Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

September 17, 2015

Senate Matters: Practicing what we preach

In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.
Bertrand Russell

It can be said that the first wisdom of sociology is this — things are not what they seem.
Peter Berger


Frank Wilson

While the first statement is perhaps not strong enough and the second arguably too simplistic and absolute, they both point to what most of us in our labs and classrooms and publications are claiming to be doing: thinking critically and pursuing knowledge rationally and systematically. It seems that we can do this very well when dealing with ideas, actions and institutions outside our own individual centers of the universe, but much less so when looking in the mirror. Try, for instance, to sustain a serious discussion and debate about academic tenure or the peer-review process or the most important manifestation of scholarship. Things turn emotional quickly, faith statements begin to replace analytically based speech, and critique is often taken as personal attack. When that happens we are not practicing what we teach.

It seems fitting during Pitt’s Year of the Humanities to remind ourselves that words we regularly use in our academic world are not simply reducible to unambiguous dictionary definitions. Those noted above, along with others such as public university, shared governance and academic freedom, are packed with meanings that often are complex, contestable and changing. It is too easy to forget that they are not necessarily shared by all of us in our conversations and interactions. If we neglect to regularly re-examine what those words and phrases do represent to each of us, we may not recognize that we are talking past, rather than with, each other.

I will admit that during the depths of the former Pennsylvania governor’s and his legislative allies’ budget-slashing attacks on public higher education, when I first believed that Pitt’s administration was seriously exploring the possibility of taking the University private and that few private universities found it necessary to have regional campuses, I immediately felt frightened, angry and betrayed. I had taken something very important to me — public higher education — for granted. Pitt’s administration had not. They instead were engaging in due diligence, and as I curbed my emotional response I could reflect critically on the seriousness of the situation and reaffirm my own commitment to Pitt’s mission as an institution with a special public responsibility.

When I first heard the current Pitt administration talking about commercialization in the context of University research, I immediately felt the same uncomfortable feeling that strikes me when I hear the words branding, marketing and product dominating the discussion about what we do. This was a case of reflex without reflection — more crudely, a knee-jerk reaction. I am still, of course, concerned about the negative consequences of the continuing commodification and excessive rationalization of everything. However, after seeing how Pitt faculty reacted in a reasoned way, and how the chancellor responded in kind, I am confident that we are moving forward. The Senate’s newly formed research committee and the administration now are engaged in a substantive examination of the varieties of research with impact that exist University-wide. We surely are not taking one of the cornerstones of Pitt’s mission for granted.

Similarly, I do not worry that the University Senate is taking shared governance for granted at this important historical moment. If you need some evidence about why I feel that way, re-read the Senate Matters columns from last year (Oct. 9, 2014, and Jan. 8, 2015) where former Senate presidents Nick Bircher and Michael Spring addressed the issue thoughtfully and critically. If you need more, go farther back in the University Times archives and observe that Senate presidents took our reason to exist as something not only to preserve, but to expand. I am convinced that our current Senate committees, including faculty members and the staff and administration liaisons, are similarly motivated.

The Senate executive committee has endorsed academic freedom as the focus of our spring plenary session. Seth Weinberg from the Senate’s tenure and academic freedom committee (TAFC) is heading up our organizing efforts. TAFC itself obviously will be a central part of the process, and I expect Pitt’s AAUP chapter, and representatives of the administration, will be too.

At a time when all around us we are seeing faculty faced with challenges to their speech rights outside of the classroom, and who are being required to produce “trigger warnings” and self-censor what they do in the classroom or face disciplinary actions, we cannot afford to take academic freedom for granted. We need to reflect on why this became necessary to the development of higher education in the first place, and to make as clear as possible which of its meanings we can share and rally around.

I recently saw a poster that says, “When you take things for granted, what you’ve been granted gets taken.” I ordered one for my office door to help remind me that it is not only the foundation of what I teach, but it also should be a guide for what I practice as Senate president.

Senate President Frank Wilson teaches sociology at Pitt-Greensburg.

Leave a Reply