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April 3, 2008

Senate presidential candidates address the issues

This year’s election for the University Senate presidency matches incumbent John J. Baker, associate professor, Department of Microbiology-Biochemistry, School of Dental Medicine, against Nicholas G. Bircher, associate professor of anesthesiology and critical care medicine, School of Medicine. Bircher served as Senate president in 2003-04 and 2004-05.

The Senate elections are being conducted via electronic balloting, April 7-18. (For the slate of Senate officer candidates, as well as candidates for Faculty Assembly slots, see related story, this issue.)

Short bios of the candidates’ academic and service-oriented experience, as well as position statements, will be posted online along with the ballots.

This week, the presidential candidates responded to written questions from University Times staff writer Peter Hart. Candidates were asked to limit each response to approximately 250 words.


What are the most important issues facing the University Senate in the next year? What do you hope to accomplish as Senate president?

BAKER: Next year’s most important issues will revolve around how Pitt copes with inadequate funding from the state. Governor Rendell has proposed a mere 1.2 percent increase in our state appropriation, despite an inflation rate (CPI-U) of 4.1 percent for the year ending December 2007.

Everyone at the University — faculty, staff, students and administrators — will be negatively affected if this 1.2 percent increase stands. Tuition will have to be increased significantly (probably 8 percent or more) to provide equitable pay raises to faculty and staff that are above the 4.1 percent inflation rate.

Pitt is already the nation’s second-costliest public university (after only Penn State). Adding another large tuition increase will only widen our competitive disadvantage compared to most other public institutions, making Pitt’s recruiting of top students even harder.

Yet without a significant tuition increase, under the governor’s proposed 1.2 percent increase faculty and staff will not receive the equitable pay raise they deserve for their hard work and dedication. This would be disturbing, because last year was the first time in three years that a majority of our faculty received pay raises above the inflation rate.

If re-elected Senate president, I will continue fulfilling the duties of the office conscientiously, as I have the previous two years. I will continue to listen to faculty concerns and advocate for equitable pay raises, preservation and improvement of job benefits, and expansion of wellness initiatives. I will also support the advancement of environmental issues on campus, as championed by our Senate sustainability subcommittee.

BIRCHER: Economic considerations in turbulent times will likely impact on a variety of issues. Sustainable growth for the University is contingent on the entire community continuing to strive for excellence. If re-elected, I will continue to build on the collegial and effective working relationship between the University Senate and the University administration. This requires striking a balance between the larger picture of the University community and those issues of particular interest to the faculty. An important job of the University Senate as a body, and the president in particular, is to provide an open forum in which robust advocacy of those issues can be duly considered.

What do you see as the impact of shrinking commonwealth support for Pitt? Is the University facing belt-tightening and frozen salaries? What steps should Pitt take to help remedy this situation? What can you as the Senate president do?

BAKER: The biggest, most disturbing impact of shrinking commonwealth support is that it has driven up tuition and the cost of attending Pitt. Our annual tuition (about $12,100 for in-state students) is now second-highest in the nation among public universities.

We risk becoming unaffordable for low-income students. Federal and state aid for low-income students — $4,310 for Pell grants, up to $4,300 for PHEAA grants — do not completely cover tuition, let alone room, board and other basic expenses.

While some students may also qualify for merit scholarships or work study programs, these additional aids still do not cover all expenses, except for a few exceptional students. Consequently, many students need to get loans in order to attend Pitt, which is a barrier for low-income students.

Pitt will undoubtedly face belt tightening next year if the state appropriation is not increased. I doubt salaries will be frozen, but our raise pool could be adversely affected.

I believe the University is taking appropriate steps to try to deal with this problem. The chancellor and other administrators have publicly campaigned to make state legislators, the Board of Trustees and the public aware that the proposed state appropriation for Pitt is inadequate, and this will have negative consequences on tuition and Pitt’s programs.

Pitt is also emphasizing its capital campaign, which raises private contributions to help fund Pitt’s programs and create scholarships.

The Senate president can help by supporting the administration’s efforts, and urging faculty and staff to write or visit their state legislators to voice support for increased funding for higher education.

