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October 13, 2016

Senate Matters

Executive officers and backchannels

Every successful organization needs both backchannels and sympathetic ears.

My father, a military officer, talked about how the relationship between a commanding officer (CO) and an executive officer (XO) needed to be complementary. If the CO was tough, it was the job of the XO to be a sympathetic ear. If the CO was accessible, it was the job of the XO to carry out the tough assignments. Given my father’s style as CO, he surely relied on his XO to lend a sympathetic ear and let him know what was going on.

The term “backchannel” came to the fore during the Iranian hostage crisis. It refers to informal channels and unofficial contacts that can be used as a means to explore possible solutions out of the public view.

At a university, deans and department chairs provide the links for formal, or one-way, communications between faculty and the senior administration. But sometimes the people in these positions also provide informal, or two-way, channels of communication. Over Pitt’s history, there have been times when communications were very much one-way. During one of these periods, in the early 1940s, the trustees formed the University Senate and committed the University to shared governance. The Senate would provide a kind of backchannel through which additional information would flow when needed.

Over the years, some Pitt administrators have used the CO/XO relationship to improve communications. When communications are weak, which occurs from time to time in all institutions, tensions can rise and conflicts can erupt. Faculty Assembly and the Senate standing committees are one mechanism that can improve communications and help to shape policy and decision making. The policies on visitors and the assignment of intellectual property rights are two recent examples.

Good communications are particularly important in times of change and it would appear we are entering a period of significant change. We are 70, 50 and 25 years into the eras of computing, networking and the web respectively. We are nearing the end of the period of incunabula: the early stages of any major technology shift. This is when random experimentation gives way to more directed changes and we begin to see the true revolutionary impacts of a new era — in this case, the era of digital information and computation via ubiquitous networks. The movement from physical to digital artifacts was far more rapid than most of us woud have imagined. Would you have bet two decades ago that media-based information would be virtually obsolete? Today bits are provided and used on demand for documents, images, video, music, etc.

The world has grown orders of magnitude smaller based on new social networks and connections. The next 50 years will see massive employment shifts, new forms of social engagement and new scientific breakthroughs based on digital data and data analytics.

There are additional disruptive forces on the horizon for us as an educational institution. We will see demands for new skills and competencies in workers and citizens. The nature of our research relationships will continue to evolve. Government regulation and controls on education will continue to develop.

At Pitt, our relationship with the commonwealth will continue to be challenged. Fifty years ago, on Aug. 23, 1966, House Bill 2 granted Pitt state-related status. Given the looming issues related to state pension funding, it is likely Pitt will continue to struggle with how the University relates to the commonwealth. These are just a few of the dozens of challenges we will face in coming years.

As we move forward with our new strategic plan, looking to evolve our student body and our course offerings, modify our research and innovation goals and strategies and deal with increased government regulation, it will be important for us to work together to shape the future.

Looking back over the history of Pitt, it is clear that faculty, staff and administration have gone to extraordinary lengths to make a good University better and then to make a great University even greater. Each of us must play a role through formal and informal channels to be sure the decision-making exercised by our administrative colleagues is well informed. Faculty must speak, and administrators must listen. Administrators need to make sure either they, or their XOs, are providing a sympathetic ear, and faculty need to seek out backchannels that will enable them to shape the conversation so as to allow us to move forward with the collective wisdom of our faculty, staff and administration.

Michael Spring is past president of the University Senate and a faculty member in the School of Information Sciences.

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