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May 14, 1998


Nathan Hershey last month was elected president of the University Senate for a one-year term beginning July 1. A professor of health services administration in the Graduate School of Public Health, Hershey has been Senate vice president for the last three years.

The following are excerpts from a recent interview of Hershey by University Times Assistant Editor Bruce Steele.

UNIVERSITY TIMES: What issues will you inherit as University Senate president?

HERSHEY: One of the inherited issues is faculty disquiet about the UPMC-University relationship. But I suspect that's going to be foreclosed as a subject to a certain extent because by the time I'm Senate president, there's going to be a new senior vice chancellor for Health Sciences/dean selected and on the job soon. And the deal, whatever it is, between the University and the UPMC Health System with regard to [UPMC] support for the medical school will have been concluded. But there may be issues coming out of all that which will be of great interest to the University Senate.

The question of shared governance also needs to be looked at. Right now, I wonder whether shared governance is a proper term for the relationship between representatives of the faculty, staff and students on the one hand and the University administration and Board of Trustees on the other.

Shared governance may be a term that has too many meanings, depending on the particular group, and therefore it leads to unrealistic expectations on the part of some. It's certainly an issue that's going to be on the table.

What new issues do you intend to bring up?

I want to bring a few things up for consideration by the expanded executive committee of the Senate, which includes the chairpersons of the standing committees as well as the elected officers, just to see whether there's interest in some of these subjects.

One has to do with some kind of connection or better linking between the faculty and the Board of Trustees. Someone I know once quoted a senior University administrator as saying that some trustees liken faculty playing a role in University operations to the inmates trying to run the asylum. Now, whether a board member actually said that, I don't know for sure. But to the extent that it reflects the attitude of some board members, I think it's very unfortunate and may be due to the kind of information that the senior administration tells the board about the faculty.

To the extent that faculty representatives get to know board members better, and that board members know faculty members better, it might help to alleviate hostility or disrespect. I personally know that some board members are not happy with the way the board is being run, that it appears there's a dominant group of trustees and another group that may have a lot of talent and expertise but doesn't play much of a role in the consideration and resolution of issues.

Regarding faculty-student relations, I understand you have strong opinions about student evaluations of teaching.

I think students should have a role in evaluating courses, but I have some concerns about the instruments and the process we use here for evaluations. One of those concerns is separating the instructor from the course itself. I recently taught a course in which students from three different academic programs were represented in the classroom. I've prepared a memorandum pointing out that for certain items on the evaluation sheet, there was a very great range in their ratings. That may be attributable to the fact that when you have different kinds of students, and each kind has a different set of expectations, their evaluations may be somewhat misleading when you lump them all together.

For example, a student who's taking the basic course in a subject area because he or she is going to major in it may evaluate the course quite differently than people who are taking the course because they need distribution credits outside their real field of interest.

I think that's something we need to consider in looking at student evaluations of teaching. I don't know how to do it, but it's something we need to look at if we're going to maintain or increase the role of students in evaluating courses.

With regard to professional education, I don't know how well students in public health or law or other professional programs can evaluate how successful or important a course was until after they've been out practicing the profession. The form used by my department asks students to rate "to what degree a course was appropriate for my career goals." That may be hard to answer while you're still in school. As a law student, I once took a course that was taught by Archibald Cox, who was very aloof and demanding. I hated that course at the time, but in later years I realized it had been one of the most valuable ones I ever took.

One of the cliches about any group like the Senate is that most of the real work gets done at the committee level. Are there Senate committees that are overburdened or underburdened, in your opinion?

The statement, "the important work of the Senate is done at the committee level," short-changes what takes place at the Faculty Assembly and Senate Council. One of the values of those two groups is that issues get aired and get attention throughout the entire University because they get reported in The Pitt News and your publication and maybe the Post-Gazette. Publicly airing an issue may have an influence in getting things done.

But I do think certain Senate committees are very heavily burdened, and I would single out tenure and academic freedom because TAF plays an official role in at least one of the University's formal grievance procedures. Apart from that, people who've got a beef because of the way they've been handled by the administration come to TAF for guidance.

