Committee worries donations could impact academic independence


The Tenure and Academic Freedom Committee is asking the University to make changes to its proposed new policy on gift acceptance and naming standards, seeking an “affirmation of academic independence” surrounding donations, particularly those that establish research centers or name facilities; clearer language stating that no new gifts add further faculty duties; and allowance for faculty oversight of the process.

“We have very few policies” governing gifts and naming, Kris Davitt, senior vice chancellor for Philanthropic and Alumni Engagement, told the committee’s Sept. 18 meeting. Davitt, who will be in charge of implementing the policy, added: “We wanted to address … this roadmap to how we want to accept gifts. We are not at all at an industry standard.”

The policy was last updated in 2005, she reported, and “even then it probably wasn’t adequate. It’s important for us to have a statement. … to our donors” about how Pitt accepts gifts. Davitt’s office is even now examining gifts from “decades ago” to make sure they fit “in a way that aligns with the University’s standards and values,” she said. 

Davitt reports to the heads of both Pitt and UPMC, and the new policy will cover gifts to the provost’s area schools and to those in the health sciences, she explained.

“UPMC is as interested in the philanthropic support of the health sciences as the chancellor is,” Davitt aid, since the schools of the health sciences are UPMC’s clinical partners, but, “this is a Pitt policy.”

As committee co-chair Abbe de Vallejo, immunology faculty member, told the meeting, committee members had already suggested policy language that guarantees academic independence at Pitt despite any strictures a donor may desire. “The University upholds Academic Independence in pursuit of its mission,” this suggested policy addition states. “Accordingly, any gift will be accepted with affirmation of Academic Independence.”

“Who decides this is a gift aligned or not aligned with the core values (of the University)?” asked Barry Gold, pharmacy faculty member. “Will faculty be involved?”

Committee co-chair Marika Kovacs, psychiatry faculty member, took the idea further: “Who decides on core values and the mission … when somebody decides something is not a core value two weeks from now?”

Davitt cautioned that such decisions will be made more at the unit level than the University level, prompting de Vallejo to call for language that assured academic freedom at the unit level.

“We have made strides in shared governance,” Kovacs added, “and we want to make sure that continues (in this policy).”

Some committee members were concerned that certain health sciences faculty get paid by both Pitt and UPMC. “UPMC would have no say in how these gifts are recognized and accepted,” Davitt assured them.

Committee member Mark Paterson, a sociology faculty member, suggested a standing committee of faculty members to have oversight of gift acceptance: “Academic freedom — we all think we know what it is, but it is loose enough that it is a vector of vagueness,” he said.

De Vallejo pointed to recent debates over renaming Parran Hall and Scaife Hall, and their different outcomes. “It’s always good to have the faculty oversight as these types of issues evolve,” he said.

“At the same time I need to ensure that my unit gets to do its function,” Davitt countered. “A standing committee I don’t think is feasible.” She said, however, that she would propose other language concerning faculty oversight of the process.

De Vallejo requested that she and Tyler Tenney of Pitt’s policy development office, who has worked with Davitt on the policy’s development, propose further revisions and “pass it back to us for feedback.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-758-4859.


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