Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

November 20, 2003

Shared Governance: An example of the lack of shared governance?

There were times during the 1980s and ’90s when Pitt senior administrators and University Senate leaders were united largely by mutual contempt, and holding a public forum on shared governance could have led to a brawl.

Well, maybe not a brawl. But suggesting that faculty and administrators work collegially together in governing Pitt surely would have invoked sarcasm and snide comments.

In contrast, the Senate’s Nov. 6 plenary session, “Perspectives on Shared Governance,” turned out instead to be (apart from occasional criticisms) “a love-fest,” as moderator James Cassing observed.

Cassing, an economics professor, was one of four former University Senate presidents who joined current president Nicholas G. Bircher, Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg and Provost James V. Maher to discuss the faculty’s role in helping to run the University.

“I would say that the processes of shared governance here at Pitt over the course of the past several years have been productive and, even when not pleasant, certainly civil,” said Nordenberg, giving “considerable credit” for this civility to the Senate presidents.

James G. Holland, an emeritus professor of psychology who clashed memorably with previous Pitt administrators when he presided over the Senate in the early 1990s, said the University is “fortunate right now in having a really great central administration” — although, Holland warned, this “could easily lull us into losing track of why it is important to have an independent Senate.”

Even audience members joined in the love-fest.

“Shared governance at the University of Pittsburgh does work,” declared Rich Colwell, president of Pitt’s Staff Association Council (SAC), during the question-and-answer session that followed the speakers’ remarks. A SAC officer for many years, Colwell serves on various Pitt governance groups, including Senate Council and the University Planning and Budgeting Committee.

John P. Williams, chairperson of the University’s anesthesiology department, favorably compared Pitt and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) with his former employer, UCLA, a school noted for its long tradition of shared governance.

“I can tell you that the level of shared governance that I have experienced here, both at Pitt and inside the medical center, is head and shoulders above what I saw go on at UCLA,” said Williams. For example, Pitt and UPMC administrators solicited and followed faculty advice in overhauling the UPMC central billing office, he said.

Shared governance within UPMC and Pitt’s medical school has improved at an evolutionary pace rather than a dramatic one “but it is getting better,” said Williams.

“Meanwhile at UCLA, the medical school and the hospital associated with it have been put under outside management,” he pointed out. “That’s because there is not this kind of shared governance that goes on at UPMC. And while it may not be perfect, it is a heck of a lot better than what I see going on at UCLA currently.”

In contrast to Williams, Senate president Bircher rated UPMC as being closer to the “pure dictatorship” end of the governance spectrum than the “pure democracy” end.

Specifically, Bircher — a former lieutenant in the U.S. Navy — ranked UPMC’s governance system midway between the Navy’s (“if you know how to work the system, the Navy has a good process” and low-ranking officers and seamen have “some voice” in governance, Bircher said) and the one aboard the H.M.S. Bounty (scene of a notorious breakdown in collegiality).

According to Bircher, accountants at UPMC “govern the budget and generally are unavailable for comment”… “lawyers are the best listeners and the most responsive if your case has been made well”…and “expert medical opinion carries no weight beyond the advisory level.”

During the three years prior to June 1999, when Williams became chairperson of anesthesiology, that department suffered a 200 percent turnover rate, as 82 faculty members left and the unit was downsized from 68 to 41 full-time faculty positions, said Bircher, who is an associate professor of anesthesiology and critical care medicine.

“I do believe that this is a world’s record both in terms of absolute numbers and in terms of turnover,” Bircher said, blaming the department’s problems largely on high-handed management.

Compared with governance in UPMC and the medical school, shared governance in the rest of the University “really provides us with a pretty good opportunity to show up and speak up,” Bircher said. He noted that the Senate played a pivotal role several years ago in forcing public discussions of the contract negotiations that led to the formation of the University of Pittsburgh Physicians practice plan.

Former Senate president Holland recounted instances when the Senate in its role as “the loyal opposition” championed Pitt’s Environmental Law Clinic against attacks by state lawmakers; defended lead-poisoning researcher Herbert Needleman and other Pitt investigators against unfounded charges of scientific misconduct, and successfully lobbied for limited fringe benefits — including tuition benefits and library privileges — for employees’ same-sex domestic partners. (So far, the University administration has not heeded the Senate’s repeated calls for Pitt to extend health benefits to same-sex partners.)

The Senate president, as the faculty’s elected representative, is equal in status to Pitt’s chancellor, argued Holland. “Now, of course, they’re not equal in power,” he quickly noted, likening the relationship between the Senate president and the chancellor to that between Denmark’s prime minister and the president of the United States.

Nathan Hershey, a professor of health law in the Graduate School of Public Health (GSPH) and another former president of the Senate, observed that:

  • “If respect from those at the top of the institutional pyramid is not shown to those below, the respect will not flow upward. Whether physicians or faculty, the individuals below will be sullen, less willing to cooperate and will look for greener pastures when they can.”
  • “Listening in itself is a strong sign of respect,” he said, lauding Pitt’s current leadership for always being willing to listen, if not always bow to, faculty criticisms.
  • While governance processes are important, their success depends on the actions of the administrators in power. “Their attitude and their abilities can destroy, or at least greatly weaken, the process and structures that have been created,” Hershey said.

