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September 3, 2015

One on One: Frank Wilson

The Senate has elected its first president from the regionals. The UPG professor discusses how that will impact his presidency and the issues he sees in the year ahead.

For the first time in University Senate history, a regional campus faculty member will preside when Faculty Assembly convenes next Tuesday for its first meeting of the 2015-16 academic year.

Frank Wilson, an assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at Pitt-Greensburg, began his one-year term as University Senate president July 1.

Plain spoken and passionate about undergraduate education, Wilson, a past-president of the UPG faculty senate, is an unapologetic advocate for the sometimes under-recognized role Pitt’s regional campuses play as part of a major research university.

He sat down with University Times staff writer Kimberly K. Barlow in mid-August to talk about the issues facing the Senate and his agenda for the year ahead.


wilsonUNIVERSITY TIMES: How will you overcome the challenges of balancing your Senate duties with your responsibilities as a faculty member on the Pitt-Greensburg campus?

WILSON: One of the reasons why I’ve been able to be so involved in the Senate is because I live here (in Pittsburgh’s East End). There are times when I’ll go to a committee meeting here in the morning and then I’ll go up to Greensburg; other times I’ll go to Greensburg in the morning and teach and vice versa. You can’t do that if you’re from Johnstown or Bradford.

There’s going to be more flexibility than normal on my campus and there are people at both ends who’ve got my back. Between (University Senate director) Lori (Molinaro) and (UPG behavioral science faculty secretary) Linda (Syzpulski) I think I’ll be able to know which direction to go.

I’m working with a bunch of really good people. Every one of the presidents who’ve preceded me has offered to help. The executive committee is nothing but supportive and they’ve given good advice.

These people are making me realize that I don’t have to do everything. I do not have to be every place all the time.

The fact is I think I can do this. I am older. And I am — I hate to say wiser — but I have a lot of experience, a lot of practical experience, so I think I can do this.

As the first Senate president from a regional campus, do you feel added pressure?

People on my campus are excited that I got this position. I feel like I have a responsibility. Some of these folks that I’ve known and interacted with completely understand what this means and how unlikely this was.

I feel like I’ve got a lot of support. I feel like it’s got a lot of people pumped up. So that can keep me going. It’s pretty stimulating. And I know that I’m not out there by myself.

How significant is it that Pitt faculty elected a non-tenure-stream faculty member as president?

I’m not the first. Nick Bircher (president 2003-05) of the School of Medicine was non-tenure stream.

I know that I actually represent a majority of the faculty — 60 percent of full-time faculty are non-tenure stream.

I think that it’s kind of significant that I ended up being Senate president at a moment like this. It gives me the chance to remind people that it’s a University from top to bottom and if it’s going to be world class it needs to be strong all the way through.

I hope that’s encouraging to these folks and that it makes them more interested in being involved in other aspects of the University.

Your path in academia hasn’t been typical either.

I’d graduated in 1972 (with a degree in sociology) from UC-San Diego and had a small but growing landscaping business. I turned 40 in 1989 and began to ponder: “What if I’d gone to graduate school?”

I thought what I really wanted to do was to teach. I decided to scale my business back and got into a master’s program at San Diego State. It was less than a mile from my house and the afternoon and evening class schedule made it easy to start taking classes.

After the first year I got to teach intro sociology classes. You don’t really know until you actually get into the classroom and do it, and I discovered that I really did like it.

So, in 1992, I wanted to teach with my master’s degree, but when it was time to get a job, there was a hiring freeze. So I looked again at graduate schools.

That’s what brought you to Pittsburgh?

I had friends who’d come out here. It was a really hopping department with graduate students from all over the world — it had international flavor, and really smart young people. Pitt was going to let me come in as a teaching fellow, not as a TA, so I could teach right away.

My wife, who is a ceramic artist, got established in the arts community here right away. But I felt guilty about ripping the family out of San Diego: My oldest son had just started high school and we had two younger children.