BIRCHER: Some degree of belt-tightening, as well as organizational agility with respect to alternative sources of funding, are both likely to be necessary. The bad news is a rate of growth in commonwealth funding that does not keep pace with growing costs. The good news, however, is that a steadily diminishing fraction of the University budget from the commonwealth steadily diminishes the incremental adverse effect. The University Senate can continue to advocate for a nurturing and innovative environment that allows faculty to make the very best of internal resources, as well as be highly competitive for external resources.

A Senate ad hoc subcommittee has made recommendations for increasing child care options on the Pittsburgh campus. How important is this to recruiting and retaining faculty and staff? What would you recommend?

BAKER: I support the recommendations of the Senate ad hoc subcommittee on child care, and believe that increased child care options would be valuable in recruiting and retaining high-quality faculty at Pitt. Increased child care would also demonstrate the University’s commitment to helping female faculty achieve tenure and promotion, because child care responsibilities in our society generally affect women more negatively than they do men.

The ultimate issue here, however, is not what we would like to see or recommend. It is what we are willing to commit in the way of resources. I think everyone agrees that this is a desirable goal we would like to see met, but it is not a simple issue when we begin examining the details.

For example, should child care be self-supporting or should the University subsidize it? Will faculty and staff support the diversion of money to child care if that would as a consequence negatively affect the annual pay raise pool and necessitate raises below the rate of inflation? I doubt they would.

I would like to see the administration do a feasibility study on what would be required and what it would cost to double our current child care capacity from 48 to 96. Once cost, staff requirements and space requirements of a larger facility are known, the administration and faculty could then decide if the project could reasonably be implemented, and whether it could be self-supporting or would require subsidization — and, if so, by how much.

BIRCHER: One component of a nurturing and innovative environment is the provision of day care for young children. While the precise return on investment to the Pitt community has not been measured directly, there is reasonable evidence from the corporate community that savings with respect to: (1) reduction of unscheduled absences, (2) recruitment and (3) orientation of new employees as well as increased productivity accrue from providing day care. I would recommend a progressive ramping up of day care services.

Are Pitt’s gender equity efforts strong enough?

BAKER: Pitt is already a leader among AAU universities in hiring female faculty and promoting gender equity, yet we still fall far short of achieving equity at all faculty levels. So the answer is a qualified no.

Women in the U.S. have attained parity with men in graduate degrees earned in most fields. Yet women constitute only 43 percent of Pitt’s assistant professors and 24 percent of tenured faculty, but 57 percent of full-time non-tenure stream faculty. Clearly, a problem exists with regard to the ability of women to achieve tenure and professional advancement relative to men.

I discussed this complex issue at length in a Senate Matters column (University Times, Dec. 7, 2006), but lack space here to repeat all the likely reasons there are fewer tenured women faculty than men.

However, one is that a tenured position typically lasts about 30 years, and fewer women were earning graduate degrees back when many of today’s older tenured faculty were being hired.

Another is that women have more difficulty than men meeting tenure requirements at doctoral institutions because they frequently must devote more time and energy than male counterparts to child and elder care, and other family duties.

Universities are not going to set lower tenure standards for women than for men, but it is possible to find ways to assist more female faculty in meeting tenure’s high standards. The child care recommendations by the Senate subcommittee on child care are an example of something the University could implement to try to improve gender equity at Pitt.

BIRCHER: While the University community as a whole and in particular the University administration and the University Senate have been very attentive to this issue, there is room for further progress. One example is day care as I noted previously. While limitations in day care availability impact both men and women, the impact is disparately upon women. This is one concrete area in which we can improve. Another area which has received significant attention is mentoring for women. These efforts need to continue, as the maintenance of stable and equitable career pathways requires even greater attention during periods of economic turbulence.

There has been a new emphasis on wellness initiatives. Is Pitt doing enough in this area? Are there adequate staff and faculty workout facilities and open hours, for example? What else should the University be doing?

BAKER: Our Benefits office has done a good job in offering and promoting wellness initiatives to Pitt employees. This includes:

• Elimination of co-payments for preventive measures that promote good health, such as immunizations, blood lipid testing and an annual physical.

• A one-time, one-month health insurance premium holiday offered two years ago to employees who underwent testing for blood lipids and glucose.

