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January 23, 2014

Faculty Assembly members debate open/closed committee meetings

The University Senate bylaws and procedures committee will develop guidelines to aid committee chairs in deciding what committee business should be conducted in executive session.

Senate bylaws state: “All meetings are normally open to members of the University community, although standing committees may meet in executive session when necessary and appropriate for dealing with confidential matters.”

In practice, however, most of the Senate standing committees carry out their regular business in closed session, at times bowing to administrative liaisons’ preference for closed meetings so as not to jeopardize frank discussion or the committee’s access to information.

Senate President Michael Spring launched discussion on the implications of holding meetings in executive session at Faculty Assembly’s Jan. 21 meeting, having introduced the complicated issue at the assembly’s Oct. 1 meeting (see Oct. 10 University Times) and in a memo to Senate committee chairs.

“When I ran for president last year, my goal was to suggest that an important job for this assembly and for Senate Council was to do as good a job as possible in communicating with all our colleagues what’s going on in this process of shared governance,” he said.

“One of the things I’ve discovered is that some of what we do is put under a bushel, for good or bad reasons; other things we do are very public.”

He said, “While privacy is needed in cases in which the discussion could hurt somebody or result in misinterpretation, other times we need to do a better job of communicating how faculty can be engaged, and what’s going on in these deliberative bodies, to try and make things better.”

Citing University history surrounding the establishment of the Senate, Spring said, “Clearly there was a desire in 1940 on the part of the trustees to make sure that the faculty could speak to the trustees about matters of shared governance, educational and other issues of concern to the institution. That doesn’t mean we always have to be open and public,” he said.

“One of the things I’d like to believe that I’ve been firm on this year as president is the fact that the faculty have to have an opportunity to comment and provide input in a meaningful way. Otherwise it’s not shared governance. And the contrapositive has been said to me: The administration has to have the right to speak to faculty confidentially about what decisions are being made and why. … But it has to be left with the right to make those decisions.”

Nicholas Bircher, a Senate past president and member of the bylaws committee, proposed putting “a general set of guidelines into the administrative handbook for the University Senate. That is a little weaker guidance than the bylaws themselves. It would be very, very difficult to build into the bylaws a comprehensive list of all circumstances that are classified sensitive, or open. But some broad guidelines for the chairs are probably better than no guidance whatsoever. And we should stress to the chairs that open is the default.”

The meaning of open session as defined in the bylaws is clear. “It means anybody can come to that committee meeting,” Bircher said. Executive sessions are limited to committee members (including pro-tem members) and administrative liaisons.

“If The New York Times for some bizarre reason wanted to join us, I would not automatically oppose that. However, there are certainly circumstances in which there’s a strong tradition where closed session is maintained for a particular purpose,” Bircher said.

Although Senate bylaws state that meetings, by default, are open, there currently are no written guidelines for deciding which  matters are confidential, leaving committees free to determine when to move into an executive session.

Nor is there any requirement that a committee vote on whether to move into executive session, Bircher said. Ultimately the decision rests with the committee chair. “I suspect there might be a parliamentary procedure by which you could protest, but your chances of prevailing would, of course, depend on the matter under concern,” Bircher added.

Spring pointed out that the bylaws do require committees to report any decisions made in an executive session. However, if no decisions are made, no report is needed.

Bircher said depending on the degree of confidentiality required, a decision could be reported as part of the committee’s meeting minutes or, for “something extraordinarily controversial or if it involved a privacy issue for a particular individual,” the committee might report the decision separately to the Senate office.

Senate Secretary Linda Frank, a longtime TAFC member, acknowledged that much of that committee’s discussion is confidential in nature, but in her experience with other committees, “I don’t recall that going into executive session happens very often.”

Executive sessions aren’t uncommon, Spring said. “There are certain committees that disinvite the University Times as a general rule because they’re going to meet in closed session.”