Instead of doing what most graduate students do, which is go to conferences and try to get publications in journals, in addition to teaching a class at Pitt I started teaching part-time everywhere I could — Duquesne, LaRoche, Chatham, Waynesburg.

In 1996 I started on the job market. We’d never sold our home in San Diego. We always intended to go back.

I was making the final cut for a lot of jobs on the West Coast, but coming in second.

In 1998 there was a failed search at UPG for a criminal justice position, so the VP of academic affairs wanted to hire a visiting full-time person. I taught criminal justice the first year in the visitor spot. The next year I got hired for half sociology and half criminal justice.

And you’ve remained at UPG ever since.

I fell in love with that place. It was at a moment when our enrollments were going up; they were hiring new people; there were new programs being put in place. And it was a good group of faculty all pumped up. I was just thrilled to be there.

Soon after, the Academic Village, which is a residential learning community, started and I became part of that. Initially it was four villages, by discipline, and I became director of the behavioral science village. Later it became a single village and I became director.

I would say it’s teaching outside the classroom — it’s really a cool thing. And I’ve been teaching more and more sociology, although I still do criminal justice cross-listed classes.

How did you become involved in the Senate?

In 2005 there was a question about salary benchmarking for regional faculty. That was not a pleasant experience. I became involved in the faculty senate at Pitt-Greensburg, and University-wide. I’ve been involved in the Senate ever since.

(Initially) I was cynical about University Senate. I thought it was kind of a joke or a rubber stamp. I wasn’t convinced.

Nick Bircher was president at the time. He took (regional campus faculty) seriously. I realized whatever I thought about the Senate, it was the way we were supposed to do business. And so I became involved.

I’ve known all the Senate presidents since Nick: They’re all really good people. And they’ve all tried to move things forward: They’re not just token advisers, rubber stamping stuff, but actively engaging the administration over serious issues.

Even when it wasn’t so pleasant with that benchmarking issue, I made contact with other faculty from the regional campuses. The neat thing about Pitt, and the thing that allowed me to really appreciate it more, was being involved in the Senate. You’re interacting with people from all over the place and you see all of these schools are different within the same University. It’s not exactly one size fits all.

I wanted to be involved. I never expected it would be more than committee work or that kind of thing. I never had any plans to run for this office.

What’s your agenda as president?

Now that I’m in this position, I think I have an obligation to make sure that people are reminded that there are regional campuses and we’re pretty important to the University.

Undergraduate teaching is pretty important and sometimes it seems to be relegated to the lesser status because we like to get excited about these top-level achievements and big research stuff.

Don’t get me wrong — that’s part of the reason why I like to be part of Pitt, because it’s a major research university.

I’m just hoping to remind people that there are other parts of the University: That the regional campuses are a key part of the undergraduate education, and we do an awful lot of really innovative things.

I would just like to be the president who calls attention to that more than it has been, and try to enable the parts to be connected.

How will you make that happen?

We’re in the midst of that now and I didn’t start it.

The Senate formed an ad hoc committee to look into these issues surrounding full-time non-tenure-stream faculty. The committee included a variety of people from different schools — tenured, non-tenured. There was a department chair. We had active participation from the Provost’s office, HR.
When we all got in the same place, the very first thing that happened is that we all had our eyes opened: We realized that there are different experiences all over the place.

We don’t want one-size-fits-all, but we’d like to be aware of all the different flavors of us. The more you know about what’s going on in the other places, the more you can appreciate the University, I think.

And it becomes less and less likely that when you meet faculty in Oakland and they find out you work at Johnstown or Greensburg or Bradford, they say, “I didn’t know we had a campus there” or “Do you give four-year degrees out there?”

We have a major medical school. We’ve got a booming engineering school. But we also have some really interesting undergraduate-only campuses that are fulfilling different kinds of roles.

Once we realize what’s out there and start to work together as faculty on these, there’s a lot of ways you can connect.

