By DONOVAN HARRELL
Chris Bonneau’s three years as Senate Council president are quickly coming to an end.
Since 2018, Bonneau has had to help steer Pitt shared governance through difficult times, from the Tree of Life mass shooting in 2018 to the civil unrest following the death of George Floyd to the ongoing issues surrounding the pandemic.
Bonneau will transition to the advisory role of immediate past president in July when Robin Kear, liaison librarian in Research and Educational Support and former Senate vice president, begins her presidency.
Bonneau said he’s proud of the work he’s done as Senate Council president, but said there’s plenty more work to be done.
The University Times spoke to Bonneau about the evolution of shared governance, challenges and accomplishments during his term as president and his hopes for the fall 2021 semester.
The conversation has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
How are you feeling now that your term as president is ending?
I’m exhausted. But it’s nice that my term is ending kind of as things seem to be getting back to normal on the coronavirus front, which would be good for (Kear) coming in not having to deal with a lot of carryovers and trying to get up to speed for what might only be like a month or two of stuff before things are back to normal. I think, starting in the fall, there will be a “new normal.” And I think that’s a positive thing. I’m also glad that I was able to see that through.
What are some of the issues that you took on as president that stood out?
The pandemic, obviously, is an easy one. I think it’s something that, hopefully, we won’t have to deal with again for a very long time. One of the goals I had, when I started, was to increase the institutionalization of the Senate and the institutionalization of the shared governance apparatus. And what I mean by that is, I wanted to get to a point where we had processes and structures in place to ensure participation in the key issues, ensure that our voice was valued, and we weren’t an afterthought.
So one step on that was the new policy on policies that provided for a systematic way in which policies would be evaluated and reassessed and the role of our shared governance and our committees in that. Another one is compensation for the Senate officers to entice more individuals to consider seeking participation as Senate officers. It’s a lot of work to do for free.
Then when we talk about hiring senior administrators like the provost and the senior vice chancellor for Health Sciences, we started the process where usually faculty involvement was limited to the creation of the shortlist. And then once it got to the on-campus interviews, that was all just for senior leadership. Well, now we meet with all the candidates too. Starting that faculty involvement at all stages of that process, I think is a huge win.
Do you feel you’ve achieved the goals you set for yourself at the beginning of your term?
I wanted to push for more transparency. I wanted to push for more inclusiveness, and I think we’ve done that on both fronts in terms of transparency, not only in our decision-making processes but the decisions of the central administration.
I think we’ve had an increase in participation, both in terms of people running for office, as well as people voting in our elections. There’s a sense of broader engagement with the broader University, which is good.
In terms of policy things, obviously, I wanted to get tobacco off of campus. That didn’t happen. The coronavirus thing kind of put a wrench in there. I also think we need to continue to make progress regarding compensation for our faculty and staff, as the Budget Policies committee has talked about in the past couple of meetings, that we need to make real, real strides toward doing that in the not too distant future.
What were some of the more challenging times during your presidency?
Communication has always been a challenge. It’s always a challenge both between administration and faculty and also between the Senate officers and administration. There were, there are a few times when I learned about things in the newspaper or, you know, being called for a quote, and that’s never pleasant for me.
In terms of issues that were challenging, obviously, the ongoing unionization campaign was incredibly challenging. Some of the folks behind it will put out inaccurate information or information that was just false. I tried to correct that and tried to ensure that faculty have complete and accurate up-to-date information before they decide how they want to vote on that issue. I think it’s a really important decision for the faculty, and I think they need to have all the information.
Coronavirus, obviously. For me, my calculation was, “Where is the faculty in all this? What does the faculty need?” and needing to find this stuff pretty quickly in the face of fast-changing information. That we were able to go through this without any furloughs, benefit cuts or layoffs, for faculty and staff, that was a huge win for us. I’m also proud that faculty were not required to return to the classroom. We trusted faculty to do the right thing. I think that was a really important signal.
One of your main priorities, when you began your term, was to help make Pitt a more diverse and equitable institution. Are you happy with the progress you’ve made on this issue?
To quote marketing, “progress is always in progress.” I think we’ve taken some good initial steps with the one-credit, anti-Black racism course and working on the three-credit general education course. The requirement of adding a question to OMET student teaching evaluations, “Did the instructor promote an inclusive environment?” Creating the police review board that David Harris heads up.
We’ve made some good steps, but if this is a horse race, we’re not even past the first quarter post, so we need to keep it up. We need to continue to diversify our faculty and students. We have some good initiatives that will do that. It’s not just about recruiting, it’s also about retention and keeping people here
I’m hopeful that the progress we’ve made over the past year will continue to be made and accelerated over the next few years.
Over these past three years, what were some things that you’ve learned about Pitt as an institution, about the position as president and yourself?
I don’t know if I’ve learned so much as I’ve gotten a new understanding. As much as we think Pitt is highly bureaucratized, and it is in places, it’s also highly decentralized.
And the other thing is because Pitt is so vast, any kind of conspiracy theories are just laughable to me. Everyone’s working, trust me. No one’s that good. When things screw up is almost always the result of oversight or incompetence. Not the result of some kind of nefarious plot to screw people over
About the office of the president, I think if you want to do it right, it has to be your priority and basically your full-time job. If you’re not willing to do that, then it’s going to be very easy for things to slip through the cracks and for you to be taken advantage of.
If you want to be heard and respected as an integral part of the governance, then you’ve got to do the work. Because if you’re not, it’s too easy to dismiss you.
I think I learned how to prioritize things in a way to try and maximize the influence that we had. And that meant sometimes, I went along with things that I didn’t agree with. But in the long term, it was worth it.
I also learned that every faculty member thinks their problem is the most important. And it almost never is. But if you are honest with the faculty members, and you work on their behalf, and you try, even if it’s a minor thing like course assignments, that can build a lot of goodwill.
How do you want faculty and staff to remember your time as president?
I would like people to say that in the end, he was president during a very tumultuous time — both for the University and the country. And in the end, he was able to leave the faculty better than they were before, and that he was a strong defender of the faculty and their interests.
Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at email@example.com or 412-383-9905.
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