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October 9, 2014

Senate Matters: On shared governance

As a non-tenure-stream (NTS) faculty member, shared governance has played a pivotal role in my career at Pitt. This is true not only with respect to the benefits that I passively derived from the efforts of my many colleagues, but also in a participatory sense. Our shared governance system gives all faculty the opportunity to have an effective voice. The key to effectiveness is active, vocal participation.

It is easy to fall into the trap of feeling helpless, hopeless and completely disenfranchised if your circumstances at work have become aversive.

In July 1996, the anesthesiology department (which had a free-standing practice plan at the time), had 68 faculty members between UPMC Presbyterian and Montefiore. Just three years later, in June 1999, we were down to 41 faculty members, including only 14 of the original group. During this period we had an enormous amount of turnover: 82 faculty members left, including more than three-quarters of the original group and roughly half of the new hires. Polite protests went unheeded and nothing changed until so many people had left that we had to start closing operating rooms.

While the adverse working conditions were not created by the University, they had a devastating impact on the ability of the faculty to participate in the mission of the University, including those of us who received a portion of our salary from federal grants. As the exodus proceeded, those of us with previously agreed upon academic and research time were forced back into clinical service and eventually we were taken off the grants altogether.


I became an accidental participant in the University Senate in 1997. At dinner one night, a friend asked me to run as a Faculty Assembly representative. Assuming that I would lose, I agreed. To my surprise, I was elected.

Also to my surprise, I was elected to participate in the University of Pittsburgh Physicians (UPP, a controlled affiliate of UPMC) practice plan contract negotiations. While the improvements we obtained in the contract were not overwhelming, we did negotiate the removal of at least a couple of the most egregious clauses. This was in large part because we had an open forum in the University Senate to discuss matters of concern. This forum was extraordinarily important. Open discussion was not a tradition at that time in the medical school, but we found as a faculty that we did have a voice at the University level.

In those days, the silence of the faculty on most matters in the medical school resulted in part from a pervasive culture of fear. We had witnessed retaliatory actions even against our most senior faculty members.  Silence perpetuates injustice and fosters the illusion of normalcy. Speaking up is always stressful. Over the long run, however, failure to correct a major problem is far worse. Silent desperation is not a strategy — it is a state that prevents needed action.


Although organizational cultures tend to change in a glacial fashion, it was not until much later that I fully appreciated how profoundly pivotal the selection of Mark Nordenberg as chancellor would be for the faculty of the institution.

When I was elected president of the University Senate in 2003, Mark Nordenberg and Jim Maher (then chancellor and provost, respectively) extended a cordial and collegial welcome to me. I am eternally grateful to them and all of the administrators who made my two terms as president productive because we enjoyed a great working relationship. Not all subjects were comfortable to discuss, but mutual respect allowed candid and substantive discussions in which no issue raised by the faculty was ignored. The University administration actively solicits faculty input on the overwhelming majority of issues. On the rare occasions when they do not, the Faculty Assembly can and does respectfully request the opportunity to provide that input.

As a University community, we need to work together to make Pitt a better place. The University administration as well as the Board of Trustees extends a collegial invitation to faculty to participate in the development of policies using the University Senate as a mechanism.

As an example, Irene Frieze and the ad hoc committee on NTS issues have done an elegant and comprehensive job of identifying the issues that pertain to NTS faculty.

One issue that pertains to both tenured and non-tenured faculty is performance evaluation. All faculty need to be covered by a policy that ensures fair and equal evaluation of their performance. No one is opposed to prudent financial management. In times of financial difficulty for a particular department or school, a plan carefully developed with faculty input and which treats faculty fairly is vastly preferable to long-term denial or secretive planning followed by flailing management and ambush tactics.

Your faculty representatives (including the standing committees) of the University Senate are here to help you. Speak up! Get involved!

Nicholas G. Bircher, an associate professor of anesthesiology, served as president of the University Senate 2003-05.