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March 30, 2006

Senate presidential candidates on the issues

This year’s election for the University Senate presidency pits incumbent Irene Hanson Frieze, professor of psychology, business administration and women’s studies, against John J. Baker, associate professor, Department of Microbiology-Biochemistry, School of Dental Medicine. v38I15-Senate presidential candidates on the issues

Descriptions of the candidates’ academic and service-oriented experience, as well as their position statements, will accompany the University Senate election ballots, which are expected to be mailed the week of April 3.

(For the complete slate of candidates for Senate officers, Faculty Assembly and Senate standing committees, see related story.)

April 21 is the deadline for returning completed ballots to the Senate office, 1234 Cathedral of Learning.

Last week, University Times staff writer Peter Hart asked Baker and Frieze to reply in writing to the following questions.

What are the most important issues facing the University Senate in the next year? What would you hope to accomplish as Senate president?

BAKER: One of the most crucial issues is the concerted attack on academic freedom by far-right radicals, both nationally and in Pennsylvania. For example, a committee of our House of Representatives has been holding hearings to determine if professors at Pennsylvania universities discriminate against or intimidate students who express conservative views.

Although such threats to academic freedom seem laughable, they must be taken seriously, because they are part of an organized national movement to use legislative and political pressure to intimidate teachers and control classroom content. As Senate president I will work vigorously with Pitt’s administration to defend our academic freedom principles.

Preservation and improvement of job benefits are also key issues. In recent years benefits have been eroding at many companies as employers seek to cut costs, especially pension plans and health care coverage. As Senate president I will do everything in my power to protect Pitt job benefits.

I will try to improve benefits by working for an affordable faculty club, and for faculty access to the Petersen Events Center fitness facilities. I will also seek to improve UPMC health care benefits: e.g., I will closely track the recommendations soon to be reported by the [Nathan] Hershey ad hoc Senate committee on improving health care benefits.

The administration needs to provide more equitable annual cost-of-living increases to employees — a chronic problem that demoralizes many faculty and staff. As Senate president I will work with the Senate budget policies committee and the administration to try to correct this inequity.

FRIEZE: As president of the Senate this year, I have worked to continue the long and rich tradition of shared governance between faculty, staff, students and senior administration. I am pleased to report that we have had a very good working relationship this year with the administration, and have been able to work together in addressing a variety of faculty concerns. Some of these issues included the implementation of the new PeopleSoft data system and the functioning of the IRB (Institutional Review Board). We have also been looking at ways of enhancing faculty health and wellness. As we all know, these topics will continue to be important concerns in the coming year. In addition, I would like to work on assisting the staff in Facilities Management in their efforts to enhance our recycling efforts on campus — to move Pitt in the direction of a truly “green campus” in the years to come.

I also believe that we can enhance our collegiality through the wider use of electronic communication across our University. For example, during my year as Senate president, we have initiated an electronic newsletter about issues of interest to all faculty and we are posting important faculty announcements on the Pitt web site. I look forward to continuing to develop effective methods of communication across campus.

Finally, as a Senate officer the last three years, I have attended many Senate committee meetings and have worked to reactivate less active Senate committees. I believe that we now have a strong and stable Senate committee infrastructure that will serve us well in the years ahead. These committees work directly with the relevant administrators to address issues of concern and solve problems. Some of this work is not publicly known. As president, I have worked to achieve better and open communication between Senate committees and the Senate officers. I routinely ask for input from chairs of Senate committees and have encouraged their activities in many ways. We need to continue to publicize the important work done in Senate committees. Our committees are strong, they are working hard and they are achieving real and measurable results for our faculty.

In addition, one of my major activities as Senate president is to represent the faculty to the University community and the wider public. I have also helped individual faculty to try to resolve problems that have arisen. If re-elected, I hope to continue all these important and challenging efforts.

Is the University’s three-pronged mission of teaching, research and public service in the proper balance?

BAKER: This issue has no simple yes/no answer, because the reply varies from school to school and according to how each dean views the three prongs, as well as whether the context is for annual pay raises or promotion. That said, I regretfully conclude that the answer is too often no.

Many schools overemphasize research dollars obtained while simultaneously under-rewarding teaching and service, especially for promotion purposes. For example, science and engineering faculty are generally not promoted with tenure unless they have obtained at least two substantial grants as principal investigator within a six-year period. Although teaching and research are nominally weighted equally in these promotion decisions, in practice the candidate’s grant dollars and publications carry far more weight than teaching, while service is often hardly considered at all.

Regarding annual evaluations, I have been a notable vocal advocate during the past dozen years for the appropriate weighting of teaching, research and service in annual evaluations, because of egregious abuses occurring in the School of Dental Medicine (SDM) over 12 years ago under a previous dean.

Then in 2000 the SDM’s new dean appointed five faculty, including me, to an ad hoc committee to revise our annual evaluation form. Under this new system, the percentage of effort a dental faculty member spends in teaching, research and service varies with each individual, and can be very high in one prong (it previously was a fixed 40/40/20 distribution). SDM annual pay raises now reflect the actual percent effort a faculty member spends in each of the three mission prongs.

