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May 29, 1997


Comments on FAS dean search clarified

To the editor:

The University Times article of May 15 concerning the search for a new FAS dean reports my comments at the May 7 meeting in a way that may lead to misunderstanding. In the interest of clarification, I provide below three particulars and three generalities: Particulars:

1) Readers may infer from the University Times story that at the meeting I spoke disapprovingly of Dean Koehler's general administrative style. Although I did, indeed, criticize the FAS restructuring, I did not express any opinion of Dean Koehler's administrative style outside this context.

2) The University Times story writes that "[Birnbaum] accused Koehler of being a poor communicator…." My statements at the meeting that the administration had failed to consult in a timely, meaningful and appropriate fashion with the faculty during the FAS restructuring process do not mean that I accused Dean Koehler of being a poor communicator in any general sense. The noun "communicator," which implies a global assessment, is not a word I would ever use to describe the way a person communicates on particular occasions. Since I did not express any opinion about Dean Koehler's communicative style outside the context of the FAS restructuring, this attribution is inaccurate, as is the use of the verb "accused," which implies personal indictment, rather than substantive disagreement.

3) My comment about the administration's ignorance of how to evaluate humanities departments likewise referred to a specific set of administrative responses to a specific situation. As I reported at the meeting (and to The Pitt News on Feb. 10, 1997), Dean Koehler had told me that he did not have the expertise needed to evaluate a small humanities department. There is nothing inherently scandalous about this type of ignorance; a dean cannot personally be equally experienced in all varieties of academic substance and culture, and where we lack personal expertise, we normally make up for that lack through consultation with experts.

But until the FAS restructuring reached a crisis last December, the administration declined to take advantage of several sources of information about the Category 4 departments that might have provided the needed expertise. One such source is external reviews, which, I maintain, should have been undertaken after the 1995 Phase II report established Category 4 as a set of departments that the administration had been unable to evaluate and classify definitively. Another such source is departmental responses to FAS summaries of internal administrative reviews, where some of the reviews contained damaging errors of both fact and interpretation. Such errors may be an inevitable consequence of a review process that involves the examination of specialized departments by people whose expertise and knowledge lie elsewhere, and the problem then becomes how to neutralize the potential negative consequences of working with inaccurate data. One strategy might be to share the reports with the departments immediately, so that misunderstandings can be corrected, but in the present case this did not happen, and the departments were able to obtain copies of these reports only at a very late stage in the restructuring process. The outcome of this timing was that departments unnecessarily landed in the adversarial position of having to rebut or discredit administrative reports, rather than in the collegial position of working with the administration to develop reports that all parties could consider accurate.

In short, my comments at the May 7 meeting should be understood as criticizing the administration's failure in a specific context to obtain information and expertise about humanities departments that it knew it lacked and that it could have obtained, an opinion I have expressed to the FAS administration directly on several occasions.


1) In my seven years at the University of Pittsburgh I have enjoyed a good professional relationship with Dean Koehler, whose treatment of me personally and my department generally has been not only fair, but often generous. I do not harbor and have never indicated any general disapproval of Dean Koehler's administrative style or his communicative skills. My disagreements with the dean concern his specific responses to specific administrative problems connected with the FAS restructuring, and the depth of these disagreements should not be misconstrued as a breadth of personal disapproval that I have never enunciated and do not feel.

2) The responses to Dean Koehler's performance review last year, many in the pages of this newspaper, bred an atmosphere that encouraged faculty to associate themselves simplistically as either supporters or opponents of the dean. I do not consider this polarization an appropriate model for evaluating a dean's performance, preferring, instead, a model in which one responds to specific actions, without attempting to distill possibly varying experiences into a single, comprehensive letter grade–a temptation to which we academics are, perhaps understandably, prone to succumb. I remain appreciative of and grateful for many of Dean Koehler's actions toward me and my department over the past seven years, even as I remain profoundly critical of the way the FAS restructuring process has been carried out. Not only did I not engage in a blanket condemnation of Dean Koehler's performance, as might be inferred from the University Times article, but I do not believe that a blanket evaluation of the dean's administrative or communicative style, whether positive or negative, can ever reflect the subtleties inherent in the complex responsibilities of leading FAS.

3) As a genre, newspaper articles require condensation, which leads, in turn, to decontextualization, and my comments emerged on the pages of the University Times with an inappropriately hectoring and insulting tone that does not reflect my feelings or opinions accurately. I remain strongly critical of many aspects of the FAS restructuring since the promulgation of the Phase II plan in 1995, and I have communicated these specific criticisms to the FAS administration on many occasions. I reviewed these criticisms for the selection committee in the context of arguing that the next FAS dean must act in a way that facilitates the evaluation of humanities (and other) departments appropriately, and with meaningful faculty input. I spoke up at the meeting because I consider it important that the next dean undertake the inevitable planning and restructuring in a way that will encourage trust, cooperation and consensus that embrace both faculty and administration. My intent was certainly not to reduce Dean Koehler's many years of service to a single aggressively disapproving paragraph.

David J. Birnbaum

Associate Professor and Chairman

Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures

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