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April 16, 2015

Research committee awaits Senate Council OK

A University Senate standing committee on research won’t exist officially until Senate Council takes action next week, but items for the proposed new committee’s attention already are surfacing.

Following its unanimous approval of the formation of a new Senate research committee that will focus on “research policies and procedures, research operations, research regulation and compliance and the management of intellectual property for funded and unfunded research,” Faculty Assembly on April 14 unanimously approved mathematics professor Tom Hales’ request that the Senate issue a report on how the University’s policies align with American Association of University Professors (AAUP) recommended principles on academy-industry relationships.

Last year the AAUP published in book form its report that outlines 56 principles to guide these relationships, which can present both risks and rewards. The AAUP principles address areas such as education, intellectual property and conflicts of interest.

In light of the chancellor’s aim to strengthen and grow new partnerships with industry, it’s a timely topic here at Pitt, Hales told the Assembly.

“There should be lively faculty participation in matters that have a major impact on the research mission of the University. We have a common interest in preserving core academic values, including integrity of research and the freedom to disseminate research broadly for the public good,” he stated in his motion requesting the Senate report.

Not all the AAUP guidelines may be appropriate for Pitt, Hales noted. “Nevertheless, a report that describes where Pitt stands in relation to these guidelines will give us a reference point for further action.”


The Assembly also voted unanimously to refer to the research committee an open letter to the chancellor on the commercialization of research, signed by 76 members of the University community. (See related letter and Chancellor Patrick Gallagher’s response, this issue.)

The letter’s co-author, political science faculty member Michael Goodhart, told the Assembly: “It raises a number of similar concerns … but also speaks to the idea that many of us do research that is not appropriately commercializable. It’s important to recognize the importance and value of that research and also undertake outreach to the vast myriad of communities that we serve and not merely to the business community.”

In response to a question by Cindy Tananis of the School of Education, Goodhart elaborated on how the issue of climate change relates to commercialization of research.

“A number of people have raised this,” Goodhart acknowledged. “One of the concerns that motivated us was that the emphasis in the chancellor’s memo on commercialization of research is informed by a way of thinking about the economy and, in his terms, ‘the economic ecosystem’ that prioritizes growth as the primary way to benefit communities. But we’re concerned that it’s precisely this economic-growth mentality that has contributed substantially to the increase of catastrophic climate change, which looms before us.

“We wanted to make it clear that those concerns, that those issues, can’t be thought of separately,” Goodhart said.

“Relatedly, we’re very concerned that the very same people who will suffer the most from the effects of catastrophic climate change are the same people who lack access to the information economy — the kind of economy that will primarily benefit from this sort of commercialization of research. … and who are already the people who are most marginalized from our communities to begin with,” he said.

“We wanted to put both of those issues on the table in connection with this to try and raise the importance of a holistic approach to the issue of the kind of research we undertake and the mindset with which we undertake it.”

Goodhart said the letter has met with some puzzlement. “I think that speaks to a lack of understanding of the kind of research that’s undertaken by many of us in the arts and sciences, in the School of Law, in the School of Social Work and others, which is very, very different from the kind of research that’s undertaken in the School of Medicine or in engineering.

“We were careful in this letter not to say that we’re opposed to the commercialization of research … but just to say that there are some bigger issues here that are connected, and that all of this needs to be thought about as a whole,” Goodhart said.


Senate President Michael Spring commented on the importance of instituting a Senate research committee:

“I honestly believe that if research governs a third of the University’s budget, the (Senate) research committee, at a policy level, becomes a critically important committee. And it does so at a time when the new chancellor is looking at new ways to encourage … the dissemination of the knowledge and the innovation that we uncover in the University.”


In separate votes related to the realignment of the Senate standing committee structure, Faculty Assembly approved the merger of the Senate committee on admissions and student aid with the Senate student affairs committee, and the dissolution of the University Press committee, which would be reconstituted as a Provost-office advisory committee. (See March 19 University Times.)

The Senate committee proposals move next to Senate Council, which meets April 22. If approved, the changes would take effect May 20.


In other business:

• Faculty Assembly approved the University Senate computer usage committee’s motion to send back to the Senate benefits and welfare committee for discussion the issue of single-sign-on access to TIAA-CREF/ Vanguard retirement information and UPMC health information via the Pitt portal.

“Benefits and welfare approved, so long as it was secure, making both of these accessible to faculty,” Spring explained.

In a report to the Assembly, computer usage committee co-chair Alex Jones said faculty and staff sometimes choose to share their user credentials in order to delegate access to email or calendars, or to enlist assistance in entering student grades — not realizing that they are putting at risk personal information, including PRISM payroll records, for example.

“It is against University policy to share credentials in any way,” he said. “If you are trying to share credentials there are other solutions … to provide the capabilities you are looking for.”

In addition to wanting to educate University users about the risks, Jones said the computer usage committee has been wrestling with options for dealing with concerns about Pitt users’ ability to connect to third-party services using a single sign-on, known as “federated access.”

The committee discussed four options, Jones said:

Doing nothing;

Keeping single sign-on and federated access on the condition that a secondary and/or multiple authentication is implemented for sensitive data;

Removing federated access to sensitive data until secondary or multiple authentication is available;

Enabling concerned faculty and staff to opt out of the capacity for federated access to sensitive data.

“CSSD reported to us that several options were not technologically feasible,” Jones said. “It became difficult for us to make a direct motion as to adopting one of these particular items as the correct strategy to move forward.”

• The Assembly tabled until its May meeting a vote on proposed changes to the University’s international travel policy, in order to allow faculty time for a more thorough review.

Although no faculty used the University Senate’s online comment form to express opinions on the proposed changes — which in part would require, rather than merely encourage, faculty to inform the University when they are traveling abroad on University business — several faculty at the meeting voiced concerns and objections.

• The Senate educational policy committee will review again how the shift to online Office of Measurement and Evaluation of Teaching student evaluations is affecting response rates.

• Spring reminded faculty that online voting for Senate officers and Faculty Assembly representatives ends April 22.

—Kimberly K. Barlow