Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

January 8, 2015

University Senate Matters: The changing nature of shared governance

MikeSpringIn 1940, after a tumultuous decade that involved student and faculty dismissals as well as other precipitous and unilateral decisions by then-Chancellor John Bowman, the Board of Trustees formed what would become the University Senate. The Senate, which was presided over by the chancellor, was to provide counsel and guidance to the chancellor on educational policies and procedures. The bylaws went on to say: “The Senate shall foster discussion and maintain adequate communication channels among students, staff, faculty, administrative officers and the Board of Trustees on all matters affecting the welfare of the University or its constituent members.”

In 1966, for reasons that likely had to do with the dire financial situation engendered by Chancellor Edward Litchfield’s expansion of Pitt, faculty again became a focal point. When Litchfield failed to obtain a bailout from local leaders, faculty faced three years of cutbacks — with faculty salaries falling dangerously below national levels. Further, the talent that Litchfield had attracted to Pitt was being recruited by other institutions. The trustees and senior administration were painfully aware of losing critical faculty talent. With the somewhat controversial selection of David Kurtzman as interim chancellor following the untimely death of Stanton Crawford, a change was made in the operation of the University Senate. Chancellor Kurtzman never served as president, as had been the practice. Instead George L. Fahey, a faculty member, became the first elected president in 1966. The standing committee on organization and procedures (now bylaws) initiated the change shortly after Kurtzman became interim chancellor. The Board of Trustees initially was not supportive of the motion, which had been approved by a faculty vote of 70-29. With Chancellor Kurtzman’s support, the trustees ultimately approved the change in Senate leadership. During this difficult period the dedicated and loyal faculty of the University were acknowledged in a number of ways as important advisers, decision makers and leaders. Robert Alberts, in his history of Pitt, describes two events that seem to indicate just how important a role the faculty played in University governance. The first was Kurtzman’s initial address to a joint meeting of the Council of Deans and the University Senate (page 339) and the second was the role of the faculty advisory council in the decision to hire Wesley Posvar as chancellor (page 348).

Over the years, the Senate has sometimes been quiet, sometimes fought the administration, sometimes questioned decisions and sometimes worked closely with the administration. I would suggest that in all circumstances, the wisdom and vision of the trustees that such collaboration would make the University a better place has been borne out. While the vision of shared governance that led to the establishment of the Senate has played a role in helping make Pitt a better institution, it is not without its cost. We have been fortunate to have senior administrators willing to listen, but sometimes that can be painful. I know that it strains relationships and slows down some activities. As a former administrator, I know that I was always motivated to do what was best for Pitt. At the same time, I viewed my job as getting things done and consultation was sometimes painfully slow. From the faculty perspective, it takes time and energy to be prepared to discuss the complex issues that must be dealt with by administrators — and cuts into the precious time available for research, scholarship and teaching.

Recently, we worked through some issues related to the assignment of intellectual property rights, and we are looking forward to a more comprehensive review of intellectual property and innovation in general. If we are to fulfill our role in shared governance, we will need to be positioned and prepared to share our thoughts and provide our best guidance to the administration on these issues. That means each faculty member needs to be prepared to listen and discuss the issues. How will the nature of academic research change over the coming years? What do we need to do to position ourselves for these changes? How will the educational landscape change over the coming decades? What do we need to do today to prepare ourselves to lead rather than follow?

Beyond being prepared to answer these and myriad other questions, it may be time to look again at how we share governance at the University. In the 1940s, Pitt was a small regional university. The Senate, in some ways, still reflects the structure of that University. By 1970, Pitt had established itself as an important comprehensive University with the potential for national stature. Today, Pitt is a recognized national leader and has begun to establish a significant global presence. Some of the standing committees of the Senate have transformed their roles and taken on new, more appropriate, roles, but others have not. For example, the University is more highly dependent on research funds and international activities, yet we have no committees focused on these areas. We are much larger and more complex and while administrative roles have proliferated, the Senate is not much larger than it was 60 years ago. The Senate needs to be sure it is structured and empowered to deal with the issues the University will face. I fear that if we do not, despite the dedication and hard work of our administrative colleagues we may not always make the wisest decisions as an institution. During another period of great change and challenge, the faculty must be committed to playing an active role in helping the administration to shape and direct the future of our great University.

Michael Spring, a faculty member in the School of Information Sciences, is president of the University Senate. His email address is