Senate elections: Candidates for presidency outline positions

There are two candidates for Senate Council president this year — former Senate Vice President Robin Kear, a liaison librarian in Research and Educational Support, and current Senate Vice President David Salcido, a research assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine.

The winner of the election will replace Chris Bonneau, who has served the current maximum of two one-year terms. Bonneau will move into the immediate past president position, which is now held by Frank Wilson.

We put 10 questions to them about the work of the Senate and University to help voters make their decision. The election will be from April 1 to 17 and the new officers will take over at the beginning of July.

On March 25, the Senate voted to extend the term for president, vice president and secretary to two years, starting with the officers elected this year. Each office holder can serve two terms.

Questions for Senate presidential candidates

1. What do you think are the biggest issues the Senate needs to address? How do you plan to approach these issues?

David Salcido: The most important issue before the Senate is the Senate itself. A strong Senate empowers our faculty. A weak Senate disenfranchises them and speaks poorly of the University. As president, I would seek specific, constructive modifications to the University architecture in which the Senate operates: direct Senate communication channels to all faculty, compensation for our standing committee chairs, the explicit right of the Senate to interview candidates for senior administrative posts, and a simple, fair modification to the Policy on Policies allowing for certain policy approvals to require affirmative votes in Senate Council.

Robin Kear: People are the best investment the University can make. The Senate needs to continue to be active in recognizing structural inequity at Pitt and working to implement solutions. For example, there is gender inequity in the number of full professors at Pitt according to the 2017 Economic Status of Women Faculty at Pitt. Women make up 44 percent of the full-time faculty yet are 26 percent of the rank of full professor. Why does the gap exist? What are different structural solutions that would support more women to reach full professor? That same report shows salary gaps: women faculty are paid less than men. We are due soon for the next five-year report of the Economic Status of Women Faculty at Pitt. I am interested in this data and working to act on it.

With the addition of John Wallace and team in the provost’s office, as well as through work done by Kathy Humphrey in community engagement and the ongoing work of the OEDI office, Pitt recognizes and addresses racial structural inequity. There is always continual work to be done in this area, and I fully commit to these efforts. Racism brings real harm, mental and physical, to our colleagues, and I commit to pursuing work that removes it. The work of the past year in the Senate to prioritize anti-racism has been positive and something I would continue.

Invisible, unrewarded labor by faculty is a huge issue. For example, adjunct faculty are not compensated for advising, mentoring or service work. They are only compensated for their credit hours. Students do not understand this dynamic, and it creates a dissonance that they can feel. Usually, these faculty do this work anyway because they love to teach and help students. Compensating adjuncts for this work would be a great step. Making this work visible and rewarded is important.

Communication paths need to be open. I will hold an open hour once a week to hear from faculty, work toward examining issues, and move purposefully and strategically to solutions. We can work toward more frequent direct communication from Senate officers to the faculty. I will work with the Senate committees to approach issues; the committees are a strength of our shared governance. The chairs and members of these groups do very valuable work that we act on in Faculty Assembly and Senate Council.

2. What accomplishments make you the most qualified candidate for Senate president?

Robin Kear: I believe that my role is to recognize and keep focus on fundamental issues for improvement and transparency. Recognizing those issues and knowing how to act on them comes from experience. I have 12 years of experience in our shared governance in various roles, most importantly three years as vice president, working closely with current President Chris Bonneau and past President Frank Wilson. I have worked with so many smart and talented people over the years, each interaction brings new perspectives that are so valuable in such a complicated role as Senate president. That is part of why I love this work.

One example of the impact that the Senate can have that continues to inspire me is when I heard the then-GPSG president say at a Senate Council meeting that graduate students did not feel connected to the University. I was deeply concerned, and I realized that in my then-role as co-chair of the newly merged Senate Aid, Admissions, and Affairs committee, I was in a position to do something about it. Working with GPSG, we made graduate students that year’s focus for the committee. There was positive response from the provost’s office, changes in responsibilities given to a staff member, a yearly welcome and orientation fair was funded by the provost, and other changes were actuated from the committee’s focus. This kind of change has a practical impact on the everyday lives of faculty and students. I am committed to improvements of these kinds of fundamental issues for faculty to make our working lives better.

