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November 7, 2013

Questions remain about actions concerning 3 grad programs

What constitutes financial exigency? Whose role is it to oversee whether a school follows its own bylaws in decision-making? And was there a conflict of interest on the part of the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences decision-makers?

University Senate budget policies committee (BPC) chair John J. Baker in an Oct. 29 report to Faculty Assembly detailed the rationale underlying BPC’s findings in its report on the suspension/termination of graduate programs in classics, German and religious studies.

While BPC’s report found acceptable the processes behind the proposals, some faculty members remained troubled.

The chairs of the German and religious studies departments were among faculty who continued to voice concerns about how the Dietrich school developed its proposals on the graduate programs’ future and the implications for shared governance.


Dietrich school Dean N. John Cooper announced on April 5, 2012, indefinite suspensions to the graduate programs in classics, German and religious studies; on June 4, 2013, he submitted proposals to Provost Patricia E. Beeson to terminate the graduate program in religious studies and suspend indefinitely graduate programs in classics and German.

A review last month by the University Council on Graduate Study (UCGS), which makes recommendations on graduate programs to the provost, revealed sharp division among council members. (See Oct. 24 University Times.)

In a 15-12 vote with one abstention, UCGS endorsed the proposal to suspend admissions to the M.A. and Ph.D. programs in classics. In separate 14-13 votes with one abstention, UCGS opposed the proposals to suspend admissions to the M.A. and Ph.D. programs in German and to terminate the M.A. and Ph.D. programs in religious studies at the end of the 2022 academic year.

Ken Service, vice chancellor for University communications, told the University Times this week that Beeson has yet to decide the fate of the three departments’ graduate programs and that no immediate decision is expected.


In his report to Faculty Assembly, Baker emphasized that BPC looked only at the process and procedural requirements under Pitt’s planning and budgeting system (PBS) and the 1995 guidelines for the review of academic planning proposals, not the merit of the Dietrich school proposals.

BPC’s full report, which was approved by the committee in a 7-2 vote Oct. 18, is posted on the documents page at

BPC’s underlying rationales

Baker elaborated on the reasoning behind three controversial conclusions in the BPC report:

The proposals did not violate Pitt’s academic planning proposal review guidelines.

BPC concluded that Dietrich school deans, in their April 5, 2012, suspension of admissions to the graduate programs, did not violate the guidelines “because a temporary suspension of admissions is not the same as termination or substantial modification of a program.”

Baker explained BPC was not unanimous on this point, but the majority felt the action did not qualify as a substantial modification or fundamental change in an academic program.

“The only thing that has changed is students are not being admitted,” which, BPC reasoned, also would be true if the program had no applicants in a given year or if no applicants met the program requirements, he said.

In addition, Baker said, UCGS states that it reviews anything that has a direct impact on a degree-granting program.

“Obviously suspension of admissions impacts a program”; however, PBS documents do not use the term “direct impact,” he said.

• The lack of prior consultation with the chairs of the affected departments violated the spirit of the PBS.

“This decision to suspend these graduate programs was made by the deans of the Dietrich school. It’s very clear,” Baker said. “It was made by the deans without consultation with the chairs of the affected departments and without discussion or approval of the suspension of these three specific programs by the Dietrich school shared governance bodies.”

BPC’s conclusion on this point “may well disappoint some people who wanted to see a stronger statement here about shared governance,” Baker said.

The problem is that there are two sides to the issue and merit on both sides of the argument. “You really can’t let your feelings about the merit issue influence the procedural part,” Baker said.

“Normally this would be a faculty decision,” he said, noting that school governance gives faculty responsibility for curriculum while deans are responsible for budgets and day-to-day operations. “But in the case of financial exigency, the deans can make curriculum decisions,” Baker said. The deans cited Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed 30 percent cut in state funding for Pitt as the reason why they found it necessary to act. At the same time, as part of a five-year plan, the Dietrich school had been considering reallocating funding from smaller departments to others “that were ranked in the U.S. News and had a chance of possibly moving to the top quartile,” Baker said.

Although the governor’s proposed cuts failed to materialize, the validity of the decision under the circumstances remained, Baker said.

He reiterated that BPC found that even if the April 5, 2012, decision violated PBS, the deans subsequently complied with PBS requirements.

• The Dietrich school processes met bylaws and PBS guidelines.

