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April 2, 2015

ON the ISSUES: University Senate presidential candidates

Online voting for University Senate officers and Faculty Assembly members is set for April 7-22. (See related story for Faculty Assembly slate.)

In this year’s race for the Senate presidency, Alexandre R. Vieira faces Frank Wilson.



Vieira, an associate professor of oral biology and pediatric dentistry in the School of Dental Medicine, has been a Pitt faculty member since 2005. He has been director of clinical research in the school since 2007 as well as dental medicine’s director of student research since 2012.

Vieira has served on Faculty Assembly since 2012.  He has been a member of Pitt’s Institutional Review Board since 2007 and a member of the University Research Council since 2012.


wilsonWilson teaches undergraduate sociology classes at Pitt-Greensburg and is director of the Academic Village, a special residence-based learning community.  He was one of the founders of the Center for Applied Research in 2012, and continues as a faculty affiliate.

Wilson has been active in the Pitt-Greensburg Faculty Senate since 2005, serving as president for the past five years.  He has been involved in the University Senate since 2009. He has served on the Senate’s ad hoc committee on non-tenure-stream faculty issues since 2013 and is a member of the Senate budget policies committee. Wilson also has served on the University planning and budgeting committee since 2012 and was appointed as a Senate faculty representative to the Board of Trustees budget committee this year.


The presidential candidates responded in writing to questions posed by the University Times. Candidates were asked to limit each response to approximately 300 words. Some responses have been edited for clarity or style.

In addition to the presidential candidates, there are three faculty members vying for the vice presidency: Jane Cauley of public health; Laura Fonzi of education, and incumbent Irene H. Frieze of arts and sciences.

Incumbent Susan J. Skledar of pharmacy is running unopposed for secretary.

Officers serve one-year terms that begin July 1.


Why should faculty vote for you? What have you accomplished in the Senate and what issues would you focus on as president?

VIEIRA: The role of the Senate officers is to provide consistency and stability to allow fair and ample discussion of topics that matter to faculty, students and staff from all schools and units of our University. This consistency allows good and open communication between the faculty and the administration in the best spirit of shared governance that defines our Senate. I have served the Senate both through its committees (bylaws and elections) and the Faculty Assembly. During this period I have increased awareness about the Senate and participation by faculty in my school in the Senate activities. I will continue to focus on the Senate providing transparent input and feedback to our University administration.

WILSON: I am a practicing Pitt sociologist who has been studying how the University works as an organization since I arrived as a PhD candidate in 1992. I became actively involved in the Faculty Senate at Pitt-Greensburg in 2005 and am now completing my fifth year as its president. In 2009 I became a member of both the University Faculty Assembly and Senate Council, where I have regularly and actively served to the present. I have served on the Senate’s ad hoc committee on non-tenure-stream faculty issues (NTS) since 2013 to the present and am an active member on the Senate budget policies committee. In addition, I have served on the University planning and budgeting committee since 2012 and was appointed as a Senate faculty representative to the Board of Trustees budget committee this academic year.

My primary “accomplishment” comes from being part of the collective efforts with colleagues on the ad hoc NTS committee. It has been there that I have become completely convinced about the importance and possibilities of effective shared governance at Pitt.

I plan to continue the efforts of my immediate predecessors to face serious issues, improve communication and to help enable open, principled discussion and debate among the faculty and between the faculty and administration. While not neglecting the Senate’s concern with matters associated with Pitt being a major research university, I plan to focus more attention on undergraduate teaching at all five campuses and, in particular, the roles and problems of Pitt’s part-time faculty.

Given my dedication to Pitt, my professional training and interests, my experience teaching undergraduates at the Greensburg campus since 1998, my active involvement in the University Senate, and the larger changes and challenges facing all of us, I am ready and right for this position.

How do you perceive the campus climate here at Pitt, in light of recent national attention to the issue of sexual misconduct among college students? What role can faculty play in shaping the culture?

VIEIRA: My perception is positive because the University’s initial response was an effort to increase awareness and to openly talk about the subject. National estimates of 1 in every 4 female students being the victim of attempted sexual assault in her college career indicate that immediate action is needed. Faculty can play a pivotal role by keeping the discussion alive, proactively talking about these issues. The evidence available from national inquiries is alarming and our reaction should be of bringing the subject to light, never pretending it does not exist or assuming it does not happen here.

WILSON: I can’t speak with authority about the campus climate regarding students’ sexual misconduct at the Pittsburgh campus.

While each Pitt campus, in very different environments, needs to fashion its own appropriate responses, the basic principle we have adopted at Greensburg to guide our action could surely be utilized elsewhere. It is rather fundamental: No single group, whether administration, faculty, staff or students, can solve this problem alone. It takes all of the Pitt players working together to stand any chance of changing bad behavior, if not the culture that spawned the behavior.

Working with neighboring Seton Hill University and the Blackburn Center Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, our Pitt-Greensburg committee for gender equity, which includes faculty, staff and students, has been approaching the problem from multiple directions. One is to develop informational materials that visibly raise issues around campus. Another is to more intentionally incorporate substantive discussions about these matters into appropriate academic courses.

