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March 19, 2015

Faculty debate classroom “climate” statement

Is leaving trash behind in a classroom an affront to the Pitt Promise?

Should teaching faculty shoulder responsibility for ensuring that students pick up after themselves after class?

And should schools and departments be responsible for creating guidelines on classroom care?

To the dismay of University Senate plant utilization and planning (PUP) committee co-chair Patricia Weiss, Faculty Assembly refused to endorse PUP’s “statement on classroom climate” that advocated for Pitt teaching faculty to “take responsibility for basic care of all classrooms to which their courses are assigned” and for units to develop classroom-care guidelines appropriate for their areas.

The statement defines basic classroom care as including: removal of trash and other materials brought by faculty or their students; returning furniture to the room’s intended floor plan; cleaning blackboards and white boards after class; monitoring food and drink in rooms that have prohibitions against them, and promptly reporting problems with technology, equipment and furniture to Facilities Management or the appropriate IT department.

The proposal, born in part of faculty complaints over poor classroom conditions (see June 12, 2014, University Times), failed on March 17 in a 9-18 Assembly vote, with 8 faculty abstaining.

“I had hoped that maybe people would have creative responses to how to handle some of these things,” Weiss said.

She noted that Facilities Management was responsive to the Senate’s calls for better accountability on classroom cleanliness, upgrading cleaning routines, conducting spot checks and providing more recycling containers, but PUP also “looked within ourselves” for ways faculty could do their part. Even with upgraded routines, Facilities Management does not have time to clean classrooms between back-to-back classes, she pointed out.

“Those who teach and those who learn have a responsibility to maintain a baseline climate to enable people who succeed them to use the classrooms,” she said, pointing to the proposal as an application of the spirit of “mutual respect and civility” called for in the Pitt Promise.

Weiss said PUP’s proposal included no censure or punishment for those who failed to uphold the goals, but, “We’d like to remind those who teach as well as those who learn, that rooms are used by other people and that trash, furniture that is substantially rearranged, dirty black and white boards; food and drink left behind, and broken technology that is not followed up on, all are substantial problems.”

Computer science faculty member Alexandros Labrinidis commented, “This seems to imply that if students leave trash behind that faculty are responsible for picking up the trash.”

Weiss said: “We talked a lot about students having a responsibility — ‘Your mother isn’t cleaning up after you,’ and this kind of thing. What we thought of is that faculty should routinely include in their syllabi clear statements about what is and is not allowed in the rooms they are teaching in and what the expectations are, and make that part of the conditions for participating in the classroom. I don’t think anybody’s expecting faculty to be personally responsible for discarded cups. That’s unreasonable.”

Scott Nelson of chemistry commented, “I don’t think we should institutionalize common courtesy. This is just the way people are supposed to act: I don’t think this body needs to vote on, approve, or in any way set in writing how people are supposed to act.”

“It’s unfortunate that this is the case,” Weiss said. “I agree we shouldn’t have to do this, but when people come to teach and classrooms aren’t usable, that doesn’t work for anybody either.”

Community relations committee (CRC) co-chair Linda Hartman pointed out parallels with the University’s “Be a Good Neighbor” initiatives that aim to foster better relations among off-campus student residents and their Oakland neighbors.

“You shouldn’t have to tell them you only put the trash out in the morning and then you take the trash can back in the evening,” she said. But, unless someone does, students sometimes don’t realize that putting out trash whenever they feel like it might result in a mess or attract animals. “In a way, if we’re teaching them to be good neighbors in the classroom it will carry over to outside of the classroom,” she said.

Senate President Michael Spring commented on Facilities Management’s response to last summer’s complaints. “There was universal support for the faculty concern. I think everybody’s responded in good faith to making this work.”

He added, “I think it’s our professional responsibility to do what we can to contribute to the welfare of buildings,” suggesting that the committee reconsider the statement and either add teeth — stating who will enforce the guidelines — or put it in the gentler form of a friendly reminder.

History faculty member John Stoner said both colleagues and students need reminding that it is a matter of civility to consider those who come after them in a classroom.

“I encounter this problem at least as much with colleagues as with students — people who remain in the classroom for far too long after their class was to have ended. The coffee cup I threw away today was almost certainly from someone teaching the class rather than someone taking an earlier class,” he said.

“I do think this could pass with an effort and moral-suasion to remind people gently that the room is used by multiple parties over long days.”

Others agreed that a campaign, perhaps using social media, might be more appropriate than a Senate resolution.

PUP member Susanna Leers of law said the committee considered couching it as a campaign, explaining that the statement’s somewhat-tough, somewhat-gentle wording arose because the committee was asked to develop specific guidelines in response to the complaints raised in Faculty Assembly last summer.

“There are signs outside of every classroom that say no food or drink allowed and yet you go in and there’s buckets of chicken in there. Who’s enforcing that? Who put those signs up and who’s supposed to be enforcing it? And dumping it on the poor janitors is just not right,” she said.

Spring asked the committee to come back with a modified motion. “I think that the discussion suggests that there is a motion Faculty Assembly can endorse, perhaps in the form of a reminder to colleagues of their responsibility. I would like to see this not go down. I think it needs to come back,” he said.


Community relations report

In other committee reports, Hartman and CRC co-chair Tracy Soska outlined the committee’s role in working closely with community partners including Oakland Planning and Development Corp. (OPDC); Oakland Business Improvement District, People’s Oakland, Oakland Transportation Management Association, Community Human Services  and OPDC’s Oakwatch code-enforcement program, as well as with on-campus organizations such as student affairs’ PittServes hub for student service opportunities and representatives from the chancellor’s office and Community and Governmental Relations.

CRC’s annual agenda includes visiting with community partners, taking field trips to nearby neighborhoods and connecting via conference call with regional campuses to confer on their community-service and community relations efforts.

Raising the profile of service learning is a continuing focus looking forward, Soska said. “Service not only can help enhance the teaching activities of how we get students to apply this kind of work, but by faculty talking together, we learn ideas from each other. We’ve done that well.  How could this then enhance the work of the faculty, for their careers and their scholarship? I think that’s the next level we really want to take this.”

Soska said, “We’re trying to make this community engagement part of a center of excellence: How does service — that we have as this mission — enhance our teaching and research? We have a great University and a great city, but we’re a university in the city. And maybe we could do a better job of being a university of the city.

“I like to think that’s one of the pillars now of the strategic plan we have: To build on that engagement we have. I think service learning is how we connect our faculty and their work to this, not just service, but the real work of teaching and research that we do.”

Benefits and welfare report

Benefits and welfare committee chair Angie Riccelli noted committee initiatives to promote University benefits, develop outreach programs and support wellness efforts.

Health care reform, funding and benefit programs, employee discount programs and mental health resources were among the areas of interest revealed in a poll of members last year.

“Human Resources does a great job of health promotion, but we wanted to see how we could enhance some of the programs, and what new initiatives could we introduce and investigate.”

A new mental health task force tapped faculty expertise, resulting in a well-attended three-part series on stress management presented by medical school faculty member Bruce Rabin. Feedback from participants indicated that many people were interested in mental health resources at the University, Riccelli said, adding that a small percentage mentioned that they work in a department at Pitt that offers services for people with mental health issues or illness.

The committee also is promoting the PittPerks employee discount program for fulltime faculty, staff, postdocs and research associates (, which launched March 1.

“This is a win-win both for local businesses and the University community,” she said.

Future efforts include programming on the impacts of health care reform and continued collaboration with Human Resources to enhance current programs and develop new ones, she said, encouraging anyone with suggestions to contact a committee member.

—Kimberly K. Barlow