BPC concluded that the school fulfilled its school bylaws requirements. “The proposals went through their committees… graduate council, school council and the planning and budgeting committee,” Baker said.

What is controversial relates to the Dietrich school’s use of Robert’s Rules of Order as its parliamentary guide, he said. Under Robert’s Rules, when a committee is to make “substantive recommendations or decisions on an important matter, it should give members of the society an opportunity to appear before it and present their views on the subject at a time scheduled by the committee,” Baker cited. “None of the three arts and sciences governance bodies did that,” he said. “However, they didn’t have to,” he continued, emphasizing the word “should.”

“To get back to procedures: They met the procedural requirements,” BPC concluded. “We might feel differently about it in terms of whether that was a meritorious way to do it,” Baker said.

The three department chairs were permitted to present their comments at a Sept. 17 UCGS meeting, therefore BPC felt the review met acceptable shared governance standards.


Following Baker’s presentation, German department chair John Lyon and classics chair Mark Possanza commended BPC for its investigation but each took issue with some aspects of the report.

School bylaws issues

Lyon said that under Dietrich school bylaws, formal actions take effect 30 days after appearing in the school gazette, which is the official record of the school and its councils’ activity. The actions took effect April 5, 2012, but were not published in the gazette until Oct. 8, 2013, Lyon said.

Baker responded that BPC was reviewing PBS guidelines, not Dietrich school bylaws in its report, and did not consider the gazette requirement.

Senate President Michael Spring reiterated that BPC is charged with monitoring the University Planning and Budgeting System and school planning and budgeting systems, but not necessarily the bylaws of the individual schools.

“Whose job is it to oversee if a school doesn’t follow its own bylaws?” Lyon asked.

Senate officers remained unclear on the issue. While the Senate has no governance committee to review such questions, Vice President Irene Frieze said the issue could be a matter for the tenure and academic freedom committee.

Both Spring and Senate past-president Thomas C. Smitherman noted that under Senate bylaws, the body serves to address matters of University-wide concern, while issues within a particular school are not within the Senate’s scope. “There’s a big gray zone in between,” Smitherman acknowledged.

Under shared governance, Spring said, “Our first course of action is to work with administrators to make sure things are straightened out. It may be that it’s the responsibility of the provost to enforce that. So we try to keep a distinction between our advice, our consent, our agreement, our disagreement and the execution of policies.”

Lyon said, “I’m just trying to get these issues out there to make sure these matters are addressed.”

While BPC’s report did not focus on internal school policies, Spring assured Lyon his concerns would be raised with the University administration.

“As part of these minutes and as a part of our regular meetings with the senior administration, this concern will be raised. I can assure you of that,” Spring said. He told the University Times that the next such meeting was set for Nov. 6, after the University Times press time.

Baker cited the 1995 academic planning proposal guidelines which state: “All planning proposals must be reviewed by the appropriate academic unit(s) and academic responsibility center(s) as well as by the responsibility center planning and budgeting committee (PBC) and relevant departmental PBC.”

“There’s definitely a problem here,” Baker said, telling Lyon, “I think it’s something that has to be addressed within arts and sciences and then if for some reason there is no satisfaction, bring it to the Senate and to the provost.”

Financial considerations

Lyon also asked whether BPC investigated the Dietrich school administration’s claim of financial exigency. Even in the face of 30 percent cuts in state support, Lyon said, the dollars associated with the proposals represented only a fraction of a percent of the Dietrich school’s budget.

Baker said he didn’t believe BPC could be the judge of that issue, but directed Lyon to the American Association of University Professors (, which defines financial exigency as “an imminent financial crisis that threatens the survival of the institution as a whole and that cannot be alleviated by less drastic means.”

“I’d say what happened here doesn’t fit that definition,” Baker said.

Nicholas Bircher, chair of the Senate’s bylaws and procedures committee, inquired whether a claim of financial exigency must be established through documentation, such as an accounting report, “or is it, as appears to be the case in this particular instance, that some vague fear can be declared exigency?”

Terminology concerns

Lyon also questioned the use of the word “temporary” in BPC’s description of the suspensions, fearing that “somebody’s trying to do an end run around the budgeting process by changing the terminology.” He pointed out that the department chairs received letters that stated the suspensions were “immediate and for the foreseeable future,” rather than temporary and that prior to that memo they had received documents that discussed “not suspensions, but closures.”

Classics department chair Possanza disagreed with BPC’s conclusion that suspension of admissions did not constitute a “substantial modification or fundamental change” to those programs.