• Use of an online health risk assessment questionnaire and health guide to promote healthful behavior, which was promoted last fall by giving a $50 gift card to employees who completed the questionnaire.

• Revision of the HR web site so faculty and staff can better locate existing campus wellness-related activities.

• The current weight loss campaign for Pitt employees.

• Making free weight counseling available to Pitt employees online or by telephone.

Pitt will also soon offer a free smoking cessation program to employees. This is a good idea, which I support. I will continue to support new initiatives that are cost-effective and promote the health of Pitt employees.

It is difficult to assess whether faculty and staff need more workout facilities. The existing facilities are under-utilized for a variety of reasons, making it difficult to argue for more facilities. The biggest problems are inconvenient locations of current facilities, and finding time to use them. The new faculty/staff club may help solve this problem. I would also like to see the University make the Petersen Events Center available to faculty and staff.

BIRCHER: Developing and maintaining a culture of wellness requires continuous effort and allocation of resources. While considerable progress has been made, the two next steps are (1) to ensure that resources for fitness are available in reasonable quantities and at reasonable times to all of those who choose to use them, (2) to further educate the remainder of the University community that wellness is in their best interest and that real action is required to maintain wellness. Ultimately, a large component of wellness comes down to individual responsibility to make use of the resources provided.

Pitt has been accused by local media of not being forthcoming in answering questions of public concern. Some Senate committees have been closed to press coverage, a change in recent years. Is there sufficient openness in how the University conducts its business?

BAKER: Citizens who believe in the public’s right to know — as I do — would say there is not sufficient transparency in the ways the University of Pittsburgh conducts its business, because we believe everything involving the spending of public tax dollars should be a matter of public record. However, Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Laws, although recently expanded, still remain limited. Since the University is not legally required to reveal all of its business to the public, it doesn’t when it doesn’t want to.

In fairness, our administration makes a reasonably good effort to keep Senate officers and Senate committees informed about its plans, and tries to build a consensus for decisions, although this is often done confidentially. I respect the administration’s right to conduct its business the way it believes best, although I may not always see an obvious reason for confidentiality.

The University Senate cannot compel Pitt to reveal information publicly if it chooses not to, but there are things the Senate can do to ensure that decisions are not made in a vacuum. For example, we can:

• Ask to be included in decision-making committees and groups.

• Publicly question decisions that are made.

• Encourage public debate on the issues.

• Invite University administrators to explain their decisions, in a closed session if necessary, and encourage them to release information publicly.

The University Times — Pitt’s newspaper for faculty and staff — can play a key role as well, by covering Senate meetings and interviewing faculty and administrators who participate in decision-making.

BIRCHER: I have consistently favored openness in all University matters. A crucial job of the University Senate president is to maintain the maximum degree of open exchange of information and opinion, especially in the context of Faculty Assembly and Senate Council. The operational trade-off at the Senate committee level is between openness to the media and either impeding open discussion or disclosing matters that invade the privacy of individual faculty members or may be harmful to the larger University community. While I would encourage committee chairs to invite the media whenever they feel appropriate, this is ultimately the prerogative of the committee chair.

Is the tenure system healthy at Pitt? What protections do you see for non-tenure stream faculty?

BAKER: Our tenure system works better in some schools than in others. The number of tenured faculty any school can responsibly support is necessarily linked to the amount of hard money support (i.e., tuition revenue) the school generates. Schools like Arts and Sciences that generate large tuition revenues can reliably support a high percentage of tenure-stream faculty, so the policy works reasonably well for them.

In contrast, tuition constitutes only a small portion of the revenue needed to pay the salaries of the 1,948 Pitt faculty in the School of Medicine. If all other revenues dried up, the school could support only a small percentage of its total faculty, perhaps 10 percent. Consequently, only about 17 percent of the medical school’s faculty are tenured. The rest are supported by clinical and grant revenues, which vary from year to year. This policy is sound fiscally, but leaves much to be desired in terms of affording job security and academic freedom.

Another factor making it hard for many Health Sciences faculty to earn tenure is the high teaching and/or clinical service demands the schools place on them. They can’t get tenure without research grants, yet it’s difficult to get a research grant if they’re teaching in the classroom or clinic much of the time. So the tenure policy does not serve these faculty well.

