Faculty Assembly approves intellectual property, anti-Black racism course proposals


Members of Faculty Assembly voted on and approved a record number of proposals on various topics including intellectual property, faculty grievances and an anti-Black racism course.

In the Faculty Assembly meeting on Oct. 7, members approved two different proposed policy updates for the Procedure on Faculty Grievances and the Intellectual Property Policy. 

The proposed new required Black Studies Course policy will also move on to Senate Council next week for final approval. Members also approved a revised syllabus statement on religious observances. 

Senate Council President Chris Bonneau said in his opening report that the proposed update for the Procedure on Faculty Grievances adds part-time faculty to its scope. In previous assembly meetings, faculty pointed out that the current policy, which was last revised in 1988, only applies to full-time faculty.

However, Abbe de Vallejo, a Department of Immunology faculty member, said some changes still need to be made. De Vallejo, also a member of the Tenure and Academic Freedom Committee, came to the conclusion after the committee compared Pitt’s grievance policy to peer institutions in the American Association of University Professors.

Committee members found that Pitt’s policy was not “in line” with other institutions since Pitt administrators compose the grievance panel instead of faculty, de Vallejo said. He later added that the University needs to have a clear strategy on conducting grievance mitigation and investigations.

Bonneau said this proposal is necessary since it expands protections to part-time faculty as soon as possible while allowing for the Policy Office to conduct a more comprehensive review later on. Members overwhelmingly supported the proposal with more than 40 yes votes and two abstentions.

Senate Council Vice President David Salcido said the grievance policy is extremely relevant to the proposed Intellectual Property Policy changes.

This new proposal would modify the course materials section purpose statement and the grievance process, which members approved earlier in the meeting. 

The changes to the course materials section further clarify the limits to the University’s ownership of faculty-generated course materials, Salcido said. The current version of the policy says even though faculty own their course materials, the University has a “perpetual license” to course materials for academic purposes.

“The previous embodiment of this document, this policy, left it rather vague what the content and limitations and intention of that policy, that license was,” Salcido said. “To increase the characterization that license was important, and then establish its limits because faculty had concern that this could lead to exploitation of the materials.”

Faculty have previously expressed concern in several other shared governance meetings with Pitt’s ability to use course materials.

The updated language in the proposed policy is similar to Pitt’s peer institutions’ policies, Salcido added. It explains why the University needs the license and what the course materials would be used for.

“The University cannot sell your course materials. It doesn't own them,” Salcido said. “But there are conditions in which the University needs to execute a sub-license or a license of your materials.”

The next modification changes language in the policy’s purpose statement to safeguard “the innovators, creators and campus community that include faculty, but also everyone else, would be covered by this policy is explicitly stated here.” 

In the general discussion about the modifications, Frank Karioris, a visiting lecturer with the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies Program, lambasted the proposed policy changes. He said they didn’t go far enough in addressing faculty concerns about the University’s use of course materials. 

“This does not address any of the concerns whatsoever,” Karioris said. “It is significantly longer, but without any substance …. To me, this is nothingness. It's literally nothingness. The administration needs to listen to faculty’s concerns on this.” 

Several members pushed back on these comments in support of Pitt administrators and the various faculty who worked on modifying the policy’s language.

“I think that in this case, it's very hyperbolic to say that this answer's no concerns relative to the original document because frankly, the original document was extremely vague,” Salcido said, adding that the original document’s language around licensing and course materials was flawed. “What we've done, what the administration has attempted to do in good faith is give us language that gives us the ability to make reasonable appeals, when we think that this conflicts with reasonable practices and reasonable practices. Yes, is a bar that'll float. But we'll follow it as it floats.”

Drastically changing the policy would affect the University’s ability to function, Salcido said, adding that it’s better to make incremental changes over time. Further, there’s no evidence that the University has or would unethically use course materials through companies like Outlier, he said. And the moment evidence comes to light, Salcido said he’d “raise hell.”

“I've heard a lot of complaints about Outlier. I took all of them seriously. But I've yet to see real tangible evidence that has been used to exploit our faculty,” Salcido said. “Let's fight the battles based on data, based on evidence that's in front of us, let's pass a policy that actually benefits a lot of people and does afford protections that were not afforded by the previous policy.”