“Suspension, as already has been mentioned, is the mechanism for implementing the reallocation of funds by removing TA/TF slots from one department and giving them to another,” Possanza said.

“Although we’re still discussing this issue, of course, at least in the case of classics the reallocation has already been implemented,” he said, adding that the department’s allocation of four TA/TF slots has been reduced to one.

“I believe this constitutes a substantial modification or change in our academic program.”

Possanza said that the April 5, 2012, announcement “came very late in the graduate student admissions cycle,” adding that his department at that point already had students who had accepted offers to come to Pitt.

“We then had to inform them, rather embarrassingly, that our program was now in suspension. As a result… we lost an applicant who already had been awarded a University fellowship,” Possanza said.

Conflict of interest among the deans?

Possanza raised the issue of a possible conflict of interest among the Dietrich school decision-makers behind the proposal to suspend graduate admission to the three departments.

He congratulated BPC “for publicly stating for the first time” that the Dietrich school deans were behind the decision announced in the April 5, 2012, memo, noting that the memo itself did not identify the decision-makers.

“Conflict of interest as a factor in forming a judgment about a controversial matter creates only more controversy,” Possanza said. The Dietrich school deans “were also an influential presence on the Dietrich school councils or committees that supported suspension in the case of classics and German and the termination of religious studies. They are the Dietrich school graduate council, the Dietrich school council and the Dietrich school planning and budgeting committee,”  he argued.

“The review of the proposals for suspension/termination by governing bodies whose membership includes the very persons who are influential supporters of the proposals under review, in my view, is not the best procedure for obtaining a fair verdict,” he said.

“Persons in positions of power and with a vested interest in the approval of the proposals are not impartial judges of the fates of these three graduate programs,” Possanza said, pointing out that he was not surprised that UCGS — whose membership extends beyond the Dietrich school to include representatives from across the University — “reversed the trend of approval” by voting against the indefinite suspension of graduate programs in German and termination of the religious studies graduate program.

“Clearly, members of the UCGS saw unresolved issues and unanswered questions in moving forward with suspension/termination that escaped the notice of the members of the Dietrich school’s councils and committees,” he told Faculty Assembly.

The issue of merit

Smitherman noted, “We do have the issue of merit. We do have the recent council’s vote. And the provost has not yet made a final decision,” directing faculty who want to join in the discussion of merit to a petition being circulated by English faculty member Marianne Novy. (See Letters, Oct. 24 University Times.)

Baker added, “I think the issue needs to be decided on its merits. (Novy’s) petition does an excellent job of discussing some of the issues of merit.”

Lyon likewise encouraged faculty members to consider the arguments Novy outlined in her letter.

A difficult decision

Spring reiterated that he would bring faculty concerns to the University administration, adding that he likewise was confident that Carey Balaban, vice provost for faculty affairs, who was in attendance, would convey the content of the Faculty Assembly discussion to the provost.

Spring said his heart went out to Provost Beeson when he learned of the sharply divided UCGS vote, “because it doesn’t help her at all when it comes to a final decision.”

He expressed confidence, however, in Beeson’s careful and serious consideration of the matter. “The provost has a very difficult set of decisions to make. She is more than sensitive to the issues. But she’s the decision-maker. … The situation is not easy. I don’t know that there is anything that we could say … that would cause her to take it more seriously than she’s going to,” he said.

Assembly member Cindy Tananis of the School of Education pointed out that although she has “no skin in the matter” as a faculty member outside of the Dietrich school, she remains saddened by the situation.

“I’m left with a sense of deep concern as a member of the University community. To me this has been a series of sad and unfortunate events that while perhaps technically correct seem deeply flawed in intention, both in terms of programs and people affected and in the spirit of a fully engaged faculty government,” Tananis said.

While it may be important to parse out details of procedure and order, doing so does not “represent the spirit of community that creates a university, and that’s where my concern lies,” she said.

“When dust clears over this issue and Provost Beeson eventually makes a decision and we all learn to live with it, I hope we don’t lose sight of the spirit of engagement that has been impacted here.

“To me there is a serious issue about intent and form and style that needs to be communicated and it tends to get lost when we get into these very detailed discussions of procedure and rules and the order of what came first, second and 20th,” she said.

“I just find this very sad. And I hope the provost sees it in that way as well.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 46 Issue 6

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