FRIEZE: I personally feel that the balance of teaching, research and service is at an excellent point right now, but this is a topic that needs to be continually addressed and readjusted in the life of a university.

Before Chancellor [Mark] Nordenberg was in place, it was my belief that we had been neglecting our undergraduate education mission. Now, there is much more emphasis on our undergraduates, and I feel that this has had a very positive impact on the University.

Do you feel there is genuine collegiality between faculty and administration? How do you rate the performance of the senior administration in the past year?

BAKER: I believe genuine collegiality does exist between faculty and administration. I have personally had many contacts with senior administrators over the past 12 years, from which I have concluded that they hold genuine respect for faculty opinions. This does not mean they always agree with faculty opinions on a given issue, but at least they are generally willing to listen to and take faculty opinions into consideration before making decisions. If I had serious doubts on this score, I would not be running for Senate president.

I rate the performance of Pitt’s senior administration as very good to excellent over the past several years. This does not mean I agree with all their decisions over that period — but, taken as a whole, they generally make the correct decisions for the majority of faculty most of the time. As Senate president, I will not hesitate to express faculty concerns to Pitt’s administration in a collegial, persuasive manner.

The environmental law clinic controversy a few years ago is a good example to consider. The administration’s initial decision was not the one I would have made. But, in the end, after tenure and academic freedom committee input and Faculty Assembly debate, the administration made the correct decision by letting law school faculty decide the fate of the issue themselves.

Another area where I strenuously disagree with the administration is with regard to the size of the cost-of-living increases given to faculty and staff in annual pay raises over the past few years.

FRIEZE: In many universities, there is less collegiality between the faculty and the administration than we enjoy at Pitt and, indeed, there is a certain natural tension between the two functions that could lead to a lack of collegiality. Although we do not have formal decision-making power, Senate officers, members of Faculty Assembly and members of Senate committees are easily able to communicate our concerns directly to the administrators who make the final decisions about various issues.

Under the leadership of Mark Nordenberg as chancellor, the Senate officers are listened to with respect by Mark and his senior staff. Within the various Senate committees, the relevant administrator is able to discuss issues of concern directly with the committee members and there is great opportunity for faculty input.

As I have participated over many years in various Senate committees, I have seen the degree of influence we do have and the respect with which our concerns are listened to by the administration. Our role is much stronger than many may realize. I strongly believe that we in the Senate have the ability and the responsibility to make a difference in our University and in its shared governance.

I would give Mark and all his staff “A” grades. The University is very well run. Some of the awards and recognition that our chancellor has received reflect the high esteem in which he is held in the community as well as on campus.

There’s been some thought directed — including as the subject of a recent Senate plenary session — as to how Pitt as an institution can incorporate public service scholarship into its recruitment, tenure and promotion processes. What is your opinion?

BAKER: This is something I strongly believe should be done, but again it is not a simple issue. The problem lies in establishing appropriate standards for evaluating the quality of public service work.

By contrast, it is relatively easy and straightforward to evaluate the quality of a faculty member’s research by such standard methods as examining the number and quality of their publications in peer review journals, the citation index for those publications, and the number and financial value of the faculty member’s research grants as principal investigator, which is another very competitive peer review process.

However, there are few if any peer review standards for evaluating public service work. How do you establish that service work is truly of high quality, as opposed to a colleague simply writing a glowing review to get an underperforming friend promoted?

As Senate president I would ask the appropriate Senate committees (e.g., community relations, education, tenure and academic freedom) to explore this issue and make recommendations for Faculty Assembly and the provost to consider.

FRIEZE: Community service by faculty is an important contribution that the University makes to the city and larger region. This can take the form of participation on boards of nonprofit organizations, consulting with such groups, or other direct service activity. Often, these contributions are not what is generally perceived as formal scholarship.

Another form of “public service” can be one’s involvement with national professional organizations as officers, committee chairs or members of committees. Typically, these organizations are directly related to the research and teaching of the faculty member involved. It is widely believed that such activities enhance research and publishing opportunities and the professional visibility of the faculty members involved.

The difficulty in implementing such a strategy lies in the complexity of evaluating such service activities in a fair and consistent manner. Community service is especially difficult to assess since it is often quite distinct from the teaching and research of the faculty member. Guidelines are needed so that some assessment of the quality of the work can be determined. A subcommittee of the Senate community relations committee is working on this problem now. Once we have agreed upon criteria for evaluation, it will be more possible to include this information in the formal faculty evaluation process.

Are faculty and staff at the regional campuses disenfranchised from the Pittsburgh campus? If so, what can be done about it?

BAKER: In my academic capacity I have worked successfully with faculty from regional campuses. Based on my professional experience I would not describe regional faculty as disenfranchised from the Pittsburgh campus. However, I understand that, among other issues, regional campus faculty are very concerned about pay discrepancies compared to Oakland campus faculty. This relates back to the second question, and the fact that teaching is generally undervalued University-wide.