David Salcido: It’s difficult to answer this question, because I sincerely believe my opponent is equally qualified. So, I’ll just briefly summarize my qualifications. I benefit from having served as vice president for the last two years, which has put me very close to current issues and given me an intimate understanding of the duties and responsibilities of the president. I also have an established track record of working productively with our constituents, committees and the administration. Those who have worked with me know that I believe in a reasonable, balanced approach to complex issues, and this approach has been tested during the pandemic and prior. If I were elected, I would be prepared to hit the ground running.

3. What can be done to ensure that the full diversity of Pitt’s faculty is represented in shared governance? What can the Senate do to promote inclusion, diversity and equity campuswide?

David Salcido: My answers here depend on leveraging the Senate to increase representation reflective of Pitt’s full diversity. First, we need to be able to reach our faculty effectively. All of our faculty need to know the Senate is available to them and that it is there to amplify their voices and represent their interests. Officializing the Senate communication channels will help us achieve this goal.

Second, we need to ensure that service is rewarded throughout the University. Early or mid-career faculty who want to participate in shared governance frequently choose between participating in shared governance and fulfilling activities that are critical to their career trajectories. This dilemma should not exist, and it need not if service is recognized and rewarded.

Finally, the Senate, as a whole, needs to contribute actively to advocating for enhanced diversity, equity and inclusion at the University, both through its Equity, Inclusion and Anti-Discrimination Advocacy committee and its general bodies. We have made good strides this year, but we need to make an effort to remind marginalized faculty that we are there for them beyond just talking points. 

Robin Kear: True, meaningful inclusion requires commitment and perseverance. We must make shared governance a space that is welcoming to all faculty. We are a predominantly white university; therefore, we have to work harder to make sure all voices are included and want to be included. Service work, including in the Senate, can be discouraged and unrewarded depending on your area, especially for newer faculty working toward tenure or a first reappointment. Senate work is usually just not a priority for faculty at that time of their career, and can be especially challenging for underrepresented faculty, who can have unique pressures and demands. I will work to make sure Senate service work is valued.

The Senate can bring awareness to structural issues of inequity, especially through the wide scope of all our committees and the broader work that they can do campuswide. All our different perspectives are necessary for policy work, and representation deeply matters when a policy comes to a committee for feedback. As I mentioned above, the Senate has begun this work, to prioritize anti-racist thinking in the work that we do. I will work to identify change strategies that will bring wider representation to the Senate.

4. How do you perceive the campus climate here at Pitt? What role can faculty play in shaping the culture?

Robin Kear: Faculty are part of the heart of the Uuniversity. We execute the teaching and research mission all day, every day. We shape Pitt’s culture every day in every classroom, lab, studio and library. However, I hear discontent from adjuncts and lecturers in Pitt’s humanities and social sciences schools, related to low pay and job insecurity. I hear that they do not feel valued. The ongoing unionization effort is a testament to these unresolved issues. I do not know what will happen with the union effort, but we need to listen to these faculty who think unionization is a good idea. We need to listen and address these issues in our existing shared governance structure by creating outcomes with measurable progress.

David Salcido: There is not one answer to this question that applies to every unit nor at every level within the University. Climate varies enormously between units and within constituencies in many dimensions, a fact that is reflected in the most granular climate metrics available. When faculty engage in shared governance, they can help identify and substantiate these differences and shed light where needed. While this answer may seem unsatisfying, it highlights how essential it is to have a strong, participatory Senate to continue advocating for safe, healthy, inclusive environments for our University community members. 

5. How do you rate the performance of the senior administration in the past year? What do you think should have been done differently?

David Salcido: It is not my job nor is it within my qualifications to give the senior administration a report card, and it will still not be my job if I am elected. My chief concern is whether the administration is listening to and constructively addressing the concerns of our faculty. In general, I believe they have been, and I believe they genuinely want to manage the University in the interest of its members, not just in spite of them. However, I also believe the responsiveness we have seen to date is in part a credit to the chairs of our Senate standing committees and our current president, who have maintained the necessary levels of engagement and vigilance. If I am elected, I will aim to maintain this level of vigilance, lest we lose ground in the representation of faculty interests in University-wide matters.

Robin Kear: The last year has been extremely difficult for everyone. Our administration has done a good job in the most unusual of circumstances. There was a unified University communication effort which helped, but sometimes communication directly to faculty could have been clearer and more frequent. The amount of technology that Pitt IT added to campus was phenomenal. While there were bumps in the fall term, I think it has smoothed out, and this technology will continue to be useful in the near-term. Faculty have been vocal about needs during the pandemic, including childcare issues, and I will continue to make those a priority.

