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October 15, 1998

Pitt professors filing grievances face uphill battle, statistics show

Professors seeking redress for alleged grievances and unjust denials of promotion and/or tenure face an uphill fight at Pitt, the co-chairperson of the University Senate's tenure and academic freedom committee (TAFC) told Faculty Assembly Oct. 6.

But Tom Kane, whose committee is a key player and defender of faculty interests in the grievance procedure and often advises faculty in the appeals process, also said TAFC has enjoyed "a very useful, frank and healthy relationship" with Provost James Maher, Chancellor Mark Nordenberg and their office staffs in recent years.

For example, this year the Provost's office began sending letters to supervisors in units where faculty have filed complaints. The letters instruct supervisors to cooperate with TAFC as it investigates the cases, Kane said.

These letters have spurred some lower-level administrators to reply quicker to TAFC requests, according to Kane. "While nobody has ever actually refused to meet with us, some people do sometimes dance around and try to delay it," he said.

TAFC hopes to establish an equally good relationship with Arthur Levine, who will become Pitt's new senior vice chancellor for Health Sciences and medical school dean on Nov. 1, Kane said.

Kane acknowledged he was trying to keep his report upbeat. After former Senate president James Holland and other Assembly members noted the preponderance of alleged violations of academic freedom and tenure rights in the Health Sciences, Kane mildly replied: "I think it's a fair statement to say that all is not well" in those units, particularly the medical school.

"I don't give that a whole lot of emphasis because there's a kind of optimism that when this new gentleman [senior vice chancellor-designate Levine] comes on board in November, one of our first priorities as a committee will be to discuss these issues with him," Kane said.

The committee's optimism could fade as early as this winter, however, if TAFC gets "stonewalled" by Levine, Kane later added.

Some TAFC members have criticized outgoing Senior Vice Chancellor Thomas Detre and his administration for permitting, if not promoting, a climate of intimidation in the Health Sciences.

Critics say deans and department chairpersons in those schools get away with undermining tenure and academic freedom policies because so many Health Sciences faculty are hired outside the tenure stream and work on renewable one-year contracts, making them professionally vulnerable and reluctant to protest administrative abuses.

TAFC's workload consists mainly of "a lot of shenanigans in the medical school," committee member Christina Paulston commented to Faculty Assembly.

Kane said TAFC's priorities this year include:

* Clarifying the faculty grievance procedure and shortening the process through which faculty appeal decisions denying them tenure or renewal of contract. Often, economic need drives faculty to leave Pitt for new jobs before decisions are made on their appeals.

"Justice delayed is, of course, justice denied," Kane said, "and there are instances where people who have been cleared aren't here anymore to even know they were cleared."

* Improving Pitt's performance evaluation system for faculty.

Currently, Kane said, schools here are highly inconsistent in making sure that faculty and supervisors confer regularly on job duties and evaluation criteria, so faculty know what's expected of them and why they did or didn't get salary raises and promotions.

"If we really had a good performance review system that was at least as uniform as it could be in a very complicated university, I'm convinced that a lot of the [tenure and academic freedom] problems would go away," Kane said.

Such a system would protect supervisors as well as faculty embroiled in grievances and appeals of promotion and/or tenure decisions, he argued.

"Often, when we look into cases, we find that nobody has kept good records of what was agreed to by faculty and their superiors, what promises were made when one was hired and how those expectations may have changed, sometimes in mid-year," Kane said.

In collaboration with the Provost's office, TAFC has drafted a document "suggesting, in generic terms, what ought to go into an annual performance review for faculty," Kane said.

At Provost Maher's request, the Deans Council is reviewing the proposal. Kane declined to release a copy or describe the proposal in detail until the deans have commented on it.

TAFC investigates an average of 22 cases annually and currently is working on four, Kane said. Most cases involve localized acts of incompetence or mean-spiritedness among individuals, according to Kane. "They're unique, there's no pattern, they're small cases — very important to the people involved, but there's no great scheme, no grand conspiracy in terms of academic freedom," he said.

Few go before a formal grievance or appeals panel. "Sometimes, our best successes come through solving problems informally, just bringing people together to talk things through," Kane said.

"In the best of all worlds, if these cases could be solved locally we would all be better off. By the time a case gets to us and especially by the time it reaches the provost's office, everybody's tensed up, taking sides." Of TAFC's track record, he concluded: "I certainly think there are enough success stories to justify the effort that we put into this committee. But there are enough failures to claim that there's a whole lot more we could be doing."

— Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 31 Issue 4

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