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September 15, 2016

University Senate Matters: Pitt’s changing times

We should remember that change is a constant, but its type, speed and strength are all variable. Before Chancellor Gallagher’s arrival, organizational change had been occurring at Pitt: Key people left and new people filled those positions. Some long-established programs were ended or significantly modified; new programs were initiated. That change process was not overly dramatic, nor did it take place at lightning speed. It was, rather, deliberate and steady, only producing dramatic results over the long term.

During the last few years the nature and pace of change at Pitt have deepened and accelerated. We grew from being a long-established American institution of higher learning to become recognized as a world-class, elite public research university. Chancellor Gallagher has been challenging us to demonstrate why we continue to deserve that recognition and how we can serve as an example of an organization not willing to rest on its laurels. He also is making it clear that he wants to continue moving forward at a faster pace than that to which we have been accustomed.

Many of us have welcomed this approach, believing that it opens the doors of opportunity and innovation. Others are uncomfortable with this changing style of leadership and wonder why things that seemed to be working well need to be modified. New key leadership positions have been, and are being, created. Many of the people filling those positions, whether moving up from Pitt’s ranks or coming in from the outside, have felt empowered as change agents. As they quickly move through their learning curves, they recognize that the primary context of their initiatives and actions is the implementation phase of The Plan for Pitt, the product of a thoughtful and substantive strategic planning process.

This emergent process of change has not been without its tensions, setbacks and roadblocks. A seamless transition in a complex organization undergoing significant cultural change like Pitt, situated as we are in uncertain national and global environments, would more likely be the exception than the rule. We should only be worried if this discomfort does not lessen as we carry out our work, or if that discomfort begins to slip into individual and collective demoralization.

I believe that the University Senate can, and should, play important roles in both enabling the positive aspects of our current change process and as a mediating and mitigating force at the points of friction. It is an official structure of shared governance, and I think the record is clear that the Senate leadership increasingly has sought to expand that responsibility, however advisory-only our role is explicitly defined. Prior to my taking office last year, the Senate already had acted as an important catalyst in Pitt’s strategic planning process, strengthening the collegial work between faculty, staff and student members of our committees and administration liaisons. We faced our differences and controversies professionally and in good faith.

Our efforts over the past year have continued along those lines, with some success. The current Year of Diversity, for instance, came about in large part as a call to action by Chancellor Gallagher, followed by the work and recommendations of a special Senate Council diversity and inclusion group. Another example: At one of its longest and most substantive meetings, Faculty Assembly debated and approved important University policy and procedures changes with respect to sexual misconduct. I believe our efforts have elevated the level of trust and cooperation between Pitt’s constituent groups.

Some of the items on our agenda for this year are:

• Continuing to establish new understandings and organizational policies and practices concerning research. The long-awaited recommendations of the committees examining questions of intellectual property rights such as copyrights, patents and conflict of interest soon will be announced. Simultaneously, the role of community-engaged research and practice will be seriously addressed. Both the Senate research committee and the community relations committee will focus on how such work should be appropriately supported, evaluated and rewarded.

• Discussing and voting on new policy recommendations regarding consensual sexual, romantic and intimate relationships with students and between employees.

• Considering all aspects of faculty evaluation. Both an ad hoc Senate committee focusing on evaluation of tenured faculty and our standing committee on tenure and academic freedom have confronted the issue of salary reductions and are working with the Provost’s office to establish University-wide policy guidelines for implementing and appealing those kinds of decisions. Our educational policies committee previously addressed questions about student evaluations of teaching, and a working group including members of that committee and the Senate computer usage committee has expanded that investigation. A new initiative, addressing the University’s current and possible future use of various metrics for evaluating faculty productivity, also will begin.

• Acting on the final report of the ad hoc committee on non-tenure-stream faculty issues, currently focused on part-time faculty.

• Discussing an institutional statement regarding diversity, inclusion and core values, as it is developed by a special Senate committee.

• Convening a special committee to consider the question of fossil fuel divestment by Pitt.


I should mention that this column is appearing in the first University Times that will be available in a digital-only format. The Senate officers are aware that there will be some sadness, and maybe opposition, resulting from the decision to go paperless. We think that this “Faculty and Staff Newspaper Since 1968” is something that has served Pitt well, is an example of objective journalism that is not common in higher education, and is a publication of which the University should be proud. We expressed our concerns about the change and what may be lost in the transition.

My hope, however, is that Vice Chancellor of Communications Susan Rogers, Times editor Nancy Brown and Senate Vice President Robin Kear, working together, will succeed in expanding both the substance of the paper and increasing the size of its readership.

Frank Wilson is president of the University Senate and a faculty member at Pitt-Greensburg.

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