I would like to talk to TAF people to see how they think they could better fulfill their mission — and based on what they say, perhaps open some dialogue with the provost and the senior vice chancellor for Health Sciences with regard to making TAF work more in harmony or more successfully with the administration.

We do have a number of faculty who are suing the University. Of course, anybody can sue, but at the same time that's a traditional last resort. If people think the only way they're going to get a fair shake is to go to U.S. District Court, that to me is not any particularly good sign about the University.

The fact that you have a lot of litigation against you doesn't necessarily mean you're doing things badly, but it raises a red flag to say, maybe you ought to look into why people are suing. It may be that better functioning of the TAF-administrative relationship could lead to fewer people resorting to the courts.

Do you foresee any employee fringe benefits issues for the next year?

I haven't really given much thought to benefits except that, pretty soon, we're going to have to begin all over again the process of soliciting bids for the next University employee health insurance contract for 1999 and beyond. Benefits and welfare is another Senate committee that does an enormous amount of work. Along with TAF and maybe the computer usage committee and the plant utilization and planning committee, [serving on] benefits and welfare involves a lot of work as well as an intense amount of learning.

Going back to the benefits issue: I don't know whether the same-sex partnership issue is going to rise again through the Senate….

The general impression is, Pitt won't offer benefits to same-sex partners as long as the current Board of Trustees leadership is in office.

I think that impression has been given. But if someone took a secret vote of the members of the board, it may be that the majority of the trustees would have nothing against giving same-sex benefits.

A few meetings ago, a Senate Council member said the Senate was in danger of becoming a suggestion box. Other people say it's merely a debating society. How do you see it?

People have different ideas of what constitutes shared governance. The traditional view is that the closer an issue is to being purely academic, the greater the faculty role. Whereas, issues that relate to people strictly as employees and have nothing to do with academics, like benefits, are things where the faculty can make recommendations but the administration or the trustees ultimately make the decisions — although certain faculty could be looked upon as consultants to the administration. Some of our faculty consult with organizations that are as important as the University of Pittsburgh or more so, if you want to include the United States government. And yet, their advice may not be called upon within the University.

My personal view is that the board has certain responsibilities to the University and to the broader community. They may make decisions where I feel they shouldn't. But I would expect them to be as receptive to the recommendations of faculty on issues such as benefits as they would be with regard to things that are primarily or exclusively academic.

For example, let's assume that you've got a faculty member on the board's investment committee. If that person is really knowledgeable about investments, he or she could be of great benefit to the board. But I don't look at investments made by the board as something that the faculty, through its Faculty Assembly and Senate Council, should necessarily be involved in.

Compared with some other Senate officers, you've been described as being abrasive…

And negative…

Negative, abrasive, sarcastic. Is that fair, and will your style change when you become president?

I definitely am that way to a certain extent. But given the objects of my sarcasm or semi-witticisms, I think some faculty are very happy I make such statements because they feel there have been too many punches pulled by some faculty representatives in the past. There's a view that people, particularly some administrators, have to be called to account when they say things that may not be viewed as entirely accurate.

You mean, lies?

For example, we had some pretty bad scenes when there was the fight between the University and UPMC over [UPMC's acquisition of] the Syria Mosque site [in 1991]. Both people couldn't have been telling the truth.

Both people being…

[Then-Pitt President] Wes Posvar and [UPMC President] Jeff Romoff. They had very different views as to how that deal was made.

What I'm saying is that I'm not as diplomatic as some other Senate officers have been. [Current Senate President] Gordon MacLeod knows better how to run a meeting and has a much more courtly manner. The same is true of [MacLeod's predecessor] Keith McDuffie, who was always a gentleman in the public setting. I definitely am different, but I'm going to try as president to separate the two roles — that is, my role as an individual member of the Faculty Assembly and Senate Council, and also the person who presides over their meetings. I've already given some thought to turning over the gavel to someone else when I want to become passionately involved in a subject during a meeting.

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