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July 12, 2001


University Senate Matters, Nathan Hershey

(Editor's note: Publication of this column was delayed for one issue to give the University administration an opportunity for simultaneous response, as indicated in the University Times policy. The administration declined the opportunity to respond, so the column is being published alone.)

This is my final piece in "University Senate Matters." My term as University Senate president concluded at the end of June. I am taking this opportunity to express my thoughts on a variety of subjects.

An important goal during my tenure was to improve the board-faculty relationship — to increase the respect of each for the other. One step I took was establishing, with great cooperation from the faculty, the Take a Board Member to Class program, which provided an opportunity for one-to-one contacts between faculty members and board members. I also wrote notes of appreciation to board members who attended academic functions, such as the honors convocation and commencement. My purpose was to encourage board members to participate in the life of the academic community, because I am concerned that many board members see the University from a business perspective — focusing on revenue and expenses and on the balance sheet — with insufficient recognition of, and exposure to, the University as an institution of higher learning.

I have also sought to increase the sense of involvement of faculty by bringing into existence a role for faculty in evaluation of department chairpersons. I hold the view that valid criticism can lead a person to improve his/her performance.

Two other matters deserve some attention. The first concerns a role that Senate presidents have played in the past and, I assume, will play in the future, that is not part of any official function. From time-to-time, faculty with complaints about mistreatment by persons of higher rank in the institution, seek guidance and, on occasion, intervention on their behalf from the Senate president, because they believe the institutional structures to deal with grievances are inadequate. I have intervened several times, my office serving as the basis for gaining access to administrators, even once or twice bringing a matter to the attention of the chancellor.

In this day and age, at an institution of higher learning, it may be difficult for some to accept that there are some bullies and petty tyrants in positions of authority. But this is the case at this University. I have noted a reluctance on the part of some senior administrators to adequately investigate alleged abusive and bullying behavior by their subordinates, to view such conduct as serious wrongdoing, and to take appropriate action. Such conduct is the very antithesis of leadership. When fear of retaliation by superiors makes faculty members afraid to express objection to such conduct, something is wrong. Faculty without tenure are particularly vulnerable.

The University has procedures that a faculty member, who believes he/she is being wronged, may use for redress. Unfortunately they are primarily aimed at procedural failings and ordinarily take a very long time to reach a conclusion. While the proceeding is underway the complaining faculty member may not be protected from further insult and/or retaliation. Such a situation can adversely affect the faculty member's performance, to the detriment of the University.

A former faculty member who left the University for another position within the past year, after continuing difficulty with a supervisor, recently wrote the following to a colleague here who was experiencing difficulty with the same supervisor: "I think it is good advice to recognize that if one does not agree with a supervisor in an academic setting, it is best to look for another position. Life is too short to have unpleasantness, and other professional opportunities exist for us all."

Nearly a year ago I urged the creation of an optional expedited review process that lead to a relatively rapid dispute resolution. Use of it would be at the option of the faculty member. I have been pressing the University counsel to prepare a draft of an expedited process so that this proposal can be discussed and, if determined to be sound, implemented.

Second, as I am sure many readers are well aware, I have devoted considerable attention in the past year to the functioning of the UPMC Health Plan. The plan has been a source of frustration for many faculty and staff and I have been contacted for help on various matters, including the plan's claims handling. In view of the relationship between the University and the UPMC Health System, of which the health plan is a for-profit subsidiary, I believe the University representatives — board members and administrators — who serve on the Health System board have a special responsibility to bring pressure on the system to make the plan responsive to the concerns of the University's employees. No one should doubt that, as long as the plan exists and the University remains a key player in the system, University employees will have no alternative to receiving their health benefits except through the plan.

I want to publicly express my appreciation to Fran Czak and Sandra Mathews who, together, accomplished well the multitude of tasks that must be performed to keep the Senate functioning. I also appreciate the assistance of my fellow officers, Carol Redmond and Audrey Murrell, and the acceptance of responsibility to provide assistance on various matters by Faculty Assembly and Senate committee members and other members of the Senate who, although they did not hold office or serve on Senate committees, willingly participated as members of working groups I created during my tenure. The Senate accomplished a good deal in the past several years and there were many contributors to the Senate's success.

I have appreciated the opportunity the University Times has provided to me and to several of my predecessors, allowing us to reach the University community regularly through its pages. I have received comments in various forms about the subjects I have discussed in the University Times, many from individuals with whom I otherwise would probably never have had contact.

I must also mention the excellent service of my secretary, Sharon Dailey, whose duties increased considerably during my years as president. She handled everything well and in her usual cooperative, good-natured way, and made my work easier than it otherwise might have been.

I feel I have been honored by the opportunity to serve as Senate president. I have enjoyed my time as vice president and president of the Senate. During a conversation in May with the chancellor, I said, if I were asked, knowing what I now know, whether I would do it again, the answer would be a resounding, "Yes."

Finally, I extend best wishes to my successor, Jim Cassing. I am certain he will find serving as Senate president a challenge. I hope he will conclude that the efforts necessary to meet the challenge bring sufficient rewards, and thus justify the time and energy devoted to serving as president.

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