Non-tenure stream faculty can be afforded some protection by giving them a multi-year contract providing for automatic renewal unless the person is notified one year in advance of intended non-renewal.

BIRCHER: I see the tenure system as generally quite healthy, but with a little room for improvement. Specifically, lengthening time in the tenure track for faculty without clinical responsibilities in the medical school, which is already under discussion. Advocacy for non-tenured faculty requires an ongoing effort. They should be treated entirely fairly, but with the clear understanding that they do not enjoy the same protections as a tenured faculty member.

What is the one thing that other universities are doing that you think Pitt should emulate?

BAKER: Many universities are implementing new programs to increase economic and minority diversity on their campuses. For example, the University of North Carolina guarantees that low-income students can graduate debt-free, through a combination of scholarships and work-study. This program is successfully increasing minority enrollment at UNC.

Pitt should emulate this program and guarantee that qualified low-income students from Pennsylvania can graduate from Pitt debt-free.

I feel strongly about this issue because I come from a humble background myself. My great-grandfather never learned to read or write in his native Kentucky because his mother married a former slave after the Civil War. As an adult, my great-grandfather moved north to central Illinois, where my grandfather completed sixth grade. My mother finished eighth grade, married and was widowed young. She never earned much above minimum wage, but was naturally intelligent and stressed the importance of my getting a good education.

I finished high school and — thanks to low tuitions, scholarships and working — was able to earn degrees from two of the world’s finest public universities, Illinois and UC-Berkeley, debt-free.

It’s still the American dream to overcome poverty through education and hard work. I was fortunate to have had that opportunity, but I fear it’s slipping away from many of today’s youth, due to the high cost of attending even public institutions in states like Pennsylvania. We need to keep higher education affordable for all our citizens, not just the privileged.

BIRCHER: One thing that we already do, but could arguably do a little better, is a constant sense of organizational self-examination to answer the question: How do we make Pitt a better place?

Following a number of U.S. campus incidents, there is a movement to allow members of university communities who are licensed to carry guns. Should members of the Pitt community (faculty, staff, students) with gun licenses be allowed to carry weapons on campus?

BAKER: Absolutely not.

Some people may find it tempting to fantasize that a member of the University community carrying a concealed firearm on campus could, during a crisis, shoot a villain threatening others and save everyone in the room. While this scenario is theoretically possible, it is highly improbable.

Such a fantasy also assumes the person with the concealed gun altruistically wants only to protect himself and others, possesses impeccable judgment, uses no mood-altering substances (including alcohol) and is a crack shot who never misses a target no matter how extreme the duress.

In reality, allowing students, staff or faculty to carry guns on campus is far likelier to increase crime and injuries, not decrease them. People carrying concealed firearms have the potential to reach for them whenever they feel threatened, especially if they’ve been drinking. There is a well-documented high incidence of drinking and drunken behavior (as well as sometimes other drug use) among young people in our culture, including students. If someone under the influence carrying a concealed firearm gets into an argument on or near campus, that person might well draw or even fire the gun (whether as an aggressor or in self-defense), harming others in the process, including innocent bystanders.

If students, faculty and staff want to be protected from unstable people who purchase or steal guns, they should advocate for passage and enforcement of effective gun control laws, not for vigilantism or a return to the romanticized days of the Wild West. We would all be safer without guns on campus.

BIRCHER: In my view, the Pitt campus should be treated like any other public facility. If firearms would be permitted in such a facility, those duly licensed individuals should be allowed to carry weapons.

Has Pitt done enough to respond to complaints from surrounding areas about off-campus student behavior?

BAKER: I believe that Pitt has made a good-faith, responsible effort to respond to complaints about off-campus student behavior, and that it takes these complaints seriously. Much of the responsibility for shortcomings in dealing with such problems lies with absentee landlords and the failure of the city of Pittsburgh to enforce existing regulations.

Pitt has been trying to persuade the city to do more clean up in the Oakland area. The University pays half the salary of a city code inspector who in return is supposed to spend half his time inspecting the Oakland area for housing code violations. Unfortunately, the cash-strapped city has that employee working in other areas as well. If Pitt paid his salary full time, perhaps he could spend more time in Oakland and that could make a difference.

