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April 13, 1995

Faculty, staff reactions to news of resignation run the gamut

In the aftershock of Chancellor J. Dennis O'Connor's resignation announcement, the University Times interviewed a sampling of the Pitt community for their opinions of O'Connor's decision and his likely legacy as chancellor.

* * * Following the April 10 Senate Council meeting, Senate leaders expressed mixed feelings about O'Connor's resignation.

In the wake of O'Connor's decision to eliminate Health-America as a medical insurance option for Pitt employees, Frederick Gottlieb introduced — and ultimately withdrew — a motion for a no-confidence vote on O'Connor during the April 4 Faculty Assembly meeting. But when the chancellor announced his resignation less than a week later, Gottlieb said: "Whenever you have an overturning of an administration, it is inappropriate to be totally pleased or displeased. One has to look at the long-term viability of the University." He praised O'Connor for the "admirable and dignified" way he made the announcement. "Handling it the way he did prevented there from being a lot of fireworks…I think it takes an amount of fortitude to relinquish power at the appropriate time." Like most of the people interviewed for this story who met O'Connor in summer 1991, Senate President James Holland was favorably impressed at that time. When O'Connor drew criticism early in his administration for spending $82,000 to renovate his Cathedral of Learning office, $340,000 for repairs to the chancellor's residence and $90,000 on a ceremony installing him as chancellor (most of those expenses were covered by donations), Holland defended O'Connor. "The repairs were probably overdue, and the installation ceremony was a good, intellectually stimulating event." Where O'Connor began to get into real trouble, Holland believes, was when he began to depend heavily on University of Pittsburgh Medical Center President Jeffrey Romoff. Several key administrators from the Posvar administration left shortly before and after O'Connor's arrival. "Dennis was very much at sea, and he needed help. And he got that help from Jeffrey Romoff. My impression is that Romoff had a rather heavy hand in running the University, although the influence seemed to shift a bit when Ben Tuchi came aboard [as senior vice chancellor for Business and Finance, in June 1992]," Holland recalled.

"During my first term as Senate president in 1992, I was all prepared to roll up my sleeves and work closely with the new administration," Holland said. "But then we learned almost immediately that O'Connor had given Romoff the new title of senior vice chancellor for Health Administration, without a search, and we [Senate members] protested. To me, that was a defining issue, maybe the defining issue. Besides being a violation of the spirit of shared governance, it probably marked the beginning of his [O'Connor's] mistrust, and even resentment, of faculty input." According to Holland, O'Connor's greatest legacy may unfortunately prove to be the massive debt service Pitt will be stuck with as the result of capital projects approved during the last four years. These include the planned construction of a building to house the new undergraduate business school (a project Holland and some other professors consider questionable both academically and fiscally), renovation of the Masonic Temple, and at least one of the state-supported Operation Jump Start projects: the convocation center. Richard Tobias, co-chairperson of the Senate tenure and academic freedom committee, said: "I don't think it [the chancellor's resignation] is good news, for Pete's sake. We need leadership. Then again, leadership is what we've needed for the last four years and haven't had." Philip Wion, who chairs the Senate budget policies committee and serves on the University Planning and Budgeting Committee, said O'Connor deserves credit for approving and supporting the planning and budgeting system. Wion bristled, though, at the fact that O'Connor's resignation announcement implies that the chancellor created the system, when in fact Wion and other faculty members and administrators worked on it for years prior to O'Connor's arrival.

The chancellor's decision last month to eliminate Health-America and make Blue Cross the sole provider of Pitt employee health insurance for at least the next three years led some faculty and staff to claim that O'Connor ignored their recommendations not to drop HealthAmerica. O'Connor said he listened to the input from employees but chose not to follow it, citing Blue Cross's promise of $5 million in savings. According to Wion, the Blue Cross decision wasn't the first time O'Connor failed to express an opinion on an issue and then vetoed a proposal over which faculty and staff had worked for months.