Students, staff and faculty will also be participating in special training on how to more effectively deal with cases of misconduct and violence, and how to train others to do the same. Faculty affiliated with our Center for Applied Research and our paid undergraduate research assistants are working with our Seton Hill colleagues to evaluate Blackburn Center programs and social media efforts, as well as surveying our own students’ attitudes over their four-year careers to help evaluate our own efforts. In short, we are doing our best to raise consciousness, alter cultural practice and try to measure which approaches work best.

I suspect that other campuses are also attempting to fulfill our chancellor’s call for Pitt to face this issue directly, honorably and effectively. The Senate can serve as one resource to help us all share, compare, refine and maximize our efforts.

What is the appropriate role of faculty in plotting a course for the University’s future, in light of new leadership in the University, the city and the state?

VIEIRA: It is appropriate for our faculty to influence the future directions for our University. Generating evidence on best andragogy educational techniques and practices, better defining outcomes for measuring a high quality education, reshaping relationships with industry, paying attention to the interest of local businesses, are all areas that will provide opportunities to faculty to work with the new leadership of the University.

WILSON: The faculty’s role in shaping the future of the University is to become actively involved in the missions of Pitt at every level — school, department and program. The Faculty Assembly and Senate Council can act as catalysts to enable, expand and connect those efforts. The new political leaderships — in Allegheny County, Pittsburgh and Harrisburg — are at least sounding like they want more favorable relationships, if not partnerships, with Pitt. Faculty at our campuses in Bradford, Greensburg, Johnstown and Titusville need to continue to deepen and strengthen our working relationships with the political players, business interests and nonprofit organizations in our respective communities.

Our new University leadership has already signaled that they see this moment as one where we face serious obstacles and challenges, largely from outside forces. But they appropriately observe that it is also a moment of substantial opportunity. Working with the administration, staff and student organizations to a greater extent than we already are is what faculty should now be doing. More of us, who haven’t already been engaged in those efforts, now need to become more fully involved if we hope to seize the moment and reap the maximum gains.

What strategies would enhance shared governance and effective relations with Pitt’s new administration?

VIEIRA: The likely best strategy is continuing the work of the previous officers of the Senate and striving for consistency and stability. Our faculty wants the administration to seek faculty input while at the same time welcoming and being open to unsolicited input.

WILSON: I will confess that I once held very cynical views about “shared governance” and its possibilities. As a theoretical concept there is no clear and clearly accepted definition. It gains meaning only through the ways we put it into practice.

Over the past decade my involvement in Senate matters, both at my school and University-wide, has softened that cynicism. However, I do not have illusions about the limitations of the process generally, and at Pitt specifically. At the beginning and end of every day the ultimate source of power at the University resides with the Board of Trustees, the chancellor and the Office of the Provost. Faculty input at most policy levels, including via the Senate, is primarily advisory in nature. Fortunately, Pitt’s administrations typically have taken that advice seriously and respectfully. I think it is an empirical fact that our current administration has become even more receptive to faculty input and involvement.

That being said, what would enhance shared governance at Pitt would be for the administration to demonstrate a little more trust — expressed as greater transparency — and increase the level of consultation by continuing to openly solicit views of faculty, staff and students in decision-making processes before announcing and implementing unilateral decisions. We should not think it is a one-way street, however. The faculty also needs to demonstrate that we are responsible and trustworthy partners. We should not hesitate to challenge and debate honorably, but if what we primarily do is complain, resist and subvert, effective relations will be limited and the shared governance model at Pitt will be of the weakest type.

What is the value of the University Senate and how can that value be increased? What are its strengths and where is there room for improvement? Why should faculty be involved?

VIEIRA: The value of the University Senate lies in continuing to function as a true body of shared governance. For that, the Senate needs to continue to proactively reach the administration to provide insight and share the perception of the faculty that results from the deliberations at Faculty Assembly.

I believe faculty will be better served if we are proactive rather than only reactive. Indeed, the active identification of matters of University-wide relevance and working closely with members of the Faculty Assembly to obtain insight from each individual school on the topics they have brought up will create an environment of active and rich exchange. Another interesting aspect of any political body is the tendency to focus on the negative, and it would be great if this process allowed for shared experiences of actions that are working in one particular school and could be used by others.

WILSON: The value of the University Senate begins from the fact that it is the officially specified organization within the Pitt system where the pledge of allegiance to shared governance is not only supposed to be given, but more importantly is acted upon. We already know that positive outcomes are possible from the work of the Senate, its Faculty Assembly body and our committees — standing and ad hoc. The strengths of the Senate are in evidence when we do decide to address truly important issues, for instance intellectual property rights and issues of NTS faculty. When we set our minds to it, there are many knowledgeable, experienced and creative minds that come together.

Where we sometimes falter is when we make too much of more trivial matters, and when we descend into tales of individual glory and make the Senate the arena for sharing very personal troubles.