As discussed at a recent Senate community relations committee meeting, Pitt and various Oakland community groups already sponsor trash clean-up programs in the Oakland area. Pitt also distributes educational material to students about trash schedules, container requirements and fines for non-compliance with city regulations. While clean-up efforts can always be increased, they do not get at the root problem, namely poor enforcement of existing regulations.

Pitt police already cooperate with the city in patrolling the Oakland campus area. They could get more involved in responding to complaints about unruly behavior in other parts of Oakland, but it seems that law enforcement in non-campus areas is the city’s responsibility, not Pitt’s.

BIRCHER: I believe the University and in particular the Pitt police have done a very good job of responding to authentic complaints. Many of the complaints, however, are regarding those not affiliated with the University. With respect to actual students, the commitment to civility, on or off campus, begins at the freshman convocation. I believe the University has a reasonable mechanism for dealing with the rare instance in which student behavior is sufficiently egregious to warrant disciplinary action.

Is the University’s three-pronged mission of teaching, research and public service in the proper balance on the Pittsburgh campus and at the regional campuses?

BAKER: There is no simple yes/no answer: It depends on which school, how its dean views the three prongs and whether the context is for annual pay raises or promotion. That said, I regretfully conclude that the answer at Pitt is often no — especially on the regional campuses, where teaching loads are higher than at Oakland.

Many of our schools value and reward research dollars obtained far more than heavy teaching loads and service, especially for promotion purposes. For example, science and engineering faculty are generally not promoted with tenure unless they obtain at least two substantial grants as principal investigator within a six-year period. While teaching is supposed to be weighted equally with research in promotion decisions, in practice a candidate’s grant dollars and publications carry far more influence, while service is often hardly considered at all.

Faculty carrying heavy traditional teaching loads are nevertheless expected to meet unrealistic research expectations in order to be promoted, and find themselves in a Catch-22: They’re not afforded adequate time to conduct research, so they are unable to get a funded grant because they haven’t completed enough research. They then cannot be promoted because they haven’t obtained two funded grants in the last six years. Faculty in this situation are not only unpromotable but also lower-paid, since teaching is generally rewarded less than research.

Regarding annual evaluations, I have been an outspoken advocate the past 14 years for appropriate weighting of teaching, research and service in determining annual pay raises. I will continue to do so, if re-elected.

BIRCHER: Yes, I believe the stewardship of the resources has maintained reasonable balance. The University must, however, continue its role as a major partner in regional development and continue the tradition of positive interaction with the larger community.

Do you perceive a change in faculty involvement in Senate Council and Faculty Assembly activities? Is there more apathy? Are faculty just busier? Or, is the Senate working more behind the scenes now than in prior years? Why should faculty be involved with the Senate?

BAKER: I perceive no significant change in faculty involvement in the Senate in recent years — nor do I believe faculty are busier, that apathy has increased or more is occurring behind the scenes. However, complacency seems to have increased because Pitt is functioning well.

Faculty should get involved in the Senate precisely because it’s the University’s official shared-governance body, charged with discussing and making recommendations on all issues of University-wide concern to faculty, staff, students and administrators.

While the Senate’s role is admittedly advisory — and our advice can be ignored by the administration if they so wish — faculty can make the administration pay a price for ignoring our counsel by calling attention to a stalemate. For example:

• The administration’s protracted resistance to same-sex partner benefits brought enormous negative publicity to Pitt. So too did the lengthy dispute in the School of Dental Medicine in the 1990s, in which I played a prominent role. Because of continued public exposure and scrutiny, both issues were eventually resolved favorably to faculty concerns.

• The Senate also played an important leadership role in keeping Pitt’s Environmental Law Clinic on campus, and in prompting changes in our Institutional Review Board. As a long-time tenure and academic freedom committee member and officer, I participated in both cases.

Thus, I know from personal experience that the Senate can indeed make a significant difference and is worthy of a faculty member’s participation. If faculty want a voice in what happens at Pitt, they can either become administrators or participate in the Senate. Those who do not participate forfeit their voices.

BIRCHER: Enthusiasm does wax and wane in a cyclic fashion. A key job of the president of the University Senate is to make the Senate an effective forum for the solution of problems and thus an attractive mechanism in which faculty will want to participate.

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