried no advertising. I was particularly attracted to it because of its masthead slogan, “We Are Against People Who Push Other People Around.” I decided to adopt that statement as a governing principle for my life. (My approval of the statement doesn’t mean I haven’t, on occasion, pushed other people around. )

I did not expect that one role of a University Senate officer, particularly that of president, is to serve as a resource or contact person for faculty members who believe that they have been “pushed around” by a person superior to them in the academic hierarchy and who do not see any avenue for redress readily available. The University has a grievance policy and procedures for review of adverse promotion and tenure decisions; however, many of the alleged improper actions of their superiors do not fall within the policy’s definition of grievance.

I had been contacted for assistance by a number of faculty members who felt they were the victims of abusive or arbitrary actions, beginning long before I became a Senate officer. My business picked up when I became Senate president.

Nearly all the faculty who have come to me since I became a Senate officer were Health Sciences faculty, most of them from the School of Medicine. Their problems were with their division chief and/or the department chair. They had often first sought some intervention from individuals higher in the school’s structure but found no relief or support coming from the school’s dean or, in the case of a medical school clinician, the chief executive of the University of Pittsburgh Physicians (UPP), the professional practice organization through which medical school clinicians practice.

The UPP is a UPMC Health System subsidiary. A division chief and/or department chair in the medical school ordinarily holds an equivalent supervisory position with respect to UPMC clinical services. These dual roles as supervisors can create confusion as to the capacity in which a supervisor is acting. It is possible that some level of conflict is inevitable due to organizational structure.

The UPP has a grievance policy, as does the University. Which one, if either, applies in a particular situation would depend on the facts.

In addition to structural difficulties, there is a behavior problem. Faculty assert that some mid-level academic administrators treat faculty members disrespectfully and act in an arbitrary and harassing manner. Such conduct is the antithesis of leadership. These administrators lack the personnel skills necessary for effective performance.

More important has been the apparent failure of the higher level administrator, such as the department chair or dean, to give serious attention to the complaints that might call for some intervention if it appears that abusive, arbitrary or unfair actions have taken place. Could the failure be due in part to the higher level administrator’s belief that one must stand behind the subordinate administrator 100 percent, in order to retain the loyalty of that administrator and other subordinate administrators?

All employees are expected to work to carry out the organization’s mission. A senior supervisor, and the organization, can benefit by knowing whether a subordinate is performing in an appropriate fashion, and not abusing the assigned authority. Some objective assessment of a complaint is necessary. Action to ameliorate a problem may not require anything drastic, such as removal. The problem may only call for cautioning the individual to give more thought to the impact of contemplated actions in order to avoid conduct or decision-making that would be abusive or unreasonable. If the senior supervisor doubts the subordinate supervisor can improve, then the individual should be replaced, for the sake of the organization.

It is not clear that the grievance policies of the University and the UPP work in a way that indicates they yield just results. I understand the UPP’s grievance policy has never even been invoked. That, in itself, may indicate that School of Medicine faculty clinicians do not believe they could obtain “a fair shake” in the grievance process. Also, neither grievance policy appears to deal with the misuse of the evaluation process by immediate supervisors to retaliate for real or imagined slights.

Perhaps it is time to reevaluate these grievance policies to learn whether they provide sufficient opportunity for aggrieved faculty members. Law does not require that an employer maintain a grievance policy. The presence of such a policy, properly employed, can help to create a better work environment, which benefits both the employer and employees. The University and the UPP have an interest in knowing whether their policies and procedures offer a true opportunity for one to state his/her case before an objective person or panel. Nationally, litigation by whistleblowers and employees asserting claims for retaliatory discharge are on the rise. This alone would justify directing attention to reducing conduct that gives rise to grievances.

Nathan Hershey is past president of the University Senate.

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