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January 10, 2002


Last month the University Senate executive committee met with William Dietrich, chairperson of Pitt's Board of Trustees. The meeting lasted approximately one hour and, using diplomatic jargon, there was a "frank exchange of views." Quite reassuring was the fact there was considerable agreement between the Senate officers and Mr. Dietrich on a number of subjects. On a few subjects we agreed in principle but probably would not be in agreement on the application of a principle to some specific situations. The differences in perspectives of faculty and board should not be overlooked.

One subject on which there was clear agreement was discarding the former practice of awarding bonuses to the chancellor and other key University administrators. Many faculty opposed the practice and it attracted attention, not always favorable, in the media. Mr. Dietrich had not been a supporter of awarding bonuses and was pleased by elimination of that practice, which was given attention recently when the board's compensation committee awarded pay increases but no bonuses to the chancellor and others last month.

The compensation increases, particularly the chancellor's, led me to give the subject more thought than usual because, at the same time, there were several pieces in the media concerning compensation of university football and basketball coaches. For example, Nick Saban, coach of the Louisiana State University football team, receives a salary of $1.4 million per year. Other coaches receive even higher yearly compensation. Although I don't worry that Chancellor Mark Nordenberg will be unable to feed and clothe his family properly, I think it is interesting to note that Mr. Saban, on his $1.4 million, probably pays about as much in federal income tax as the chancellor receives in total University compensation. Perhaps this compensation differential says something about the societal views of the value of leadership of a major university sport program when compared with leadership of a prominent educational institution.

The largest, single element in accounting for success of a football or basketball team seems to be the recruiting of talented athletes. Recruiting entails dealing with the athletes and their family members, to convince the prospects that the university, or the program, is right for them.

Chancellor Nordenberg engages in some activities that resemble those of coaches in recruiting. He works at convincing state legislators and prospective donors that the University deserves their financial support.

The success of a big-time athletic program coach is measured simply in wins and losses. The coach's success depends on the performance of young people aged 18-22, who often are difficult to manage or to lead. The success of a university chief executive does not necessarily lend itself to as simple a measurement process and we are all most probably better off because of that fact. Of course, to a considerable extent a university chief executive's success depends on the performance of others, some of whom are sometimes difficult to manage or to lead.

In the final piece I wrote for "University Senate Matters" while Senate president, I said there were "some bullies and petty tyrants in positions of authority," and that there apparently was reluctance on the part of some in higher positions, when poor conduct by such persons came to their attention, to take appropriate action. In that piece I pointed out that faculty without tenure are particularly vulnerable to abusive superiors.

In early December a former female medical school faculty member won a verdict of more than a half million dollars, based on her claim that she was intentionally discriminated against on the basis of gender. Technically, she was not discharged; her faculty appointment was allowed to expire without reappointment, but the verdict treated her as having been discharged. Of the total award, $300,000 was for "humiliation" and "injury to professional standing and reputation." She also has sought reinstatement but no court decision on that matter has been rendered.

I reviewed the case at the federal courthouse. I did not read the entire file, but skimmed some of the documents in it. Since I did not hear the testimony and did not review documents presented to the jury, I won't offer an opinion on whether the verdict was correct. The litigation indicated the complexity of the situation when the medical school department chairperson is also the UPMC Health System's supervisor of the faculty member. It was not clear whether the physician's alleged failings leading to the negative evaluation by the department chairperson and her contract not being renewed were related mainly to matters relevant to the services she rendered rather than to traditional academic concerns, but that appeared to be the case. It seems clear that one way to terminate a non-tenured medical school faculty member's clinical practice at UPMC is to allow the individual's faculty appointment to expire.

This litigation raises the question of whether there is any effective redress available to a faculty member who is the subject of oppressive conduct, other than going to court to seek to prove a violation of federal or state law after being "forced out." One would hope that there is an internal process that would provide adequate protection to faculty members to bring about what might be termed a just solution, and thus avoid the need for faculty members to resort to litigation. My experience as Senate president leads me to believe that intervention by senior administrators to remedy injustices by their subordinates can minimize legal fees and awards.

In Deuteronomy 16, verse 18, judges and officers are enjoined to "judge the people with righteous judgment." An administrator should not feel obliged to support reflexively the personnel decision of a subordinate if the faculty member involved solicits the administrator's intervention. Rather, as a leader, the more senior administrator should responsibly assert the authority of office by reviewing the situation and taking action if warranted, so that justice will follow. Such intervention may serve to curb poor conduct by the subordinate in future situations.

I don't know what impression an article, such as the one in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about this litigation, makes on the public. Perhaps more attention when a problem is developing will obviate the need for litigation later.

Nathan Hershey, former University Senate president, is a professor of health law in the Graduate School of Public Health.

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