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August 31, 2017

University Senate Matters

First Quacks of a Lame Duck

The norm for those of us in the world of higher education at the beginning of a new academic year is to find ourselves facing both changes and challenges. Here at Pitt, now, the changes are many and significant as key positions are filled by new people, while new schools, programs and initiatives are introduced, inaugurated and implemented.

The challenges — whether from the outside or from within — are serious, sometimes feeling quite threatening or even ominous, and often seem to be lingering, expanding and intensifying. Commonwealth funding has diminished and seems more precarious every budget cycle. Outside forces look to use us for furthering provocative political and ideological agendas, often hate-filled and promoting violence. Our own diversity leads to difference and division regarding University policies, procedures and practices.

Of course, times of changes and challenges also present opportunities for improvement and innovation. They also allow us to draw upon our established principles and practices, the ones that have enabled Pitt to rise to the level of being a top-tier public university. As I have just participated in welcoming the 4,100 or so new undergraduates at the Pittsburgh campus and the 430 plus members of the class of 2021 at my campus in Greensburg, I have heard administrators, faculty, staff and students deliver hope-filled speeches about our charge to enable individuals to grow, communities to be served and to make the world a better place. I know that at Pitt in Bradford, Johnstown and Titusville, similar ceremonies and speeches have delivered the same messages. If through our actions we can make those hopes something more than wishful thinking, there is a reasonable chance we can counter the fear, hate and violence that we see and feel all around us.

The University Senate has an important role to play as Pitt faces the changes and challenges in front of us now. We are a main piece of our university’s shared governance system, which despite its structural limitations, has a history of substantive practice and has shown the capacity to adapt with the goal of strengthening the process.

With that in mind, our agenda for the coming year begins with some things old and some things new.

An atypical special committee that emerged from the Senate Council almost two years ago to address diversity, inclusion and core values will be offering a draft statement for University-wide discussion and debate. The special committee group included faculty, staff, graduate and undergraduate students, as well as administrators. It was initiated by Chancellor Gallagher in the context of events at the University of Missouri, Yale University and other colleges, with the central question before us being: “What do we draw on if we find our own campuses facing similar moments of controversy and conflict?”

Given subsequent protest events across the country, from UC Berkeley to Charlottesville, the appropriateness of Pitt having embarked on our own consideration of these issues became clearer. The Senate group’s forthcoming draft statement includes the ideas that institutional core values for Pitt that might help guide us come under the headings of free expression, pursuit of knowledge, diversity and inclusion, social justice and equity, public service and shared governance.

Similarly, a formal ad hoc Senate Committee was charged in 2016 to examine the question of whether Pitt should cease to invest and divest endowment funds in fossil fuel corporations. This issue, originally raised by undergraduate student organizations and supported by some faculty and staff, led to interaction not only with the chancellor’s office, but also with the Board of Trustees, whose responsibility it is to manage the University’s large and complex endowment portfolios. What emerged from the efforts of that Senate Committee (which included faculty, staff and students) was a recommendation to open another University-wide discussion about socially responsible investing more broadly that will also include research opportunities for faculty and students.

Details of both of those initiatives will be introduced during September. The Senate will be able to host some open forum discussion meetings and our website will be able to post important informational documents and provide a place for written exchanges on both issues. We expect, of course, that the University Times will continue its tradition of objective reporting of all sides of these important matters to help us all stay informed. As other venues for events and open forums are set, the Senate’s Executive Committee will do our best to help enable them to be useful and successful.

Additionally, Pitt’s graduate students are openly engaging in a unionization campaign, with a public response from the University’s administration issued during the summer. At last April’s Senate Council meeting, the Dietrich School’s Graduate Student Organization put the issue on the agenda in a report about their process of endorsing the union drive. This is another issue that, while currently taking place at Pitt, has and continues to occur across the country. While the Senate has yet to hear from other graduate student organizations on the question, this is a situation with implications for the entire Pitt community.

The Faculty Assembly will be considering a proposal for a new standing committee to focus on a variety of faculty affairs issues not clearly addressed by our existing standing committees. The important work of the four-year ad hoc Senate Committee on Non-tenure Stream Faculty Issues, along with issues emerging from last year’s Senate Plenary on faculty research evaluation metrics as well as standing and ad hoc committees’ examinations of faculty teaching evaluations, prompted this new effort.

The University’s Staff Council is also emerging with a new name and a new focus as a result of its own self-examination and the HR department’s ongoing Total Rewards initiative.

Since this is just the beginning of the 2017-18 Senate agenda, it is obvious this will be a full year of changes and challenges. The topic for the Senate Plenary has yet to be set, we await the details of the Provost’s Year of Healthy U initiative and our role in it, next steps for the Titusville campus are still undecided and candidates will emerge to succeed me as Senate President. This will be a year of testing the role of University Senate will play in Pitt’s future, and our continuing commitment to a practice that advances an ever-stronger model of shared governance.

I’m looking forward to being part of this, and hope that many of you are, too.

Frank Wilson teaches sociology at the Greensburg campus and is president of the University Senate.

Filed under: Also,Volume 50 Issue 1

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