Wion said: "In 1991, after Senate Council voted to approve the new [faculty and staff] salary policy, O'Connor suddenly announced that while he accepted the policy on the whole, he was not going to implement the appeals process part of it," under which employees could have appealed raises they thought were unfair. "He [O'Connor] had sat there through the whole discussion and hadn't said a word. Had he tried to explain his position, he might very well have persuaded the majority of the Council to go along. But not to even attempt to persuade is not to behave collegially," Wion said.

Staff Association Council President Darlene Harris said the timing of O'Connor's resignation was "terrible" in light of the University's projected $5.7 million shortfall this year and Pitt's recently announced hiring freeze. "At this time, I don't think a big transition is what we need. We really need solid, sound, strong leadership and I don't know if this is the time to rip the man [O'Connor] apart. It seems to me that he is taking the blame for a lot of things that maybe he didn't have much control over.

"As far as the Staff Association Council goes, Chancellor O'Connor was the one who opened up the doors for our participation in the University governance process. He has supported that fully," Harris said.

According to Harris, staff council members "already fear what will happen to staff and to us as an organization if the next chancellor is not supportive of staff and staff representation and the need for shared governance." Michele Angevine, president-elect of the Bradford campus's Staff Association, said the news of O'Connor's resignation came as a shock to most staff at the Bradford campus.

During O'Connor's administration, UPB has developed a closer relationship with the Pittsburgh campus, Angevine said. She said O'Connor made a point of visiting Bradford staff and faculty at least twice, "which was something the previous chancellor hadn't done in a long time." Under O'Connor, UPB "became more a part of the University, not just something that sits out there on the New York state border," Angevine said.

Greensburg campus Faculty Senate President Bill Rued said rumors of O'Connor's impending resignation or firing reached UPG months ago, so the chancellor's decision did not come as a surprise.

Rued noted that O'Connor visited the Greensburg campus shortly after he became chancellor. "There was a very positive reaction, I thought, to the meeting he had with the faculty. The kind of openness that he was proposing was very welcome. He seemed to be very interested in the regional campuses." But Paul Strzempka, associate academic dean and professor of humanities at the Johnstown campus, disagreed. He said O'Connor continued the "benign neglect" that previous Pitt administrations had shown the regionals. "I guess some time ago I might have been concerned who the hell the chancellor was, but frankly it could have still been Posvar for all it mattered to us. His [O'Connor's] tenure certainly didn't change our lives." Jack L. Daniel is vice provost for Academic Affairs and chairperson of Equipoise, an organization that addresses concerns of African-American faculty, staff, administrators and students. Daniel praised O'Connor's "proven commitment" to affirmative action and said the chancellor was "the singular spark" for mandating that each Pitt academic unit conduct peer and student evaluations of teaching.

According to Daniel, O'Connor has implemented a number of significant new affirmative action programs at Pitt, including the K. Leroy Irvis Scholarship Program for minority graduate students and the Helen Faison Scholars Program for undergraduates; a new Target of Opportunity program that provides funds for recruiting African-American and women faculty; and an African-American post-doctoral program that funds residencies at Pitt for black junior faculty, with the intention of subsequently hiring them as tenure-stream faculty here.

Daniel called O'Connor's resignation "very unfortunate for him and very unfortunate for the University," but said Provost James Maher has shown a very strong commitment to affirmative action and will carry on the kind of work that O'Connor was doing in that area.

Mark Ginsburg, president of the United Faculty organization seeking to unionize Pitt non-medical faculty, released a written statement that said, in part: "At this point the faculty's major concern should not be to criticize nor to defend Chancellor O'Connor or the record of his administration. What we should focus more attention on is what O'Connor's resignation tells us about structural problems in the way the University is organized. Just as O'Connor replacing Posvar as the top administrator of Pitt did not solve these structural problems, there is no reason to believe that appointing someone else to replace O'Connor will do so.

