Faculty-led committees on tenure and promotion to get pilot in the spring


Lu-in Wang, vice provost for Faculty Affairs, has set this spring for a pilot program of faculty committees making promotion and tenure recommendations to the provost, in place of the current system where vice provosts make such decisions.

Wang previewed the new procedure before the Oct. 6 meeting of the University Senate’s Faculty Affairs Committee.

Four subcommittees will focus on different groups — School of Medicine faculty; faculty at the regional campuses; appointment-stream faculty on the Pittsburgh campus; and tenure-stream faculty on the Pittsburgh campus (apart from the medical school).

Membership in each subcommittee won’t be limited to the group of faculty whom the subcommittee is reviewing, but will be open to all full-time faculty, she said.

The pilot subcommittee will convene to make recommendations on promotions from tenured associate to full professor, Wang reported. Her office is still determining how subcommittee membership will be decided and the timeline for their decisions.

Wang is also looking into how to take into account certain types of research and service in tenure and promotion decisions, which is an especially significant factor for appointment-stream faculty, she said.

There will be some exceptions to subcommittee involvement in faculty promotion and tenure decisions, such as when a fast-track decision is needed to retain faculty who have received a job offer from another institution, or when tenure may be offered to a new hire, she said. She believes the new subcommittees may be informed about, but not involved, in such decisions.

“It’s hard enough to get a vice provost” to look at such cases in an expedited manner, she explained. “I just don’t think it’s feasible to have the committee reconvene on an expedited basis.”

Senate President Chris Bonneau, a political science faculty member in the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences, agreed with Faculty Affairs committee members who said the timeline for faculty promotion decisions should be shortened and streamlined across schools, and that communication to faculty about promotions be improved. Committee co-chair Lorraine Denman, a faculty member in Italian language at the Dietrich school, proposed an online tracking system for faculty to view the current stage of their own promotion decision.

IP policy issues

Despite successfully prompting a few revisions to the University’s intellectual property policy, in the hope of further protecting faculty controls over class content, committee members remained skeptical of the protections the policy offers. On the day after the Faculty Affairs meeting, the Faculty Assembly approved the policy changes with 80 percent of members voting yes, 8 percent voting no and 12 percent abstaining.

According to committee co-chair Irene Frieze, retired psychology faculty member, Senate Vice President David Salcido conferred with Senior Vice Chancellor for Research Rob Rutenbar and secured two policy changes just prior to the vote:

  • Under “Purpose,” reference is now made to “safeguarding the interests of” faculty members.

  • In the “Ownership” section, the following sentences were added: “This license entitles the University to make all traditional, customary or reasonable uses of these works, for educational or administrative purposes consistent with its educational mission and academic norms. This license does not include the right to sub-license Course Materials other than in connection with the University's academic operations.”

The latter is in response to concerns about the University’s contract, for the current semester only, with Outlier.org, to make the content of a few Pitt courses available for non-Pitt students online.

Denman, Frieze and other committee members were uncertain that the new language adequately addressed faculty concerns about how the University could or would use their course content — especially now that it is being recorded for online, asynchronous use by Pitt students. “I think Outlier is a different matter that will have to be tackled later,” Denman added.

“I’m less concerned than I was a few months ago,” said Bonneau, “because I don’t think faculty are buying the idea that Outlier is good for us. I don’t think the faculty is going to go for it.

“The departments where these (Outlier) courses have been offered have met with the provost and expressed their concerns,” he added. “I am cautiously optimistic that the faculty will prevail on this issue … If not, I think there would be significant pushback from the faculty.”

He emphasized that the IP policy, should it be passed by Faculty Assembly on Oct. 7, would not modify faculty protections passed by the assembly in July as a “patch” to the then-current IP policy. The new policy would only increase monies the University gives to current Pitt faculty who have patents or copyrights.

Concerning the possibility of changing campus status from elevated to guarded, Bonneau reported: “No decisions have been finalized, and there are ongoing discussions at a variety of levels.” Just 12 percent of faculty members are now running in-person classes, he said.

Committee member Tom Songer, an epidemiology faculty member in the Graduate School of Public Health, cautioned that faculty should pay special attention to first-year students this semester. Social distancing and online classes are “creating a lot of work for us as teachers and as administrators to make sure they don’t get left behind,” he said.

“They need to have a sense of community,” added Robin Kear, liaison librarian with the University Library System. “I think we are right to be worried about them and their engagement.”

Social isolation is more of a concern for students than COVID-19 on college campuses, said Pat Loughlin, an engineering faculty member. “It’s definitely impacted the teaching environment. It has impacted the learning environment.”

“I’ve never had so many issues with mental health … or academic integrity,” said Denman, who teaches mostly first-year students. Too many students have shut off their cameras during remote classes or have stopped coming to class altogether, she said. “I’m having a series of pep talks with my students this week … and I’m checking with them as much as possible.”

While there have been departmental meetings about the mental health issues faced by students and faculty experiencing this novel academic environment, “it’s a struggle to get faculty members and grad students to attend,” she said, “because we’re all Zoomed out.”

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


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