For instance, the plant utilization and planning (PUP) committee, which often deals with confidential reports from the administration, currently keeps its meetings closed to the press. The tenure and academic freedom committee (TAFC), which must maintain confidentiality in matters involving individual faculty members, likewise keeps meetings closed.

“Concern about an individual is one case. The other case is concern on the part of the administration, positively, for soliciting faculty input on matters they’re not yet prepared to have exposed to the broader community,” Spring said.

He noted that the benefits and welfare committee recently decided to hold its meetings in open session, with portions in executive session when needed, in a fashion similar to what has been the tradition in budget policies committee (BPC) meetings, which the University Times regularly covers.

Senate Vice President Irene Frieze, who chairs the Senate’s ad hoc committee on issues related to non-tenure stream faculty and who serves as the Senate liaison to PUP, the computer usage committee, the educational policies committee and the equity, inclusion and anti-discrimination advocacy committee, said the matter of open meetings had been discussed in several committees, prompted by the University Times’ requests to cover committee proceedings.

“Every committee that I can think of decided that they did not want to open the meetings as a general principle. I think it’s often done in that kind of way, as a general thing, saying ‘If we decide to open it, we’ll invite the press, but otherwise the meeting is going to be closed.’”

Marianne Novy said, “I think in many cases the faculty members don’t even know when the meetings are or what they’re about. It’s not that easy to find out. I feel like that’s a bad policy. I think there ought to be a little more information even if it did lead to a little more discomfort about whether a meeting should be open or closed.”

TAFC co-chair Maria Kovacs said, “Whereas it’s evident that individuals need a guarantee of confidentiality when they bring their personal private issues to a committee such as TAFC, it’s a different matter in other meetings in which the decisions being made affect the entire University community and the wider community” — on budget or planning, for instance.

“How can I as a faculty member be a participant in shared governance if there are no clear-cut rules as to how the chairs of these other committees decide whether to let me in or not let me in?”

Kovacs asked, “How can we say we are participants in shared governance if there are 15 committees where the chairperson decides no you can’t come in ‘because it’s a sensitive issue.’ … What does that mean? It might be sensitive to the chair, but not sensitive to me. Or it might be very pertinent to a program that I’m involved in, or an issue of academic freedom or an issue of education.”

Frank said she agreed that it is important to have the opportunity for input, but attending a committee meeting isn’t the only way to do that. “I can go and talk to the chair of that committee privately and have a conversation (about) what the issue is.”

Jane Cauley countered that having such a conversation provides no guarantee that a committee chair would carry the comments back to the committee. “He may decide ‘I don’t agree with you and I’m just not going to tell the committee that.’” With the exception of such cases as TAFC’s need for confidentiality, she said closed sessions “should be the exception.”

Frank said that trying to develop across-the-board guidelines “to cut across all committees for how they make decisions about ‘open’ and ‘closed’ would be very difficult. I’d like to see things handled more on a case-by-case basis.”

John Lyon suggested each committee have its own transparent guidelines about what is or isn’t considered confidential. “Clearly, the tenure and academic freedom committee is going to have a different need for confidentiality than the (admissions and student aid) committee. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. And it still gives the chair the discretion to determine whether or not (to close the meeting), but I think it gives a sense of transparency and openness,” he said.

“We understand that there are times when the committee needs to go into closed session… but there’s also an understanding that they’re going to follow certain rules in doing so.”

Sam Poloyac commented, “I don’t think ‘closed’ means a lack of transparency. I think what we’re arguing about is how can we have closed sessions, which maintain some confidentiality, but at the same time have a level of openness?”

He suggested developing “a rationale about why it is closed and maybe a procedure that associates with that rationale, then a guideline or a guidance … on the report-out: Not just a report-out when a decision is made, but guidance or requirements for report-out. That way you can still maintain transparency and still maintain confidentiality.”


Following the nearly hour-long discussion, Spring acknowledged that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. “What’s very clear is that the real work of the Senate is done, I think, by the standing committees. And you cannot dictate to the standing committees,” he said.