We can’t all come up with an invention that makes money or some lifesaving kind of research in the medical school or write books that make important points that people actually read. It’s not that simple. I like Pitt because I interact with those people.

The fact is: There are smart people who are teaching undergraduates at Pitt who, in a different situation, a different moment in time, would be every bit as exalted as some of the people who have managed to reach that status. And Pitt has a lot of them.

We can make that more evident. When that happens, everybody is better. The superstars are better. Those of us who are teaching undergraduates on the regional campuses are better.

What drives you in your work?

I realize I’m atypical. I decided it was not important to me to try to get published in journals and write esoteric stuff. … What I think I can do at Pitt that adds value is to teach and do this other kind of work.

I used to get upset and frustrated about bureaucracy and administration … but every time I walked into a classroom it was like I forgot all about that. I was engaging in the thing that I think is really stimulating, which is: How do you get the light bulb to go on?

How do you get through? How do I make them understand that any aspect of sociology is important? It’s one thing if you’ve got all the advanced kids who were in the top 5 percent of their high school class. But when you walk in and in all honesty only 10 percent of the people want to be in your class, that’s a different kind of teaching challenge.

If we can figure out how to get through to people like that and turn them on, then they can answer the question about is college worth the investment? It’s not a debt, it’s an investment.

That to me is challenging, stimulating: trying to figure out what you can change in what you’re doing to see the light bulb go on in one or two … I declare victory every time I know there’s a couple of people there who got what I said.

I think if we focus as much on that as we focus on some other things that people spend their time doing we might come up with some better approaches.

How would you reset the focus?

I must say part of it must come from us beginning to change our criteria for how people get promotion.

I don’t think I can do it in a one-year term as a faculty president. I don’t think I can do it as a faculty president at all.

But if I could have some power, I would change some of the incentive and reward systems that we have — encourage people who would take on these other kinds of challenges with the same emphasis that they do on the more esoteric things. I would reward that.

Do you see this happening?

I am encouraged. It’s part of what came out of the non-tenure-stream work.

It’s playing out on my campus right now. We’re almost finished rewriting our tenure and promotion document. … We have begun to expand what counts as professional development.

When we complete our rewrite of the standard and we send it to the Provost’s office and she approves it, it matters. When these things are being endorsed by the chancellor, being endorsed by the provost, it changes.

How can you raise the regionals’ profile?

Video facilities on each campus will permit joint meetings. I want to call these meetings with Senate presidents on the regionals so we can talk. And if they can’t be there to raise issues that they think the Senate should consider, I can put them on the table.

Some predecessors made it a point to invite the Senate presidents from the regional campuses to Oakland for lunch meetings. And the campuses have been featured at Faculty Assembly meetings. I’d like to have that at least once this year.

There will never be a doubt that if there’s something special that (a regional campus) has to share, if the chancellor doesn’t say it in his report, I’m going to say it in mine.

So far the new chancellor has been mentioning news from the regional campuses so I may not have to do much there.

I just want to raise the consciousness in both directions. And the first way is to try to bring the regionals to the table … and to get some recognition that I think is long overdue.

What do you want the Pittsburgh campus to see?

It’s not as glamorous, not as big-ticket, but there are people doing really interesting work at every campus. We’ve got experiments in teaching undergraduates taking place. I think that instead of us looking at Oakland to see where the cool things are really happening, I think that a lot of the folks in Oakland would benefit if they came out and saw what’s going on at the regional campuses, especially when it comes to teaching.

There are already examples on each campus where undergraduate programs get connected to graduate programs in Oakland. There’s a lot more that can be done to increase the two-way traffic.

For example, the School of Social Work has a direct relationship with the social work program in Bradford. A couple of the nursing programs have the same thing.

(In Greensburg) we’re working on establishing deeper relations with GSPIA and public health, in large part because we’ve created an undergraduate public policy major on the campus. And we’ve started something called the Center for Applied Research, which is sort of a little version of UCSUR.