The proposed modifications to the policy passed with 80 percent of members voting yes, 8 percent voting no and 12 percent abstaining.

John Stoner, co-chair of the Educational Policies Committee, presented the final resolutions on religious observances and a three-credit anti-Black racism course.

Alaina Roberts, an associate professor of History and member of the committee that quickly crafted a one-credit anti-Black racism course for first-year students this fall, led the working group made up of faculty and students to flesh out the idea of the three-credit course.

She introduced the resolution sparked by Sidney Massenburg, who graduated from Pitt earlier this year. She created a petition on June 5 calling for the creation of a mandatory anti-Black racism course for first-year students. As of Oct. 8, the petition had gathered more than 7,300 signatures.

Massenberg was inspired by the many protests over the summer that followed the death of George Floyd after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for more than 8 minutes. 

She presented this petition to Faculty Assembly in June and sent a letter to Bonneau, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher, Dean of Students Kenyon Bonner and Provost Ann Cudd  explaining the importance of the potential course.

Roberts said that committee members worked to make sure the course was free to students and didn’t add to the credits students must already fulfill. Many of her former students, Roberts said, have said they wished they had learned about this subject earlier.

“Right now, I can only teach students who choose to take my classes… who already know the importance of the Black experience, and that's really not enough,” Roberts said. 

In the general discussion following the introduction, de Vallejo suggested that the purview of the course expand to include information about discrimination against Native Americans and other underrepresented groups. 

Roberts said that while it is important to acknowledge the plights of other underrepresented groups, “many historians who study what I study agree that it is really the black/white binary that structures race relations.”

Native American history, she added, doesn’t have the “same sort of kind of permanence and inheritability that blackness and enslavement have connected to one another and that we still see in the carceral system and in pretty much every system and ideology that you could think of.”

De Vallejo briefly interrupted Roberts, who specializes in both Black and Native American history, to say he disagreed with this explanation.

Roberts later continued her explanation, saying that she realizes that every person’s race affects their experience in the United States, “but there is kind of a racial hierarchy that has been created in the United States that even affects white people. As white immigrants came into the United States, they all slide themselves into this hierarchy. And blackness is always on the bottom. And there are many people in different disciplines who would agree with that.”

Gabby Yearwood, a lecturer and director of undergraduate studies in Pitt’s Department of Anthropology, also worked on the committee with Roberts and backed up her explanation.

“Whenever there has been a conversation around centering black-life black experiences in an American discourse setting, it's immediately met with ways in which to dilute it,” Yearwood said. “It is important to recognize the way in which black and brown folks, queer folks, trans folks, indigenous folks have been treated in the American racial system. But we have to start somewhere and to dilute it into a course, that's a melting pot, that is a diversity pot, we're doing an injustice to the narratives and discourses of a variety of people that need just as much equal attention.”

Yearwood added that he doesn’t believe anybody who supports this course doesn’t think there is a need for other similar courses for other represented groups, but students who focus on the anti-black racism course can learn how to battle other types of oppression.

“Anti-Black racism helps all of our students learn how to deal with all kinds of oppression globally,” Yearwood said.

Claudia Kregg-Byer, an assistant professor of health and community systems in the School of Nursing, said that Pitt, as a large research institution, has a duty to explain this history to its students.

“What we as faculty should be concerned about is have we taken those young minds, 18-year-olds, and introduced to them the possibility that some things are not quite right,” Byer said.

The resolution passed with 93 percent voting yes, 0 percent voting no and 7 percent abstaining.

The final resolution on religious observances suggests professors adjust the language in course syllabi to explicitly state that instructors are scheduling coursework in relation to religious calendars. “I do think at the very least it is a good faith effort and a signal to students who read the syllabus, that this is something that is being taken seriously and being considered,” Stoner said.

Members voted to approve the resolution with more than 96 percent of members voting yes and 4 percent abstaining

These resolutions will now head to Senate Council on Oct. 15 for final approval.

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at dharrell@pitt.edu or 412-383-9905.


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