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June 23, 2011

Q&A with new SAC president Deborah Walker

walkerNewly elected president of the Staff Association Council Deborah L. Walker has held many positions during her nearly 28 years working at Pitt: security guard, police officer, assistant director of community standards in the Office of Residence Life and director of the RISE mentoring program. Her current job is student conduct officer in the Division of Student Affairs, a post she has held since 2007.

(For a feature on Walker, see Sept. 16 University Times.)

While working here, Walker has earned a BA in administration of justice and legal studies from the College of General Studies and a Master of Public Policy Management from the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.

During her days on the campus police force, Walker helped develop several departmental crime prevention programs; for those and other efforts she received a 2002 Chancellor’s Distinguished Service Award for Staff.

Walker joined SAC in May 2010 and was the driving force behind the creation of SAC’s new standing committee, the staff mentoring program committee, of which she was the inaugural chair.

Walker and the other newly elected officers will be inducted formally in a ceremony on July 13 at 4:30 p.m. in the William Pitt Union lower lounge.

Following her election to a two-year term as president at the June 8 SAC meeting, Walker discussed her concerns on behalf of staff and some of her goals with University Times staff writer Peter Hart.

UNIVERSITY TIMES: What are your top priorities as the new SAC president?

WALKER: One of my top priorities will be pushing career advancement. When I reflect back on my career at Pitt, I took advantage of the educational benefits and the professional development workshops offered by the University. If I had not gone back to school and acquired my master’s degree, I would not hold the position I have now and also would not be earning the salary I earn.

I think that should be a big priority for a lot of our staff because I’m finding out that, as I talk to staff, a lot of them are here because of the educational benefits available for their children instead of for themselves.

Another priority is job classification. We want to be mindful that whenever a person is hired for an Admin I or an Admin II, they’re doing the job that they were hired to do and also have the necessary skills and tools they need to do that job. And if not, then maybe there can be an adjustment. We want to ensure that people are starting in the right job and are ready to do it.

You’re a relative newcomer to SAC, having joined in May 2010. Are you concerned about your transition to the council’s leadership role?

It’s true that with having a new administration — myself and the other three officers — we don’t have a lot of time on SAC, so therefore we are not as familiar with a lot of the history of SAC and the concerns that were within SAC. But I will say I welcome input of any kind. If staff have concerns, I want to hear about them.

Under my leadership, SAC will work to give a voice of shared governance to the University staff. In addition, our work will include scheduling regular meetings with senior administration to address the concerns of staff, increase our membership to become inclusive of the diversity of our University community and establish strategies that will increase career advancement for University staff.

So we’re here to build upon the past successes of SAC, but also to put our own signature and our own leadership on SAC. We’ve started doing that by having an installation ceremony for the newly elected officers. We’ve never had that before.

One of the concerns I have is the fact that a lot of people on campus don’t know what SAC is, exactly who we are and what our function is. I thought by inviting the entire University community to our installation ceremony it would give people an opportunity to know who we are, what we do and what we’re about.

Also, on July 8 we’re going to have a “meet the SAC representatives event.” That’s something new as well. The event will be on the William Pitt Union patio, from noon to 1 p.m. We’ll have some popcorn and other snacks. We’ll have a suggestion box for staff.

There has been a lot of turnover recently in the SAC membership. Your thoughts?

Obviously, if anyone has a concern about SAC — old members, new members — then they should come and talk to us about it. They should come and meet with the president and tell me their concerns. If they have legitimate concerns, then we can work toward resolving those. It doesn’t have to be in writing. It could be informal. But I can’t do anything based on the rumor mill.

One of the things I told the members is that I will make them abreast of everything I can as it relates to SAC, because every member should know exactly what our goals are, what our objectives are. Myself and the new officers will be sitting down in the next month to sketch out what our goals and objectives are for the upcoming year. Every member should know exactly where we’re going, where we’re headed for the next year.

As of now, I haven’t even met with a lot of the committee chairs. My plan is to meet with every committee, to at least attend one or two committee meetings, to get a feel for what they’re working on and what their goals are. Our bylaws require that committees report on their goals. So I need to get a firsthand look at that, because that’s where the real work is done.

What would be your response to a staff member frustrated with the cost of health care going up each year?