I think the Senate can help suggest those things and demonstrate the value of it. And I think if I’m reading what’s emerging from the strategic planning process, that fits right in with what we all should be doing — it’s connecting the parts, looking for synergies.

Your thoughts on Pitt’s strategic planning?

Sometimes there are planning processes that seem perfunctory or they don’t do much — I think this is real. I think there are going to be changes emerging from this that are going to be very positive.

It’s exciting. I’m seeing all kinds of things that are happening including me being elected and I think it’s only possible because of this moment.

How can the Senate play a role at this point in the process?

We can be a catalyst to help promote these changes.

When there are cultural changes, that’s going to be difficult and we’ve already seen examples of that. People get nervous when they realize there’s serious change going on, especially when you’re not talking about a failed system. We’re talking about Pitt, which by any kind of measure has been a success story. People get worried we’re going to blow something.

Pitt’s strategic planning is going on in the context of major changes outside that are affecting us that I think a lot of academics were not paying enough attention to: There’s the overall political context. The funding issue is the most obvious. … There is a major attack on the whole way that public universities are being run. They’re attacking tenure, they’re attacking the way we teach.

The fact is, we are being questioned in a way we haven’t been before. And, of course, the bigger question of “Is college really worth it?”

It’s not just anti-intellectuals or crazies on the outside finger-pointing at us. There are serious issues.

I think our Senate is dealing with those. We started to look at some of these important issues and I think more of the faculty are beginning to pay attention.

I take the chancellor at his word when he says he thinks our University should engage those big questions, not pretend like they don’t exist and not run away from them. So I think we need to do that. And if we’re going to do it successfully, the Senate has to play a role.

We shouldn’t be afraid to engage in debate about important issues.

If there is any purpose to the Senate it’s to be able to accommodate that. We may be the spark that causes a major debate that’s uncomfortable … We’ve seen examples of that in the past few years. I don’t see that as a bad thing. I see that as a good thing. Because it means we are getting more serious.

I do think that we are not just going through the motions with strategic planning. I think it’s real: More people are being listened to; a bigger variety are being listened to and taken seriously.

What uncomfortable issues need addressing?

I think the business of the role of non-tenure-stream faculty is obviously one of them and that’s not over with.

The Senate made recommendations (on policies regarding non-tenure-stream faculty) and there are some changes that have begun. It’s one thing to come up with recommendations or a policy statement and say ‘Yay, we did it.’ But then there’s the implementation. A lot of the schools are trying to figure out how to make these changes.

So there’s still more to do on that, but the next step is the part-time non-tenured faculty. That’s going to be a major thing on the agenda this year.

Another is this effort by the United Steelworkers to organize part-time faculty all around Pitt is going to come to us, one way or another. Regardless of what’s going on (at other area institutions) we need to deal with it internally. Right now.

What we did with non-tenure-stream faculty is a sign things have changed. It was put on the agenda. The administration looked at the salaries of the people at the bottom and realized how low they were. They began several years ago to start implementing phased changes to give higher-percentage salary increases to those at the bottom. Arts and sciences created a new level of lecturer: a three-stage system with a place for lecturers to move up in rank.
I think that the administration is committed to doing something about this problem at the bottom. They’re doing their part. And the Senate is engaging it too.

Now they’re starting to look closer at how many part-time non-tenure-stream faculty do we actually have at the University and what it is the variety? Salaries are something that need to be addressed.

I think we’re going to see progress made this coming year along those lines. I don’t think we’re going to resolve anything in that short a time, but I don’t see this as an us-versus-them battle between the administration and the faculty.

What tone is being set?

The administration, whether it’s the chancellor and his folks or the provost and her people, are open. They’re taking the initiative to make me feel there’s an open line of communication.

I’m feeling comfortable to go to them when I see issues or when I want to question what seems to be a unilateral decision.

The faculty shouldn’t be running the University. I don’t think we should be micromanaging. But what bothers faculty most is when we feel like just out of the blue something is being imposed without any input.

