Faculty Assembly votes in favor of updated digital accessibility policy


Faculty Assembly voted to approve a proposed digital accessibility policy in a meeting Feb. 6 and heard from Rob Rutenbar, senior vice chancellor for Research, about a pilot digital conflict of interest submission website.

There were only two abstentions when the members voted in favor of moving the proposed Electronic Information and Technology Accessibility Policy on to the Senate Council for approval.

This policy can potentially affect all University digital academic and business activities, requiring University hardware, software and digital content to accommodate people with cognitive impairments, hearing and sight impairments and mobility issues, along with other disabilities. It also would bring the University in compliance with current federal disability laws.

The endorsement comes after Faculty Assembly voted in November 2019 to send an earlier version of the proposed policy back to the Office of Policy Development and Management and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion for further review.

At the time, several members cited concerns with the language in the policy, with some fearing a greatly increased workload on faculty; astronomical implementation costs without a clear funding source or general timeframe for implementation; and an overbearing enforcement mechanism.

Tom Hitter, assistant vice chancellor for Policy Development and Management, and Angie Bedford-Jack, digital accessibility coordinator, took the critiques and attempted to address each of the previous concerns raised in November with this updated version.

They made changes to the “Responsibilities” section and “Non-Compliance” sections. These include clarifying that ODI and the University are responsible for providing resources for the necessary changes. 

In addition, the changes softened compliance requirements, requiring employees to adhere to these policies “to the extent possible” and said implementation assistance and support will come from ODI, the Center for Teaching and Learning, University Communications and Pitt IT “where necessary.”

Further, they clarified that the senior vice chancellor for Engagement, or appointed designees, will bring non-compliant portions of websites and resources into compliance after consulting with stakeholders.

Faculty Senate President Chris Bonneau said he was pleased with the updated proposed policy.

“More of the language surrounding compliance and enforcement is far less draconian,” Bonneau said. “My inclination is that this policy is now palatable, and we have done well to make it less burdensome for faculty. No policy is going to be perfect, but this is an improvement … and still gets us in compliance with federal law.”

Some members had additional questions after Hitter and Bedford-Jack explained the updates. Nicholas Bircher, an associate professor emeritus from the Department of Anesthesiology, wanted to know how many resources will be made available for faculty.

Bedford-Jack said that specific budget allocation mechanisms can’t go into this policy, but there are funding requests that have already been sent out.

As for resources, Bedford-Jack said there are several workshops and trainings available with the Center for Teaching and Learning. Further, PDF remediation software will be available to individual schools as needed.

Another member asked about specific timeframes for implementation. Bedford-Jack said that she’s aiming for public-facing websites or software to be in compliance within two years. Course materials have a compliance deadline of four years.  

There is, however, plenty of room for flexibility with these timeframes. 

Conflict of interest

Rutenbar and Bill Yates, a professor of otolaryngology in the Department of Neuroscience, gave a demonstration of a pilot electronic compliance disclosure website the University is developing. 

This new process, which doesn’t make any policy changes to the disclosure process, is more simplified and streamlined, Rutenbar said, including for dual Pitt and UPMC employees.

Rutenbar said people can volunteer to participate in the pilot, which has already been demonstrated to several University leaders. Deans will inform the participating professors later. It will continue to be piloted throughout 2020, so Rutenbar’s office can get as much feedback as possible.

It’s necessary for Pitt’s disclosure mechanics to be updated, Rutenbar said, since, in recent years, multiple academics have faced, or are facing, jail time for failing to fully disclose their financial and foreign government ties.

“One of the things that’s true is that there’s an enormous amount of federal focus on foreign engagements, being able to have those things properly disclosed,” Rutenbar said. “And that was not really well captured at all in the current conflict of interest form. We needed space for that.”

Rutenbar pointed to a recent example where Harvard University Professor Charles Leiber, also the chair of the department of chemistry and chemical biology, was arrested on Jan. 28, after being accused of failing to disclose his ties to China’s Thousand Talents Plan, according to a report from the New York Times.

“I’m sure that unfortunate picture of him in the tux will be on his obit,” Rutenbar said referring to a photo of Leiber included in the Times’ report. “He went from a tuxedo to an orange jumpsuit. … Mismanaging conflict of interest disclosure can be dire.” 

In moments where faculty and select staff may find themselves uncertain on whether or not to disclose something, Rutenbar recommends to “err on the side of disclosure and transparency.”

Following the presentations, Nathan Urban, senior vice chancellor for Graduate Studies, briefed the assembly on the 2025 Plan for Pitt. He encouraged more faculty to participate in the process since he’s received, in comparison to other members of the Pitt community, little feedback from them so far.

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


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