Nondiscrimination policy continues to meet resistance


Members of the University Senate’s Tenure and Academic Freedom Committee remain skeptical that Pitt’s proposed new nondiscrimination policy will maintain academic freedom here and protect faculty rights, after meeting with administrators and faculty who devised the policy.

Committee co-chair Marika Kovacs echoed the criticism of the Faculty Affairs committee at a similar meeting several weeks ago, labeling the policy’s call for mandatory reporting of suspected harassing or discriminatory speech as “very Orwellian” and called its definition of harassment “very vague.”

“You’re going to have an office full of people making calls about innocuous comments they happened to observe,” said committee member Barry Gold, School of Pharmacy faculty member. “We’re all becoming professional snitches.”

Tom Hitter, assistant vice chancellor for Policy Development and Management, said the group devising the nondiscrimination policy was aware of faculty concerns about the consistency with which the policy would be applied and the fairness of its due process, and that both would be examined for possible modification.

Kovacs and co-chair Abbe de Vallejo, both of the School of Medicine, were not convinced that rules against harassment and discrimination should even be in the same policy. Anthony Infanti, School of Law faculty member, countered that “I don’t think you can draw a line between the two,” adding: “Creating a hostile work environment is discriminating against (people).”

Laurie Kirsch, vice provost for faculty affairs, development, and diversity, pointed out that mandatory reporting may be a necessary part of the rules against sexual harassment — after which some of the nondiscrimination policy was modelled — since sexual misconduct is known to be underreported.

“I don’t know that people feel that way, or that it’s true, for the forms of harassment or discrimination covered by the nondiscrimination policy,” she said, asking whether there was evidence that mandatory reporting is needed in this situation.

Gold reported that a prominent Pitt professor is being investigated today based on anonymous allegations posted on Twitter; that this faculty member at first did not know he was being investigated (although his accuser mentioned it in a further tweet); and that “the University will likely lose” this professor to a job at another institution.

“It becomes so easy to send a faculty member or somebody you don’t like into a miserable place,” Gold said.

Katie Pope, associate vice chancellor of Civil Rights and Title IX, pointed out that this investigation was not taking place through her Office of Diversity and Inclusion, as the proposed policy would now require, and that the new policy would make sure anyone accused would know their accuser.

Pope also reported that anonymous complaints (already allowed under the current nondiscrimination policy) are “typically not investigated,” which is the final step in her office’s complaint-response process — unless the accused’s name has cropped up in a previous accusation. Depending on the anonymous allegation, she said, her office might talk to the accused or conduct a climate survey of their department, which does not involve airing an accusation or specifically involve the accused.

De Vallejo pushed for the new policy to be more specific about what interim measures it would allow as the result of a complaint, prior to an investigation. The current policy against sexual harassment, for instance, may result in such interim measures as a no-contact order between accused and accuser or a separation of work times between the two parties.

If there are interim measures in the proposed nondiscrimination policy, asked Chris Bonneau, Senate president attending the meeting, “who determines what is appropriate and does the faculty have any recourse of appeal from the interim measures? Are we opening us up to litigation concerning lack of due process?”

Committee member Carey Balaban, a Medicine faculty member who argued for the nondiscrimination policy’s standardization of procedures under current law, proposed adding a good faith requirement — a provision to determine whether an accuser was free of ulterior motive before Pitt’s diversity office proceeded to look into a case. He also said the new policy should lay out all of its procedures specifically.

Accusations don’t result in diversity office action as often as committee members feared, Pope and Infanti assured them. “We get complaints all the time about what happens in the classroom,” Pope said, but “that’s part of the classroom and academic freedom” provisions that exempt such speech. Infanti pointed out that, under the new policy, acts or speech must be “severe and pervasive” and must “subjectively and objectively” count as harassment to fall under policy regulations.

But Kovacs worried that, before such an assessment can be made, the diversity office would become involved anyway. “There is a process that is extremely demoralizing,” she said, adding: “In our desire to be fair and just, we are now jumping to the other side ... the student is always right and the faculty is always wrong. Before it was the faculty was always right and the student was always wrong.”

Given that the current policy allows anonymous complaints and investigations of harassment allegations, it has nonetheless failed to produce a “parade of horribles,” Infanti said, using the legal term for bad examples that prove a case.

“There has been a parade of horribles,” countered Bonneau. Enough faculty have come forward “to say they haven’t been able to talk to their students as freely. ... We don’t know of the full scope” of the issue, he added, because when students learn about mandatory reporting they stop talking to professors.

Infanti reported that members of the undergraduate Student Government Board, when meeting with those writing the policy, “voiced no concerns about mandatory reporting” making students reluctant to talk.

“This is going to be a really hard sell, the way this is formulated,” concluded Bonneau.

“What comes out of this (policy) is good intentions,” allowed Kovacs. “But the actual resolutions” will not be not good. “It’s not the policy. It’s always the people and how the people implement it.”

De Vallejo asked for the committee to see another draft of the policy, after it is revised in response to faculty concerns. A further, joint meeting among those writing the policy and the several committees and student groups who had previously reviewed it was discussed but not set. Members of the policy formulation group said they expected to complete their next draft by mid-March.

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


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