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December 5, 1996

Faculty Assembly becomes forum on part-time University faculty

A Dec. 3 Faculty Assembly discussion of summer unemployment compensation for Pitt part-time faculty turned into a forum on the status of part-timers here and the University's commitment to undergraduate education.

The main antagonists in the discussion were Pitt General Counsel Lewis M. Popper and Pat Harrington Wysor, a part-time instructor in the English department.

Popper led off by explaining why the administration took legal action last summer to block unemployment benefits for seven Pitt part-time faculty members, Wysor among them.

Wysor replied. Then she and Popper exchanged opinions, with Assembly members joining in. The discussion petered out when everyone acknowledged that a vital element was missing: a representative of Pitt's academic administration. Popper could address legal questions but not the academic policies related to them, meeting participants agreed.

University Senate President Keith McDuffie said he'd been assured by a senior administrator's assistant that a Provost's office representative would attend the meeting. But no such representative showed up — "to my surprise and disappointment," McDuffie said.

In statements to the Assembly, Popper and Wysor repeated arguments they made earlier this fall in a series of letters to the editor of the University Times. See Sept. 26 and Oct. 24 issues.

Their presentations can be boiled down as follows: Popper: Under Pennsylvania unemployment compensation law, Pitt is not required to pay unemployment benefits during the summer to a part-time faculty member if two conditions are met — if the faculty member has a "reasonable assurance" of employment here in the fall, and if the Pitt summer term constitutes a "break" between the fall and spring terms rather than an academic term in its own right.

The Unemployment Compensation Board of Review ruled in the University's favor in six of the seven cases this summer. The exception was Wysor's case, in which the board found that Pitt had not given her reasonable assurance of fall employment until June. Therefore, she was granted unemployment benefits from the end of the spring term until the time in June when the English department told her she would be teaching this fall.

Prior to 1996, Pitt paid unemployment benefits to some part-time faculty who didn't legally qualify for it, but that's because paperwork for such claims was processed in individual departments, often by people who didn't understand the law. This year, the University centralized its unemployment claims processing, which is why Pitt challenged a number of claims that had been approved in the past.

Wysor: Pitt part-time faculty are poorly paid, temporary employees. Department chairpersons themselves say that seniority has nothing to do with rehiring part-timers. How can the administration claim that such employees have "reasonable assurance" of re-hiring when departments habitually cancel part-timers' classes with no warning? Part-time faculty would be willing to forego summer unemployment benefits in exchange for a University contract guaranteeing them employment in the fall. Granting such contracts would decrease departments' flexibility in hiring but otherwise would not cost them money. And morale among part-timers would improve considerably.

Arguing the University's case at each of the seven part-timers' compensation board hearings were attorneys from the Downtown firm of Reed Smith Shaw & McClay and representatives of the Pitt administration. Wysor, who said she earns $10,000 a year for teaching four undergraduate classes, was applying for $2,000 in benefits for the summer. "I'm sure there was a lot more than $2,000 represented in that room with one attorney from Reed Smith Shaw & McClay, a dean from the University, someone from Human Resources and someone from my department at a three-hour hearing," she told Faculty Assembly.

Wysor said that during her hearing she was advised by an attorney paid for in part by the United Faculty, of which she is a vice president. "People who make $10,000 a year are poor people," she said. "They do not go get legal counsel, and that's the reason they [the six other part-time faculty members] lost their cases and I did not." She said the English department informed her just four hours before the Assembly meeting that it was canceling a class she had been scheduled to teach beginning in January. Wysor said she had ordered books and begun preparing for the course. Addressing Popper, she asked: "Are you still going to claim that because I've been teaching here for seven years, I should feel that I am going to have these classes?" "My belief," Popper replied, "is that departments at this University should give reasonable assurance whenever they can that you will be teaching again the following term, and they should give it in writing." Wysor countered: "That would not do anything for us, Mr. Popper, but it would do something for you. We all know you're going to do that [distribute such letters] next year. You're going to put that in writing for us so you can make sure we don't have unemployment compensation. But we still will not have any assurance that the kind of thing that happened to me today will not continue to happen." After further discussion, Assembly member Robert Gibbs proposed a motion condemning the administration's actions toward part-time faculty as "distasteful, ill-advised and counterproductive to the admini-stration's claim of wanting to improve undergraduate education at the University." But Gibbs withdrew his motion after several other professors indicated they would vote against it — either because it was too confrontational, as Assembly member Walter Goldberg argued, or because the motion was too narrowly focused and did not address larger issues of faculty rights, as Senate President McDuffie claimed.

McDuffie said he would write to Provost James Maher, expressing the Assembly's "deep concern" about the rights of part-time faculty.

–Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 29 Issue 8

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