Health care costs have been rising across the nation. I think we’re doing pretty well in comparison to others. But if I hear that at the University, I would say to that disgruntled staff member: “Let’s sit down and talk about that. Let’s try to come up with some strategies that we can bring then to the administration to help us with rising health care costs. Maybe to get an incentive of some kind. I don’t know what that incentive would look like, but maybe that would be something to propose to the administration as a balance when they have to raise our health care costs, some kind of alternative. Our executive committee will have to talk to our membership and see what types of strategies or alternatives we can suggest and then discuss those with the administration.

Clearly, the biggest concern for Pitt this term, from the chancellor on down, is a potential severe cut to the University’s commonwealth appropriation. What is your view of SAC’s role as it pertains to that issue?

In response to the governor’s proposed budget cuts, I took the lead with initiating a collective response to ensure that the voice of University staff was heard. Specifically, I coordinated the letter-writing campaign [to state legislators]. I held conference calls with University regional SAC members and was able to use my contacts in Harrisburg to meet with both the governor’s chief of staff and his policy director, taking along members of SAC and two student leaders.

In these uncertain budgetary times, we need to ensure that the interest of University staff is adequately represented.

Do you see SAC playing a role in future lobbying efforts regarding the budget?

Yes I do. My feeling is people become involved when they see success. If they don’t hear too much about an organization, they won’t become involved. But if they see and hear about success, everyone wants to be a part of that.

This year was the very first time that we collaborated with students and we even took two student leaders with us to meet the governor’s chief of staff. And just because of those two events, we’ve had a number of inquiries from staff we’d never heard from before, numerous people who weren’t even aware of SAC contacted us about the letter-writing campaign.

Now that the visibility has been raised I think, at least I hope, that more people will become involved.

SAC has representation on the University Senate standing committees, but sometimes SAC members don’t attend the meetings regularly and don’t report on those committees’ actions. Is that acceptable to you?

It’s up to the SAC executive officers to make sure that if we place a SAC member on a committee that they work on that committee, attend the meetings and report back to the Staff Association Council. That should be the expectation.

When we have vacancies, and we’ve had a couple, I’ll send out an email to our membership to ask anyone who is interested in serving to let me know. Then I’ll interview them and see exactly what their interests are and ask: Are you able and would you be willing to go to the meetings and report back? When we do our committee reports that should be part of it.

You recently represented SAC in Johnstown at the June 9 Council of Campuses at a meeting with regional staff leaders. What did you learn?

After I came back from the Council of Campuses, I talked with our executive board and told them there were some concerns about us working together. And we talked about possibly having conference calls for our meetings, if we can set that up inexpensively with something like

We’ve already started moving in the direction of working together with the letter-writing campaign, because when I had meetings on that we did conference calls with all the regionals. We wanted one voice when we went to Harrisburg, so we shared strategies. I was so proud of the regionals. They had such a large representation [in Harrisburg] of not only staff but also students. Also, we all had the letter-writing campaign on the same day.

The regionals also expressed concern about access to our HR professional development classes on their campuses. Now that I’ve heard that concern, I will call [associate vice chancellor] Ron Frisch to see how our regionals can be more involved.

Recent SAC-sponsored assemblies have featured marketplaces, where staff can see what discounts and other services are available. That’s a contrast with past assemblies that have focused on an issue important to staff. Do you see SAC moving back to the former type of assemblies?

Absolutely. That’s something we should look at every year, because it provides information to our staff. There are a lot of issues that are legitimate concerns to staff that we could focus on, [such as] safety, promotion, the Port Authority — If you travel by bus and you can’t get to work on time, that’s a concern.

We could maybe do a survey and send it out to the University community and ask what as a staff person would you like to see discussed, and then we could sponsor that. It could be health care costs. It could be [continuing] education.

If the stagnant U.S. economy has direct negative effects here, such as little or no salary increases, is that potentially a source of low morale for staff?

We don’t know yet about how it will play out. I think the University administration is doing a good job, a wonderful job, really. It’s too early to tell exactly what will happen to us, so we need to have an attitude of let’s wait and see. I’m very confident that our senior administration is going to do what’s best for the University and that impacts staff as well.

Are you looking forward to your term as SAC president?

Yes, I’m very excited. I told the executive board this will be my slogan to begin with: “We are going to plan our work and then work our plan.” Yes we can, yes we will.

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