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November 25, 2015

Goal is more inclusive campus

The University Senate is working with Pitt administrators, staff and students to expand dialogue in support of a more inclusive campus community.

In his Nov. 11 report to Senate Council, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher called on the University Senate to partner with the administration in developing a sustainable strategy for improving Pitt’s campus culture in response to turmoil on campuses elsewhere.

“These incidents have thrown a very bright light on issues of racial tolerance, on free speech, on the experience of what’s happening in American universities,” Gallagher said.

“Tensions are incredibly high right now,” the chancellor said. “Emotions are running very high.” The upside: “This is the kind of environment where you can catalyze action or you can raise attention to an issue or create a prominence that’s important,” he said, cautioning, “It’s also an environment where it magnifies the potential for misunderstanding and even open conflict.”

No institution is immune, the chancellor said. “I think we’d be well served to think about it before we’re in the midst of a crisis with heated passions and all the high temperature that comes with being in direct conflict.

“We should be thoughtful now. We should engage,” he said.

“Actively seeking and supporting a culture of diversity that’s really built upon respect for the rights of others, compassion and freedom of thought is actually vital to our mission of learning and discovery, so it’s core to the vitality of the University,” Gallagher told Senate Council.

“The issue of tolerance for race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity or sexual orientation is an issue that’s of acute and vital importance to many in our community. The reason is that for them they’re dealing with the consequences of intolerance on a daily level: and so for many people, it’s important to remember this is personal. They live with it. But if we are a community that’s built on compassion for others, that means it’s got to be important to us too.”

Gallagher said the University already has taken action, in part by making diversity and inclusion a prominent part of its strategic plan and by creating the positions of senior vice chancellor for engagement (held by Kathy Humphrey, who also is chief of staff and secretary of the Board of Trustees), and associate vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion (held by Pamela Connelly, who took on the new role earlier this year.)

“While I think we’ve done a lot, I think we need to hit the gas pedal harder and I think it involves two important things: One is deliberately expanding the range of ways that we engage the community to hear the many views on this topic,” he told the council.

“There are a lot of smart people on this campus who care about this and are thoughtful about it. I’d like to hear from as many as possible,” Gallagher said, asking for input from faculty, staff and students on all campuses.

The chancellor suggested focusing on the Pitt Promise, a commitment to civility that students are asked to make. “How do we put those principles into practice and what does it mean if somebody’s really outside of the norms of the community expectations that we’re trying to create?

“What does that mean? What are the things that we do? Because that’s exactly where everybody’s struggling.”

Gallagher said, “I think it’s really important that our approach has to seek to maximize understanding and open dialogue. I also want to point out that there is a very real tension built into this problem that is actually a difficult one: It’s one you can see many of the universities in the newspapers struggling with: How do you balance an individual right that includes freedom of expression — even when that expression is ugly or hateful — with our civil right to be in a society free from discrimination, hatred or harassment?”

The tension between freedom and responsibility is built into the fabric of our society and institutions, including Pitt, he said.

“If you read the Pitt Promise, you see that deliberately spelled out as we ask Pitt students to promise that they will embrace the concept of a civil community; that they commit themselves to the pursuit of knowledge and personal integrity; that they respect the sanctity of the learning environment; and that they support a culture of diversity by respecting the rights of those who differ from themselves and contribute to the development of a caring community where compassion for others and freedom of thought are valued,” the chancellor said.

“This tension that everyone’s struggling with is, in my view, a necessary but difficult aspect of our civil culture,” he said. “The fact that you see so many very smart universities struggling with this means that there are, I think, no easy answers,” he said, reiterating, “I also think that a great University should be in the middle of the greatest issues. We’re not a backwater.”

In asking the Senate to take on the issue, Gallagher said, “While the administration has a role, it should not be looked at as the source of the answer.

“I don’t think that’s realistic and I think this is an all-hands-on-deck kind of issue: I think this touches faculty and how they teach and create a learning environment. Certainly it includes the staff and it certainly includes the students,” he said.

Citing Pitt’s model of shared governance, Gallagher said, “I think we have to look at the Senate Council and the ways we can engage the entire University community around this issue.”

He suggested that the Senate, which has chosen to focus its spring plenary session on academic freedom, broaden the focus to include discussions on supporting open expression in a climate that embraces diversity.

“We don’t just have individual rights of expression. We have to live together and work together and we have to respect each other. And that’s really important.”

Gallagher asked the Senate to work with Humphrey and Connelly to develop a strategy and schedule to support expanded engagement and dialogue on the issue. “I don’t think this is going to be a short-term thing, either, so I would approach it with the idea that this is a sustainable effort.”

Gallagher asked as well that the Senate put periodic progress updates on its agenda.


Senate President Frank Wilson truncated his own report, telling council it was clear that he and the chancellor were “thinking about the same thing in the same way. And so I’m not going to repeat that.”

Wilson’s written report states, in part: “…We see emerging controversies involving student protests over racist incidents and the lack of strong official action in response to them, followed by the resignations of public university officials under pressure from those protests. At the same time demonstrations erupt with demands that faculty at an elite private institution be removed from their positions, ostensibly for e-mail warnings about offensive Halloween costumes, but more substantively about the differential and negative treatment of minority students in that university’s structure and culture.

“Here at Pitt we are not without our own tensions, issues and controversies. That is normal and necessary if as a leading public university we accept our charge to fully engage the big social issues facing us all. There are also smaller, but critically important, organizational issues that we face at our own University.  We should not be reluctant to fully engage them either.”

Wilson told council: “We have the luxury right now to be able to be the kind of institution that looks at these bigger problems not while we’re under the pressure of some incident or public scrutiny in these emotional ways, but we have an opportunity to look at things much more deeply.

“… If we’re lucky and we don’t have our own incidents, we might be able to be a model for other places on how you should think about what a public university in particular should be doing to think about these big problems and maybe come up with some helpful answers. Not that we’re going to solve anything — these are too big for any of us — but we could play a role that way.

“And I think that is something we share. I have no doubts at this point that we’re all at that same table and we’re going to do our best to move this forward.”


In response to the chancellor’s request, planning began via a Nov. 18 teleconference that included Wilson, Humphrey, Connelly; Nasreen Harun, president of Pitt’s Student Government Board; Joseph Kozak, president of the Graduate and Professional Student Government; and Rich Colwell, Staff Association Council president.

Following the initial discussion, Connelly told the University Times that the group is seeking to “determine where we are, where we want to be and how to get there.”

The steering committee will meet Nov. 30 to hear how work already undertaken by the strategic planning working group on diversity and inclusion might figure into the next steps, she said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow     

Filed under: Feature,Volume 48 Issue 7

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