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December 4, 1997

Senate continues to play key role in Pitt governance, MacLeod says

"The University Senate is in danger of being reduced to the status of a suggestion box," economics department interim chairperson Herbert Chesler railed at a recent meeting.

Chesler was protesting what he called the administration's failure to consult with the Senate before finalizing Pitt's new early retirement plan for tenured faculty.

Unintentionally, Chesler also supplied the title for a Nov. 20 talk by Senate President Gordon MacLeod.

Speaking at a meeting sponsored by the School of Dental Medicine's faculty development committee, MacLeod answered the question, "Is the University Senate just a suggestion box?" with a qualified "no." Despite attacks on tenure nationwide, and regardless of statements by some Pitt trustees indicating they favor an increased "corporatization" of the University, the Senate continues to play a key role in University governance, MacLeod maintained.

He noted the following Senate contributions, among others:

* The Senate's tenure and academic freedom committee "works fairly well," he said, to protect the rights of tenured professors — although the committee's power to defend Pitt's growing number of non-tenured faculty, even from blatantly unfair firings, is "practically negligible," MacLeod added.

* An ad hoc Senate committee chaired by education professor Mark Ginsburg is examining the status of faculty appointments at Pitt, with an emphasis on investigating tenure concerns.

This fall, the committee released preliminary data showing that the percentage of Pitt full-time faculty with tenure has remained fairly stable since the mid-1970s. (In 1974, 41.8 percent of full-time faculty here had tenure compared with 39.6 percent in 1996.) But the percentage of faculty outside the pipeline for tenure rose sharply during that time, the committee found. (The proportion of full-time faculty outside the tenure stream was 22.9 percent in 1974 and 48.5 percent in 1996.) * Another ad hoc Senate group raising awareness of important campus issues is the "compatibility committee" that is studying the extent to which the UPMC Health System's business goals are compatible with Pitt's academic mission, MacLeod said.

* "The one formal activity through which we, as faculty members, participate in shared governance is by serving on the University Planning and Budgeting Committee," MacLeod said.

While UPBC can't enforce its decisions, the senior administration takes the group's advice seriously, he stated. Under planning and budgeting system bylaws, the University Senate president and several other Senate representatives are automatically members of UPBC.

MacLeod argued that the Senate president is, in some ways, the equal of Pitt's chancellor. Both MacLeod and Chancellor Mark Nordenberg were elected to their offices — Nordenberg by the trustees, MacLeod by the faculty. Both represent the whole University.

"The main difference is that Mark has all the power and authority, while I have a bully pulpit," MacLeod said.

But as Pitt administrators and trustees have learned in recent years, Senate presidents can exert power and promote faculty interests just by feeding lively quotes to the news media, MacLeod pointed out.

Traditionally, he said, the Senate president's power to preach, pontificate and publicize has been limited to the lower campus. But that changed last year with the election of MacLeod and fellow Graduate School of Public Health professor Nathan Hershey as Senate president and vice president, respectively.

"This is a first, for the Senate president and vice president to both come from the Health Sciences schools. I think it creates a larger presence for the Senate outside the Provost's area," MacLeod said.

He cited medical school professor Nicholas Bircher as "an up and comer" among Health Sciences professors serving on Senate groups. It was Bircher, during the September Faculty Assembly meeting, who accused the UPMC Health System of dictating medical school policy and who said, "There is no more negotiation [between UPMC and the medical school] than there is in the average terrorist action." It's no coincidence that Bircher and other outspoken Pitt professors all have tenure, MacLeod said.

After quickly summarizing the history of higher education from the founding of the University of Paris a millennium ago to the present, MacLeod argued against the increasingly popular notion (popular among legislators and trustees, anyway) that tenure is outdated and unaffordable now that mandatory faculty retirement ages are illegal.

A lucrative early retirement plan — more enticing than the one recently approved by Pitt trustees — would prevent logjams of elderly tenured professors, MacLeod maintained. Tenure itself "remains the best protection for genuine shared governance," he said.

Fortunately for Pitt faculty, Chancellor Nordenberg and Provost James Maher "do not appear to be disposed to doing away with tenure," MacLeod said.

"That's not to say that our Board of Trustees, or the state or the federal government, agrees with that position." Faculty unionization would be "a realistic expectation" if tenure continues to be undermined, MacLeod said.

— Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 30 Issue 8

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