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March 17, 2016

Faculty continues discussion about diversity & inclusion

Faculty Assembly was not ready to endorse specific recommendations but unanimously supported ongoing discussion in accord with Chancellor Patrick Gallagher’s challenge to Senate Council to devise a strategy for expanding campus dialogue on diversity and inclusion. (See Nov. 25 University Times.)

In discussion, several Assembly members asked that specific definitions of “diversity” and “inclusion” be developed as part of the work of a Senate Council task force made up of faculty, staff, students and administrators.

Assembly members took no issue with the Senate Council group’s recommendation that the University declare 2016-17 the Year of Diversity and Inclusion, nor with the plan for Council to devote its March 23 meeting to a discussion of diversity and inclusion.

More controversial, however, were the group’s initial recommendations that called for a University-wide Pitt Promise (see Feb. 18 University Times) and a permanent advisory council for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, which some faculty said overlapped the work of existing groups including the Senate equity, inclusion and antidiscrimination advocacy committee.

Revised recommendations presented this month to the Assembly toned down and clarified the call for an institution-wide “Pitt Promise” in response to concerns over free speech and possible sanctions for violating the promise.

In a unanimous vote at its March 15 meeting, Faculty Assembly approved a motion that “acknowledges receipt of the report and endorses the further activity of this committee.”

In its revised recommendations, the diversity group still recommended “development of a statement of values, perhaps inspired by the Pitt Promise,” ( in which undergraduate students promise to uphold standards of civility, responsibility and integrity.

The diversity group clarified that no oath would be required, but the promise “would communicate institutional standards and help set the expectations for administrators, faculty, staff and students of creating and maintaining a culture of respect.”

In case of a breach, the University would handle the situation “as it handles all situations where institutional standards are not met, with the expectation of education and accountability,” the committee recommended. “When constitutionally protected speech is implicated, the ‘promise’ should be enforced consistent with the First Amendment.”

University Senate President Frank Wilson, a member of the diversity group, recognized that some terminology — including civility, obligation and accountability — raised concerns among some faculty. He explained the group’s desire was to jointly develop an institutional statement of values. “We thought that whatever value statement we came up with should apply to everyone.”

Free speech concerns Wilson said he hoped that faculty would contribute “a strong statement about the importance of free speech as a core value” to any such statement of values.

“A lot of folks cannot do their jobs with the fear that there’s going to be sanctions or limitations on our speech in the context of teaching,” Wilson said. “I’m sure researchers are feeling same kind of thoughts.

“As an individual faculty member, I’m hoping that one of the outcomes of this process, however long it may take, is a stronger commitment institutionally to these ideas,” Wilson said.

“Right now I’m not worried about the current administration punishing me for what I’m doing in the classroom … and saying what I thought needed to be said,” Wilson said. “But the idea that a different administration could come in and impose these kinds of restrictions is obviously possible. We’re seeing it around the country,” he said.

“I would hope that we would have an institutional statement that would make it hard for any subsequent administration to violate the basic principles that we might establish through a process.”

Michael Goodhart of political science said any statement should seek a commitment from the administration as well.

“Faculty get worried that if they say something controversial or provocative that they’ll be hung out to dry, because politically the University administration may not see it as politically expedient, or even possible, depending on the climate, to actually defend them,” he said. “There are examples of this happening to people in various contexts all around the country.”

Goodhart said: “I would hope that any statement of values coming from the faculty would strongly encourage that the administration also commit to respecting and supporting faculty speech and expression when faculty are engaged in their scholarly and pedagogical activities.

“As a political scientist, I can’t teach if I can’t talk about controversial issues. And somebody’s going to get offended or pissed off. If I don’t have an affirmative commitment from the administration that I’m safe doing that, then the safe thing to do is not talk about those things. And that doesn’t advance the cause of diversity, inclusion or intellectual development in any way. It just makes our classroom discussions boring. And it doesn’t challenge students or give us the freedom we need to push those conversations in those directions.

“What I think is really important here is that a statement like this not just focus on diversity and inclusion … but that it also include the values that are important to supporting the kind of culture at the University where we can all feel confident engaging those discussions in the various ways that are appropriate to our scholarship and our teaching responsibilities.”

Seth Weinberg of dental medicine agreed, adding that the commitment to protecting free speech and academic freedom must extend beyond the classroom as well, citing related incidents involving faculty elsewhere.

In addition to Wilson, Senate Council group on diversity and inclusion members are: Staff Association Council President Rich Colwell; Pamela Connelly, associate vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion; Kathy Humphrey, senior vice chancellor for engagement, chief of staff and Board of Trustees secretary; Student Government Board President Nasreen Harun; College of General Studies Student Government President Julia Helgert; Graduate Student Organization of Arts and Sciences (GSO) President Dominique Johnson; Graduate and Professional Student Government President Joseph Kozak; and GSO Vice President Erin Kathleen Pfeil-McCullough.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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