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May 30, 2013

University Senate Matters:

From the student affairs committee perspective

The National Research Council’s report on “Research Universities and the Future of America” makes specific recommendations with regard to the reform of graduate education, as well as securing the full benefits of education for all Americans. These recommendations are particularly germane to the work of the University Senate’s student affairs committee. During the 2012-13 academic year, the committee has focused on the special needs of students who are veterans, the associated issues of disability and of faculty awareness of disabilities, and the needs for guidelines for faculty sponsors and advisers of undergraduate organizations.

• The student affairs committee recognizes that veterans, particularly those from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, face unique challenges, and we can see many benefits from improving the academic experience of veterans, not the least of which is increased retention. Many veteran students are young but possess a substantially more worldly perspective than their non-veteran peers. In addition, some veterans face disabilities as a consequence of battle injuries that require particular attention within academic and personal settings. The committee has sought to identify ways to help veterans fit in well in these settings and succeed academically. Committee member Jay Sukits, a faculty sponsor of Pitt’s Student Veteran Association, has noted that the establishment of a veterans transition course and a veterans resource center could assist veterans in moving from military to academic arenas. Ryan Ahl, director of Pitt’s Office of Veterans Services, provided input to the committee on these issues, and clarified what resources already are available to Pitt veterans. Ahl is a critical resource to students, faculty and staff, having served two tours of duty in Iraq as a member of the infantry, rising to the rank of staff sergeant before he was commissioned a second lieutenant.

The student affairs committee is considering specific recommendations to improve the academic experience of veterans at the University.

• The committee also has addressed the needs of students with disabilities.  Although the committee recognizes that many faculty are sensitive to these needs and understand their associated responsibilities, other faculty do not understand the academic challenges that disabilities can bring or know about the resources available to help faculty and students.

To that end, we are developing video resources to assist faculty in understanding disability and the ways they, and the University in general, can help students with disabilities succeed. With the help of Kathy Humphrey, vice provost and dean of students (and the chancellor’s liaison to the committee), and Lynnett Van Slyke, director of the Office of Disability Resource Services, the committee has identified specific video vignettes that can educate faculty about their responsibilities and the associated resources.  These videos are in production, and the committee is developing ways to engage faculty in using these resources.

The committee’s focus on students with disabilities has led us to realize that this is a complex area of importance to the University, and we suggest that a University Senate plenary session on the topic is warranted.

• The student affairs committee also has addressed the need for guidelines to assist faculty sponsors and advisers of undergraduate organizations.  All formally recognized student organizations require faculty sponsors, yet beyond the mere act of agreeing in writing to become a sponsor, many sponsors do not know their exact responsibilities, or sometimes whether an organization they have sponsored still exists.

Committee member Gordon Louderback, president of the Student Government Board, has pointed out that the Student Organization Resource Center (SORC) requires all Pitt certified student organizations to have financial accounts managed through SORC, thereby freeing faculty from most obligations in this area.  He has also noted that the obligations for student organizations fall on the students themselves, and that this is part of the development of student organizational and leadership skills. The committee agrees with this perspective, but we have identified several changes that can help faculty in their roles. Student organizations require recertification each year, and one suggestion is to make sure faculty sponsors are notified upon recertification. In addition, Dean Humphrey has noted that University oversight is important for organizations that interact with minors who are not University students. The committee will continue to investigate recommendations to assist faculty in their roles as organization sponsors.

Anthony Bledsoe, a faculty member in biological sciences, is chair of the Senate’s student affairs committee.

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