Sometimes we’re wrong because we don’t recognize that there was input. But sometimes we’re right because it was just a unilateral decision. Because the administration has the power, they can do it.

I think that often has negative consequences. It may not even be the substance of whatever the directive involved. It’s the way that it’s a top-down deal.

I think since I’m so aware of that, I really would like to play a part in changing that. I would like to see less knee-jerk and I want to be able to encourage the administration to give heads-up.

It’s not like we have to be involved in every little thing. But when you have major policy changes and decisions — the example would have been (the proposed suspension or elimination of) the three graduate programs in arts and sciences. It’s understandable you’d get a response to that.

My role is to try to make sure we don’t have any more of those if possible.

How can you facilitate that?

I want us to be an example of how things can work. That sounds pretty grandiose. That’s what is motivating me so I’m going to try to act accordingly.

I would like the story to be how the faculty and administration at Pitt use the Senate to deal with important issues without all hell breaking loose.

And for us to come up with creative solutions where you can say at the end of it, you know, the administration listened to what we were saying and they adapted and the faculty was responsible.

I want to be part of that story. I can help set an agenda. I can be a player in the process. I don’t want to jeopardize that. I don’t want to be the faculty Senate president that pissed off the administration so much that they quit dealing with the Senate.

I want them to feel like they can expand their version of shared governance.

I’d like to get some of my colleagues who seem to be upset to refocus a little bit and have the discussion. If we’re all a part of the same process it will be elevated.

If our position is recognized, if our arguments are heard, if we are treated respectfully, even if we don’t get what we are arguing for, what does remain is that we feel like we got a fair hearing. That makes a big difference.

I have had contrarian positions. Because I care about the place, I offer critiques about the way we do things, mostly on my own campus. I have never felt reluctant to make those statements. I’ve been listened to. I have at least gotten a fair hearing. I usually lose the argument. … but I’ve always thought if I got a fair hearing that’s all I could ask for and then whatever the final decision is, I will give 100 percent.

What is at the top of the Senate agenda as we start the new academic year?

I’m anxious to get the report from the ad hoc committee on the evaluation of tenured faculty — generated by the specter of people in the medical school having salary reductions if they didn’t bring in enough grant money. That’s going to be on the first Faculty Assembly meeting agenda.

Another is the Senate’s new research committee. There are issues all over about research. Part of the problem is the outside forces. Part of the problem is our internal bureaucracy. I think those kinds of issues will emerge this academic year.

The intellectual property rights issue that flared up last year is still a serious thing, and more so because of the increased emphasis on commercialization that provoked an initial knee-jerk reaction.

Those things haven’t gone away.

We need to move forward with those discussions in the coming year. My job is to make sure that we do it in an orderly way.

What would you like to be different?

What I was disappointed in a few times in the past couple of years is how we seem to go off on minutiae or less significant aspects of otherwise important issues. I want us to deal with the important issues in a substantive way.

Is there a plan for bringing that change?

Our plenary is going to be on the meaning of academic freedom. It starts with what we already had the (tenure and academic freedom committee subcommittee on academic freedom and the electronic media) look at: the impact of new technology and social media on free speech and all these issues. The idea now is to have a series of smaller events that lead up to that plenary in spring.

It became clear to me and several others that talking about academic freedom is pretty important because a lot of people made it clear in writing that what they think academic freedom is, is not what I think it is.

If you think academic freedom means that you can say anything you want to and no one can say anything about it, or if any policy that you don’t like is implemented it’s a threat to academic freedom — it makes the whole concept meaningless.

Is it daunting to get started?

It’s not like I’m taking over something that’s in total disarray. I am coming in trying to improve something that’s been improving each year. That’s the challenge — ensuring that I don’t move backwards. Not to screw up, but actually to make the next step — and to make the next step forward a big one.
That will be my goal. As long as it goes forward I’ll be okay with it.

Filed under: Feature,Volume 48 Issue 1

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