The Senate’s greatest shortcoming, of course, is revealed by the large percentage of the faculty that ignores and avoids the work of the Senate. This is a mistake in my view. The mission and work of the University is best served by the efforts of more engaged faculty who are willing to acknowledge that collectively we can build an organization that is greater than the sum of its parts.

What are the most important issues facing non-tenure-stream faculty and how should the Senate address them?

VIEIRA: What I hear from my colleagues who are non-tenure stream is essentially the sense of lack of stability, which prevents them from engaging in long-term projects. Also, there is an issue with recognition: Their work may be perceived differently from tasks performed by tenured faculty, despite the work being the same and the performance also equivalent or better. These discussions have been happening at the Faculty Assembly for the past two years and hopefully will lead to more precise guidance to faculty at their respective units.

WILSON: The majority of Pitt’s faculty is non-tenure-stream (NTS) and the Senate’s ad hoc committee on NTS issues has been working diligently to identify the important issues that they are facing. The progress made thus far with respect to full-time NTS faculty, embodied in the committee’s recommendations recently endorsed by the Faculty Assembly and Senate Council, gives us an example of how the Senate’s role is crucial in addressing these issues. Implementation of recommendations regarding clarity of school and department policy and procedures, career tracks, annual reviews and incentive structures now needs to be accomplished and monitored. The committee continues to look at questions raised by the wide variation of NTS faculty across schools, trying to find what, if any, policies and procedures should become more generalized University-wide.

Even more varied is Pitt’s part-time faculty. The ad hoc committee on NTS issues and the Senate budget policies committee have both begun considering the significant roles played by these colleagues. Problematic issues that have already been identified are salaries, uncertainty of contracts and the part-time faculty members’ sense of being disconnected from the programs in which they teach. Finding ways of involving faculty members of all classifications more fully in the culture and mission of academic programs should be a concern of all of us, since we know that this produces a richer educational experience for our students. This effort will have greater chances of success if the different Senate committees already trying to address these issues begin coordinating their work more intentionally.

What tenured faculty concerns should the Senate be addressing?

VIEIRA: Faculty Assembly has identified the potential for a committee focusing on the current research climate challenges, which may help organize proposals to improve and help to navigate these challenging times. Having our University increase its agility in dealing with industry is a good example of an area where resource capturing can increase. Two-thirds of research in the U.S. is funded by industry and our University can dramatically improve its performance in attracting these funds. If industry is more willing to work with our University, tenured faculty (who are typically research intensive) will directly benefit.

WILSON: I am confident that the tenured faculty can and should identify those issues for the rest of us. Currently the Senate is addressing some of them — the current guidelines for evaluating tenured faculty and associated salary decisions — through another ad hoc committee formed last April. This process was initiated by a recommendation from our standing committee on tenure and academic freedom, which had begun receiving inquiries and grievances regarding one school’s change in policy that raises the specter of salary reductions. The work of the ad hoc committee is ongoing, and we can expect a thorough investigation, substantive report and specific recommendations in the near future. The Senate is the appropriate place to address such matters, especially since questions about precedent that may affect other schools and the nature of shared governance have also been raised.

What solutions would be effective in combating the rising cost of higher education, particularly the cost of education at Pitt?

VIEIRA: I do not think anyone can propose a straightforward formula to address this issue. The high cost of higher education is a culmination of many influences. One aspect of this issue that is in the realm of the University Senate is communicating clearly, often and effectively to state representatives to allow them to understand that their investment in our University will ultimately impact tuition costs. In other words, their dramatic reduction in support to our University for the last 20 years has contributed to the high tuition costs and halted the potential for further development of our region.

WILSON: I think one small, but significant, way faculty in particular can help to keep costs down is to objectively look at the course materials — especially textbooks — we are requiring students to purchase or rent. Our librarians have already been exploring the possibilities raised by the range of open-source, free and low-cost texts, and the University Library System’s growing full-text journal and database collections. With minor adjustments to our existing system of incentives and rewards, some faculty who might otherwise be focusing all their research and scholarship energies on publications in prestigious peer-reviewed journals could be motivated to provide high-quality, low- or no-cost, Pitt-brand accessible materials to our students. Those of us who primarily teach undergraduates would also have greater opportunities to connect our “teaching/service/professional development” responsibilities more efficiently and effectively. The appropriate response to Pitt’s status as the most expensive public university in the nation is to emphasize the high quality of a Pitt education and how that is related to value. A practical demonstration of that value would come through our dedication to do whatever we can to reduce the cost burden through the products of our talented faculty. If we can win over the minds of our current and potential students while they also feel it in their heavier pocketbooks, or in reduced debt obligations, it will at least help some.

There are, of course, other ways the University is, and should be, responding to this challenge. One is in the political arena as we push for greater commonwealth support for public higher education, and more support resources for students from the federal government. Another is for us to fully participate in the broader discussion and debate about the mix of merit and need-based aid provided by Pitt to the students we recruit and enroll.