School of Dental Medicine professor John Baker agreed. Baker, who during the 1990s bitterly criticized his school’s then-dean, Jon Suzuki, at meetings of Senate Council and Faculty Assembly, praised the school’s current administration under Dean Thomas W. Braun. “People do make shared governance work,” Baker said during the plenary session’s question-and-answer period, “and I think shared governance in the dental school has worked very well in recent years.

Hershey argued that “changes in the University have altered administrator-faculty relationships. The tradition of collegiality has been replaced in large measure by a management-worker approach” in which department chairpersons evaluate faculty “in a more formal and specific manner, often with a quantitative grading emphasis. This change has created much greater potential for conflict.”

Hershey proposed that Pitt, in searching for department chairs and deans, adopt an application form similar to the forms used by hospitals in evaluating practitioners seeking medical staff appointments.

Prospective chairpersons and deans would be asked: Have you ever been named as an offender in an action brought by a faculty member or student for harassment, retaliation or other improper behavior? Have you ever been the subject of a grievance complaint in a university or civil process by a faculty member, student or subordinate?

Under Hershey’s scheme, candidates who answered “yes” to either question would be required to describe the nature of the legal action and/or complaint and its outcome.

“Academic administrators in an increasingly regulated environment have more difficult jobs than their predecessors,” Hershey concluded. “This helps to explain the gulf that many see as being destructive of collegiality. It may be that shared governance is an objective that’s increasingly out of reach. Academic administrators need to recognize that to build their own success, they need to respect faculty for whom, and to whom, they are responsible.”

Former Senate president Gordon K. MacLeod, an emeritus professor of health services administration in GSPH, outlined a proposal for improving shared governance here: replacing Faculty Assembly with an “academic council” at each Pitt school and regional campus, together with an overarching “academic commission” to address University-wide issues.

Membership on each council would be limited to tenured faculty members and the dean or campus president, with the chancellor and provost as ex-officio members, MacLeod said. The council would serve as the governing board for its respective school or regional campus, entrusted with matters of governance and education policy and making recommendations to the provost and chancellor for tenure appointments.

The University-wide commission could be composed of one representative member from each school or campus’s council.

“Professors on each council and the commission could invite other faculty members of any rank to attend their individual meetings,” MacLeod said. “At all meetings, action would be taken by a majority vote of a designated quorum of those present and voting.”

MacLeod argued that his plan would provide for more school-level autonomy in University governance. But Provost Maher said Pitt’s system already resembles MacLeod’s plan in that the University’s schools and regional campuses — and many departments — maintain their own self-governance organizations, rules for awarding tenure, traditions and administrative processes. All of these have been reviewed by the provost’s office to make sure they comply with general University guidelines, said Maher, who also criticized MacLeod’s proposed system for excluding staff, students and non-tenured faculty.

Maher said: “I think the problem is, when you talk about ‘governance’ too many people think you mean only the Senate. And the Senate is a crucial part, particularly for its role in criticizing how well the system is working or isn’t working” but the Senate is far from being the only player in shared governance here, he said.

In addition to describing school and departmental systems, Maher cited the following groups — each of which is dominated by faculty, many of them representing Senate committees:

  • At the provost’s level, three groups — the Provost’s Advisory Council on Undergraduate Programs, the University Council on Graduate Studies and the Advisory Council on Instructional Excellence — help to set teaching and curriculum policies.
  • Similarly, the University Research Council, the Committee on Academic Computing and various ad hoc committees advise the provost on research issues.
  • The Information Technology Steering Committee, chaired by Maher, advises the chancellor on technology issues. “You’ve seen enormous changes in the last few years in our computer infrastructure and in the use and availability of computing in the classroom as well as in the research labs,” Maher said. “That’s all come out of the deliberations of this committee.”
  • The University Planning and Budgeting Committee, which Maher also chairs, annually recommends a Pitt operating budget to the chancellor. In some years, the chancellor has accepted these proposed budgets in their entirety, said Maher. “When that didn’t happen, the modifications were really modest and frequently were driven by legislative changes that came after the committee had made its recommendation,” he said.

“I don’t want to pretend that everything is right” in University governance, the provost said. “I do want to tell you that I think we have a wonderful system here. It comes awfully close to what Gordon was recommending. It’s just that you’ve got to spread your arms a little wider and realize that, for reasons of diversity that we cherish, we have diffused it over the schools rather than making a one-size-fits-all system.”

Maher called on Senate leaders to respect the rest of Pitt’s governance system, particularly in supporting faculty with grievances against their schools.

“We don’t hire anybody around here who isn’t smart,” he said, and smart people who wind up on the losing end of tenure and/or promotion decisions often think of smart, complex arguments to promote their causes.

Sometimes, these arguments can’t be reconciled with individual schools’ policies, Maher noted. “It’s my job to make sure that the [school’s] process is respected, and sometimes that means saying: ‘Your colleagues have voted, and even though I may or may not agree with your colleagues they’ve got a valid process, they have followed it, and you’ve been voted down, and I’m sorry.’”

Other times, Maher said, faculty grievances spark public debates that result in the provost’s office ruling either that the school’s process was violated or that, even though it wasn’t violated, Pitt’s academic values require overruling it.

— Bruce Steele                      

Filed under: Feature,Volume 36 Issue 7

Leave a Reply