"Central to the problem with Pitt's structure is that although it is a state-related academic institution, the University is run by a Board of Trustees organized more like a board of directors of a large, private corporation. Moreover, the Board of Trustees often operates as if the University's faculty, staff and students should have very little say in the directions the institution should take, despite rhetoric about democratic participation by the Pitt academic community to shape decisions." Trustee John Pelusi declined to comment on O'Connor's resignation. "I don't see that there's anything positive to be gained by it. That's already in the past," said Pelusi, president and chief executive officer of Pelusi, Nackoul, Sansosti, Shoemaker and Associates, Inc.

"What we'd better start focusing on is how to fix this place and start promoting it and making it what it can be, which is a jewel of the region," he said. Pelusi called on faculty, staff, students and administrators to pull together to do a critical self-examination of where Pitt needs to be 10 years from now. "Probably, everybody will need to give up a little to gain a lot," he said.

Pelusi called the University's current long-range planning process, launched during O'Connor's administration, "very superficial." The "Toward the 21st Century" long-range plan approved by the trustees in October is "full of feel-good statements and doesn't really address honestly some of the issues that should be on the table," such as how Pitt can avoid pricing itself out of the student recruitment market, he said. "How do you argue with the comment that we want to be the best at what we do? You can't, but does that address the issues?" Peter Koehler, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), said the chancellor's resignation "appeared to be the best solution" in view of the Board of Trustees' apparent loss of confidence in O'Connor. "Once that happens, there is no way it can be restored," Koehler said.

"I think the implications [of the resignation] for FAS are the same as the implications for the whole University. I think these are times when we need to work together. We need to have decisions that reflect the best input available." Koehler predicted that the trustees will appoint a new chancellor before the end of the 1995-96 academic year — but that's a gut feeling, not anything based on information from the trustees or administration, he said. "As a dean, I've learned to read the Post-Gazette. That's where I learn my information," said Koehler.

Gerald J. Massey, a distinguished service professor of philosophy and director of the Center for Philosophy of Science, served on the 24-member search committee that nominated O'Connor. The committee included representatives of the administration, alumni, faculty, staff and students. Current trustees chairperson Farrell Rubenstein did "an outstanding job" chairing the committee, Massey said, adding: "I would hope the search process for the new chancellor will be similarly collegial and productive." (Rubenstein and board chairperson-designate J.W. Connolly have not yet announced plans for the search, saying only that it will begin in the near future.) Massey said he believes the "intense critical heat" O'Connor took for his early decisions to renovate the chancellor's office and residence and to hold a lavish installation ceremony "singed" him. "His [O'Connor's] administrative style was much more withdrawn after that than it had been when he first arrived," Massey said.

Massey praised O'Connor's emphasis on upgrading undergraduate education and improvements in student housing and campus lighting made during his tenure. Massey said he has been "distressed" by the mutual antagonism between O'Connor and University Senate leaders. "I think it's had a bad effect on the University and on the morale of the faculty and staff," Massey said.

Psychology professor Sharon Nelson-Le Gall said, "My reaction to the resignation is one of deep sadness and maybe some fear because I don't have a sense of what comes next. What have we learned from the last four years? Are there even lessons that we can identify in all this?" Nelson-Le Gall chaired the Senate's educational policies committee at the time O'Connor was recruited, and she remembers her initial excitement at hearing the new chancellor talk about his plans to elevate the status of teaching and make academics the driving force behind University decision-making. "It was, for me, like Camelot," Nelson-Le Gall said, with a laugh. "I was thinking, 'Wow! What a time, what a place to be!' I was excited about the possibilities. But it didn't materialize, and I'm not sure how much that is Dennis O'Connor's fault. I still think he probably has good core academic values and a certain commitment to shared governance. Four years really isn't that long, and maybe we had traveled so far down the wrong road before he got here that we needed longer than four years to really get headed in the right direction again.

"I don't see that we are any better off four years later. I think the mood of people on campus might even be more jaded now. I think it's going to be harder for the next chancellor because we feel as if we've been burnt. And yet the University's needs are apparently even greater than they were four years ago."

— Bruce Steele and Mike Sajna

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