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October 15, 2015

Faculty learn more about strategic plan initiatives

Individualized education. Teaching informed by research from Pitt’s own discipline-based centers. A University-wide computational infrastructure. A more diverse faculty and staff.

Leaders of the University’s strategic planning working groups shared some of the initiatives that are being envisioned and heard Faculty Assembly members’ questions, concerns and suggestions as part of the Assembly’s Oct. 6 meeting.

The hour-long discussion was part of a series of sessions designed to gather grassroots input on specific actions that will advance the plan’s five strategic goals: advancing educational excellence; engaging in research impact; strengthening communities; building foundational strength; and embracing diversity and inclusion.

In addition to the faculty forum, leaders met this month in separate sessions with Council of Deans members, students and planning and budgeting committee (PBC) members.

Executive Vice Provost David DeJong, who is coordinating the planning process, said, “The plan itself is something we very much intend to be continually subject to revision as we continue to get feedback and input …

“This is not something that we’re intending to carve into stone, but something that will be a living and evolving document, so I think the engagement process is critical and that we continue to do that.”


Health Sciences Library System faculty member Patricia Weiss asked what will be different at Pitt 10 years from now as a result of the strategic planning currently underway.

Discipline-based approaches are one area, said DeJong. “We will have many more discipline-based centers that are actively engaged in research on the question of education in that discipline,” he said, adding that the centers’ research will inform the way different subjects are taught. “And there will be support for faculty who want to use cutting-edge techniques in their own courses to have a bigger impact on their students,” DeJong said. “That’s something that I think we’ve got a bit of a head start on and it’s something we want to emphasize.”

Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies Juan Manfredi, head of the working group on education, said there will be an emphasis on personalizing educational experiences. “That means moving from the cohort model … to more of an individualized approach where we give the student whatever he needs to be successful.”

Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs, Development and Diversity Laurie Kirsch said her group on strengthening the Pitt community has focused on building an environment to attract and keep the best talent … “not just strong recruiting but strong retention programs,” including faculty and staff development programs to help individuals grow in their profession, she said.

Vice Provost for Research Mark Redfern, head of the research working group, said it is looking at the need to build a computational infrastructure that can be used by faculty University-wide. Supporting big-data initiatives is one aspect, he said. Another is broadly supporting the social sciences.

“We’re looking at things that aren’t specific to a specific school or discipline, but also listening to the schools to see what they’re trying to do, to see what we can do at higher levels. … We’re very happy to get input from all the different parts of the University, what they’re trying to do … so we can try to integrate those,” he said.


Faculty added their suggestions, including developing a center for foreign language learning, given the strategic plan’s emphasis on expanding opportunities for study abroad; and development of alternative energy sources to power the campus.

Engaging with faculty

Tenure and academic freedom committee co-chair Maria Kovacs suggested that strategic planning leaders work closely with the Senate standing committees to develop and implement specific strategic planning goals.

“We try to represent issues that cut across the entire University, so you don’t tend to have the biases that you’re going to face in the individual units.”

Kovacs asked as well for the administration to create a statement directed squarely at faculty, as a means of better engaging them in the process. She noted that faculty have a dual role:  Not only are they affected by the changes on the horizon, they also are key players in implementation of those changes.

Faculty concerns

Several faculty members pointed out that the ability to successfully implement many of the changes depends on support at the deans’ level.

Senate past-president Nick Bircher, a School of Medicine faculty member, said University-wide support for multidisciplinary work is needed. “The spectrum of reaction among our mid-level managers ranges from strong encouragement to strong discouragement,” he said. “If I want to teach a couple of lectures at the School of Nursing, I’m discouraged from doing that because it doesn’t benefit the School of Medicine. In my view, that is wrong.”

DeJong said Bircher isn’t alone in his experience. “We have heard that particular comment very broadly … When you look at the plan and you’re seeing things like ‘internal partnerships’ and ‘interdisciplinary efforts’ in the education goal and the research goal, we have really heard that. One of the things we need to do internally is to figure out how to facilitate that: culturally to get leadership recognizing the benefits of that and encouraging it,” he said.

Bircher also said that what constitutes scholarship needs to be more clearly defined here. “Ultimately, the deans will need to buy into a broad definition of scholarship that includes, for instance, scholarly outreach in the community. That is not an encouraged activity, at least in the School of Medicine. That definition of ‘impact’ has to have some broad generic guidelines from the top,” he said.

DeJong said discussions are continuing in that vein.


Francesca Savoia, a faculty member in French and Italian languages and literatures, commented that faculty typically are very open to the cooperation and cross-disciplinary interaction that’s being promoted in the strategic plan. “But between the top and the bottom is the middle,” she said, questioning: “How onboard are the deans of the various schools?”

DeJong said, “They’re hearing quite clearly that the impetus for implementation is on them: Their plans need to be aligned with the University plan. And that process of reporting that we go through on a normal basis is continuing. The sort of reporting metrics that they typically do are being reviewed to make sure that they’re measuring things that we still think are relevant. Very much that emphasis is there.”

Senate President Frank Wilson commented: “Not only do the deans and others up and down the ladder have to align their plans, they have to align their practices with this, which I’ve been taking as a key piece of the implementation.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘I’ve got this plan, here it is’ … but if then we discover the practices are another way, we have to have confidence that will be brought into alignment.”


Bircher noted as well, “In some schools participation in shared governance is strongly discouraged. To the extent that you want to build engagement, and over the long haul engage in systems thinking — that is you have all stakeholders at the table — one way to do that is to align both encouragement and incentives for participation.”

He suggested that deans publish the rosters of their units’ PBC membership. “In the School of Medicine, it’s a clandestine operation,” he commented.

Wilson noted that although the University has a defined planning and budgeting process, it’s not implemented consistently. “I know of some examples and heard of others where it’s been sort of a ‘paper’ process for the planning and budget committees of the unit to be really substantively engaged in this … there are others where this has been at full force all along,” he said.

DeJong said, “In discussions with the academic leadership we’ve been very much focusing on going through this with the planning processes that are and should be in place.”

Wilson said the issue is not one solely for the administration.

He called on members of the Senate “to take a look at our own areas of responsibility and ask ourselves: Have we been doing the right thing all along? And if not, maybe this would be a good opportunity to bring that practice into some kind of alignment with the plan.”


In response to practical questions on advancing ideas that cut across multiple initiatives, DeJong urged faculty to interact with the working groups. Synergies and collaborations are discussed in a weekly meeting of working group leaders, he said.

“If you know of things that are happening that one of the working groups should know about, let them know,” he said. “If you would like to have a discussion on initiatives that you are working on, let us know.”

DeJong promised to add contact information for the working groups to the strategic planning information posted at

—Kimberly K. Barlow  

Filed under: Feature,Volume 48 Issue 4

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