“We have now…raised the issue of how the meetings of the Senate get held — to higher visibility than they have been in maybe a decade — just by talking about it.

“I don’t know that we have to come to a conclusion. I think it can be a collegial decision. I think that, as (Bircher) has said, we will put something in the handbook about the reasons why and when and wherefore.”

Spring added, “I was a little bit concerned when we got started that maybe nobody had anything to say about it. I’m pleased now that I’ve heard your comments that we have a lot to say about it.

“I agree that holding a closed meeting doesn’t mean we’re not being open about shared governance. I’m very sensitive to that issue. Shared governance doesn’t mean that it gets into the University Times. Shared governance says that the administration works with the faculty on issues of mutual concern to make sure we’re all in agreement as to where the University’s going.”

Acknowledging the Senate’s history of collegial relations with the University administration under Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg, Spring said, “I see no reason why at this institution that won’t continue.

“At the same time, we’re coming up to a time of year when people say ‘I got this letter about running for Faculty Assembly. What’s the Faculty Assembly? What does it do? How does it live? Does it have any role in the University?’ I’d like to be able to communicate that to more of our colleagues. I think we’ve done some of that this year,” he said.

“This is not an issue that needs to be resolved but it’s an issue I think is important for you all to express your opinion about,” he said. “It’s a complicated, difficult puzzle, but we’ve already raised it to visibility.”

In other business, Spring, in his president’s report said:

• A TAFC “best practices” manual is being developed. Senate past-president Thomas C. Smitherman is leading the initiative, aided by Senate Secretary Linda Frank, past chairs of TAFC, and representatives of the Office of the Provost.

Spring noted that much of the committee’s work is based on history and precedent. The manual would help TAFC follow carefully the proper procedures in order to help faculty members who seek its assistance, he said.

• Plans are moving forward for the Senate plenary session, tentatively titled “The Research University in the Age of Digital Information.”

While the format has yet to be set, the March 19 event will focus on “some of the ways that faculty are teaching and conducting research differently these days than they had in the past,” Spring said, adding, “I hope this exposition will inform the processes of supporting new approaches to instruction, research and other aspects of the University operation.”

In other business:

• The Senate athletics committee has recommended declining an invitation to join the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics and a proposal to create a senate athletics representative.

COIA is an alliance of faculty senates and councils at schools in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division 1A) that addresses problems in college sports.

Athletics committee co-chair Jay Irrgang said the committee felt it would not benefit the University to become a member or to support the proposal, citing a lack of formal governance structure in COIA and the consensus that current University policies and procedures relating to student-athletes are sufficient.

The Senate has declined prior invitations to join COIA for multiple reasons, including the Senate’s view that the University’s standards exceed those called for by COIA. (See March 16, 2006, University Times.)

In response to representatives’ requests for additional information, Irrgang offered to make a presentation on the issues before a vote is called for at the assembly’s next meeting.

• In response to a faculty member’s inquiry about why faculty in the Schools of the Health Sciences are excluded from a University Library System program that funds some open-access publication fees, Spring reported that the Senate executive committee and University administrators recently discussed the issue.

“It’s important to note that different units allocate the funds available to them based on what they see are the most important priorities to support research,” Spring said. “One of the differences in how research is supported varies between the provost area schools and the health sciences schools.” The two areas arrived at different policies regarding such funding, and “both units felt that good decisions were made in both cases,” he said.

• Spring said the Senate’s library and computer usage committees will look into whether a  “persistent” address can be created to ensure email continues to be forwarded to faculty who are no longer at Pitt. The question was raised by a faculty member who was concerned over how to communicate with corresponding authors of journal articles who have retired or left the University.

• Spring reminded members that the provost is sponsoring an assessment conference for faculty Jan. 31 at the University Club. Nobel Laureate Carl E. Wieman will be the keynote speaker.

—Kimberly K. Barlow