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May 23, 1996

Nordenberg okays policy on faculty–student relationships

Interim Chancellor Mark Nordenberg has approved a policy that restricts consensual sexual relationships between Pitt faculty and students.

Senate Council members approved the policy May 13. Also at the May meeting, Council approved a revised conflict of interest policy for research and teaching.

Senate Council tabled two other proposals:

* A proposed policy for managing and encouraging commercialization of faculty inventions through independent spin-off companies. Senate Council voted to defer action until Council's June 10 meeting, to give the Staff Association Council (SAC) time to study the policy. SAC President Brian Hart complained that the staff group (which has three voting representatives on the Council, including Hart) was not told of the proposal prior to the May 13 meeting.

* A motion calling on Pitt administrators to revoke the medical center's license to use the words "University of Pittsburgh" in its name. Council voted to defer action on the motion until October. By then, the Board of Trustees is expected to issue a public report spelling out the relationship between Pitt and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) System, Inc., which is a separate corporation that manages the UPMC hospitals.

Proponents of the proposal to take the "University of Pittsburgh" out of "UPMC" claim that the University's fundraising and public image have suffered because of confusion over the Pitt-UPMC relationship. They also argue that Pitt would be prudent to distance itself from the hospitals at a time of great instability in health care funding.

Council voted 25-0 to endorse the policy on faculty-student relationships, which prohibits faculty from having sexual and/or romantic relationships with students whose academic work, teaching and/or research they supervise or evaluate.

Faculty will not be barred from engaging in intimate relationships with students in their classes, as long as the faculty members and the University arrange for other people to grade, supervise and advise those students.

Since last fall, when the provost's Task Force on Sexual Harassment circulated its first draft of the policy, it has gone through several rewrites. The current version reads as follows: "The University's educational mission is promoted by professional relationships between faculty members and students. Relationships of an intimate nature compromise the integrity of a faculty-student relationship whenever the faculty member has a professional responsibility for the student.

"The University prohibits intimate relationships between a faculty member and a student whose academic work, teaching or research is being supervised or evaluated by the faculty member. If an intimate relationship should exist or develop between a faculty member and a student, the University requires the faculty member to remove himself/herself from all supervisory, evaluative and/or formal advisory roles with respect to the student. Failure to do so may subject the faculty member to disciplinary action.

"Transgressions of this policy render both the University and the faculty member vulnerable to civil charges of sexual harassment and may result in the forfeiture of the legal and monetary protections of the University's Indemnification Policy (Policy Number 07-06-06)." The policy defines a faculty member as anyone appointed by the University as a teacher, researcher or academic administrator, including graduates and undergraduates so appointed.

An earlier draft seemed to indicate that faculty could forfeit Pitt legal protection merely because students "asserted" claims against them under the consensual sex policy. But that's not true, University Counsel Lewis Popper told Senate Council. "The assertion of a legal claim by a student against a faculty member does not determine indemnification at all," he said.

Under the indemnification policy (which Senate representatives helped to write), Pitt employees are entitled to University legal and monetary protection as long as: * Their actions or omissions occurred while they were fulfilling their duties as University employees.

* The actions/omissions were in good faith and were performed in a manner "reasonably believed to be lawful and in the best interests of the University." * The actions/omissions did not constitute willful misconduct, gross negligence or recklessness.

Popper said that in each indemnification case, he makes a preliminary judgment on whether the employee qualifies for University legal and financial protection, based on the policy standards and the facts of the employee's case as they are known at that point.

If Popper judges against the employee, he or she can appeal the decision once the litigation is settled. At that point, a three-member indemnification committee is convened to make the final decision on whether the employee is entitled to indemnification coverage. The committee's membership varies depending on whether the employee is a faculty or staff member and whether he/she works in the Provost's area, the Health Sciences or an administrative unit.

Council also unanimously endorsed the revised conflict of interest policy, which forbids researchers from engaging in activities in which the potential for personal gain might affect the integrity of his/her research or relationship with Pitt.

The Deans Council also has approved the document.

The document includes 13 single-spaced, typed pages of general principles, definitions, examples of potential and actual conflicts of interest (for example, Pitt forbids "purchasing equipment, instruments, or supplies for research or teaching from a firm in which the faculty member, investigator, or administrator has a financial or other interest") and procedures for dealing with such conflicts.

The policy was amended in March to meet new conflict of interest standards that Washington has set for universities that receive federal research funds.

— Bruce Steele

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