Letter to the editor: Pitt’s form of shared governance rare and needs to be protected

The recent story on “concerns about shared governance” saddened me. The Senate and shared governance came into being at Pitt in the 1940s after a series of incidents led the Trustees to actions designed to create a balance of power in University governance. This balance of power evolved to its current form in the late 1960s.

I believe the form of “shared governance” practiced at Pitt is rare if not unique in higher education. The reporting suggested to me that the era of shared governance at Pitt is likely coming to an end. There are several challenges we face as shared governance meets union negotiations.

First, the union is rightly concerned with “faculty governance,” which is not “shared governance” as it is practiced at Pitt. Shared governance involves faculty, staff and students in an open forum discussing all the issues that impact the University as a whole. Faculty governance, as I understand it from the union perspective, is concerned with negotiating working conditions for the members of the union and others included in the defined group. It includes many things beyond salaries, i.e. benefits, working conditions, etc.

I suspect that the terms “mandatory” and “permissive” as reported in the article refer to the issues which are inside and outside the unions primary concerns. At the risk of picking bad examples of permissive issues, let me suggest the planning for how to deal with the pandemic. The faculty, staff and students worked extensively and collaboratively on many aspects of this issue. Another example was the “Pitt Promise” — the pledge made by every incoming member of the undergraduate class at freshman convocation. At one point we discussed whether we might ask all members of the Pitt community to “take” the Promise. Would it become a working conditions issue with the union? How would policies on relationships between faculty and subordinates be situated, another example where we worked collaboratively.

It seems that there will be a lot of shared governance lost when we consider the focus on the right of the union to maintain control of negotiating matters of faculty working conditions. Will we ultimately lose shared governance to negotiations between the administration and unions for faculty, and ultimately staff and students. While shared governance is messy and will vary in how well it is managed, in my experience it has been a better tool for an academic environment, particularly as it has been practiced at Pitt.

Second, at Pitt, we have been committed to transparency in shared governance. With a very few exceptions, all meetings of the Senate have been open to the public. Indeed, one major issue addressed a couple years back was the status of the University Times as an independent organ. The reporters and the editor of the University Times are employees of the University, but the reporting they do is not controlled by the administration. They, as well as any other member of the University community, are welcome in meetings of the various Senate committees.

These committees also include in their membership staff and students. Again, with very few exceptions, the deliberations are public. I understand that union negotiations need to be less transparent at many points and with good reason. I suspect my sense of loss is more of a personal matter, but as an academic, I find this lack of open transparent discussion of issues to be a great loss.

Finally, as we move forward, it seems clear that there will be new rules that are going to govern our interactions. When I came to Pitt some 50 years ago, there was a smaller administration and an environment that seemed to be more open with schools being more independent. That has changed over the years. The administration has grown larger and there seems to be less innovation locally. I could use selected examples, but that would likely induce a separate discussion of the best way to manage large academic institutions.

My point here is simply that we have become an institution with more rules and more opportunity to find ourselves in situations where our freedom to interact and negotiate is constrained by rules. We are now adding another layer of union-negotiated rules. If staff and student unionization follows, as I think may be warranted, we may find ourselves in an environment where we will be less able to recruit stellar administrators, faculty, staff and students who see the rules as too much of a burden. Reading the article, I couldn’t help but think about what will be gained and lost. I wonder how it will impact those who might be interested in being the next chancellor or provost of the University of Pittsburgh.

Michael B. Spring
Professor emeritus, School of Computing and Information
Former Senate Council president