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September 17, 2009

Senate Matters

Finding common ground and shared governance in crisis

pinskyWe are living in a remarkable time. The juxtaposition of contrasting realities reflects amazing social/economic/technological disequilibriums. While medical science has made wondrous strides, the United States has an infant mortality rate equal to many developing countries and fully one-fifth of the U.S. population does not have access to effective health care, either because of lack of health care insurance or insufficient coverage. At a time of unbridled economic growth and prosperity and increasing efficient and effective means of material utilization and production/distribution, we are living in the worst economic recession in almost a century.

The University of Pittsburgh is a microcosm of this global reality. Pitt, like all other academic institutions, took a serious financial hit when the global financial markets fell last year. This loss of endowment was compounded by reduced income and also reduced state subsidies. The reality is that the University is in a financial crisis and needs to make serious decisions on how to spend limited resources if it is to remain solvent and maintain its excellence. One difficult decision made by Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg, in consultation with the University Senate budget policies committee, was freezing salaries this year. Although painful to faculty, we understand the need for fiscal restraint, and these measures are preferable to layoffs.

However, in the spirit of shared governance, we equally expect that when the crisis abates and fund balances recover, the salary freeze will be dropped, appropriate salary raises granted and new faculty and staff hires undertaken efficiently but also quickly. The University’s faculty is its most valuable resource. The University has a fundamental obligation to involve this faculty in the tough decisions that directly affect their lives. At some levels such involvement may be merely informational, but at others it requires faculty input and support.

To facilitate University-wide faculty awareness of these issues and the actions taken by the University’s leadership and the University Senate, I have proposed a Faculty Assembly outreach program. Led by Wes Rohrer, the program will help Faculty Assembly members conduct direct outreach programs to faculty in the schools and departments that elected them. Elected Faculty Assembly representatives will make brief presentations to faculty as to what the University Senate is, its structure and function, and what processes exist to help faulty, be they concerned about issues of academic freedom, health care benefits, athletic facilities or classroom lighting. We hope to incorporate these presentations into regularly scheduled department or school faculty meetings, in order to minimize disruptions to busy faculty schedules. Also at these sessions, faculty members can tell their elected representatives if they have any additional problems, either generic or personal. These problems will be funneled directly to the University Senate executive committee prior to the monthly Faculty Assembly meetings. We hope to schedule two outreach sessions each year: one in the fall to explain the role of the University Senate, and another in the spring to review what the Senate accomplished that year.

Shared governance requires an educated electorate. This outreach program has three goals:

• To help create an electorate cognizant of the issues facing the University, so that they may place their personal experiences in context.

• To remind faculty of their rights, responsibilities and options for redress, if needed, as they progress through their academic careers.

• To encourage greater involvement by the faculty in this important shared-governance exercise called the University Senate.

We are living through an extremely difficult time but we have an extraordinary University, a solid, longstanding tradition of excellence, a dedicated and hard-working senior administration and a world-class faculty committed to their students and their professions. How we emerge from this financial crisis, and what our academic lives will be once we recover, remain to be defined. But I offer you an opportunity to accompany us on that journey.

Michael R. Pinsky is the new president of the University Senate.

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