I think low salaries and the undervaluing of teaching are problems for many faculty on the Oakland campus as well, especially in the humanities. The report on faculty salaries clearly shows this every year. The challenge is to solve the problem when state budgets are limited and student tuition rises ever higher each year.

The University of Pittsburgh has a good salary policy. It includes a component for salary compression and abnormally low salaries, so the chancellor has a way to address this problem. Unfortunately, this component of the annual pay raise, like the maintenance of real salary component, is usually underfunded. I realize this is a difficult issue for the chancellor, but the University would be well served if he could find a way to address this problem.

Some individuals like to blame pay raises in faculty and staff salaries as the root cause for the high student tuition increases in recent years. However, this logic is specious, because faculty salaries have been increasing only 3-4 percent a year, whereas tuition has risen 6-12 percent yearly.

FRIEZE: Each of our regional campuses has its own Senate Council. Faculty at the regionals also participate in the activities of Faculty Assembly and Senate Council in Oakland. Many of these faculty serve on Senate committees and on other major University committees.

Perhaps these campuses have felt disenfranchised in the past, but I believe that we have had improvements in recent years in improving our connectivity and interaction with our peers at the regional campuses. I do not see these faculty as disenfranchised.

Many of us on the Oakland campus do not know much about the regional campuses. Realizing this, I invited the presidents of each of the regional campus Senates to come to Oakland last fall to talk with the Senate officers and discuss areas of common concern. They were also invited to address Faculty Assembly and tell us about the issues on each of their campuses. Exchanges like this are planned for next year, too, and these events go a long way toward mitigating the feelings of disenfranchisement, I think.

Pitt’s commonwealth appropriations have declined (in dollars adjusted for inflation) and tuition continues to rise each year. How do you reconcile Pitt’s overall financial health (endowment, capital campaign, federal funding sources) with some of these other concerns?

BAKER: I believe a certain percentage of interest from Pitt’s endowment should be used as a rainy day fund to meet unplanned expenses and unexpected shortfalls and to provide scholarships for gifted students who lack the financial resources to attend the University. However, the endowment principal should not be used except in dire emergencies.

It may seem like a quick fix for money shortfalls to use endowment principal to cover short-term expenses, but if Pitt does that, its endowment will shrink instead of grow. If such raiding were to become common practice, the endowment might eventually fall too low to provide emergency money during times of urgent need.

Federally funded grants balloon the University’s overall budget, but such money is usually restricted for specific purposes and does not add much discretionary revenue to the general fund Pitt uses to support its undergraduate programs and most faculty and staff salaries. Moreover, federal grant money is soft. It does not provide a major solution to Pitt’s funding shortfalls.

Solving the current funding problems is not going to be easy. Pennsylvania has long had one of the poorest records in the nation for supporting higher education, even though our chancellor works very hard every year to try to get the state legislature to increase its appropriation to Pitt. He deserves our help and support on this issue, because significantly increased state funding is probably the best long-term way to solve our funding dilemma, and to keep tuition increases low and faculty quality high.

FRIEZE: With the ever-increasing high endowment, excellence in external research funding and rising numbers of high-quality students applying to study at Pitt, the University is better able to adjust to the continued decline in levels of commonwealth appropriations. None of us is happy with this reality, but we do realize that there are many demands on state funds at this time.

As I read the national statistics, we have actually done better in terms of salaries for faculty and staff than many other state institutions.

We are also comparable in terms of increases in tuition costs. Although our tuition is expensive, I believe that we offer a tremendous value to our students and a quality education for their investment. But we need to help to find ways to stop increasing tuition costs so that our quality education does not price students out of our great University. Our nationally ranked University was built on the shoulders of the cost effective, parochial “streetcar college,” and we want to continue that tradition of a topnotch education for a low expenditure if we can.

Over the past couple years, there has been a trend to close some Senate committee meetings to the press, sometimes at the request of the administration, sometimes at the request of a committee member. What is your view on this?

BAKER: As a general rule I believe in being as open as possible. However, as a veteran member of the Senate’s tenure and academic freedom committee, I likewise understand that a few issues are so sensitive that they cannot be discussed in an open meeting, because to do so would risk revealing confidential information or strategy considerations that could be misinterpreted or taken out of context. Senate committee meetings should be closed only when absolutely essential, for the reasons outlined above. Senate leaders and the administration have an obligation to keep faculty and staff well-informed about what is going on and what they hope to accomplish.

FRIEZE: The press serves a crucial function of bringing major issues to the attention of the whole community. The work of the University Times in publishing issues of importance to the Senate and to all faculty is much appreciated. But there are situations in which the faculty members who serve on Senate committees want to discuss some issue in private, without having to worry about something they say being reported publicly and being seen by a more senior member of the department who might disagree.

Open discussions that result in a final consensus that can be shared with the press can sometimes only occur in situations in which everyone respects confidentiality and where everyone can feel free to mention unpopular ideas.

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