6. Pitt mostly likely is heading into some tough budget years, coming out of the pandemic. What do you think the budget priorities should be? Where should the University be cutting costs and where should it be looking for funding?

Robin Kear: The priority should be the people. The senior administration was right to prioritize keeping our biggest strength intact over the past budget year: the faculty and staff. There was some non-renewal of contracts in some areas, but we have not had layoffs and furloughs. I hope that this continues in future budget years. Even in a tough budget, money can be targeted strategically to relieve some of the inequity in salaries, whether by rank, gender, race or compression. The Senate has moved forward with a resolution to improve lecturer salaries to the median of AAUP, and I would make sure that work continues. I will say it again, people are the best investment the University can make.

I think there needs to be more open discussion of the shift in the philosophy of Pitt budgeting. We are moving toward a modified responsibility center management model of budgeting. Faculty need to understand what this shift means for them and their school or unit.

David Salcido: Those who know me well know that I personally do not like obsessing over the budget from the executive perch. I believe focusing too closely on budget is self-limiting, obfuscates material issues, and creates excuses for delaying important initiatives. Make no mistake though, I will always aggressively support our Senate Budget Policies committee and its efforts, and I will advocate from day one for ensuring that they have what they need to maintain the diligence of their duties. Apart from that, I have one message here that I will never back down from: Pay our faculty and our staff well and equitably. This should always be the top budget priority. We will emerge from whatever lean times are to come, and I do not want to see our faculty and staff starting from below the bar when we do. Generally, I do not believe in starving a tree to make it grow.

7. Is the tenure system healthy at Pitt? What protections do you see for appointment-stream faculty? 

David Salcido: The tenure system is only as strong as it is equitably accessible to faculty. Right now, there is a lot of work to do in this regard, but it will take time and investment. Tenure is not in my future, as is the case for so many of our faculty in the appointment stream. This is no fault of their own; they work as hard as anyone. Appointment-stream faculty need and deserve more contractual guarantees to enable them to build their lives around their jobs. While there are certainly other ways, it would be best if this could be achieved through cooperative, constructive action led internally by the Senate.

Robin Kear: My perception is that it is very difficult to receive approval to hire tenure-stream faculty. Long term, there has been a decrease in tenured faculty and an increase in contract, appointment-stream faculty. The 2020 Pitt Fact Book shows 62.8 percent of faculty are appointment stream and 37.2 percent are tenured or tenure-stream. With that shift comes an inherent precarity for appointment-stream faculty, especially for lecturers and adjuncts.

Contracts with end dates are always subject to do just that, end, so I feel that ultimately protections are limited. We can build protections into appeals and grievance processes. For example, we should be able to ensure that in all units the person who made an initial decision to end a contract is not the one receiving an appeal on that decision. Faculty can appeal to the Tenure & Academic Freedom committee, who will examine and make recommendations to the appropriate authority, but they are just that, recommendations.

In the University Library System, we are all appointment-stream faculty, but in our guidelines for faculty librarians, we do have different streams of hiring, one is expectation stream (without a contract end date), and one is non-expectation stream (with a defined contract end date). This expectation-style appointment might be a protection that could be built into other appointment-stream faculty’s procedures, but in my unit, the overall trend toward contracts with dates also holds true. There is a decrease in expectation-stream hiring and an increase in non-expectation stream hiring.

8. Is there sufficient transparency in how the University conducts its business? What’s the ideal level of transparency for Pitt and how would you help to achieve it?

Robin Kear: We are a public nonprofit educational institution and that should always guide our work around transparency. I appreciate the progress made with transparency around the policy review process. This sort of increased transparency should be a model for other processes, such as data governance for institutional data. There is work currently going on in Pitt IT to examine institutional data governance guidelines. New kinds of institutional data are being collected due to pandemic related changes. For example, there is data being created using the Authority to Operate system. There needs to be transparency over how this data is collected, maintained and used.

David Salcido: No, there is not, but I do believe that Pitt is a remarkably transparent institution, again owing in part to good faith interactions between the administration and the Senate. But often the timing and modality of information delivery that is necessary to create a meaningful, tangible impression of transparency for rank-and-file faculty is not there. There are also specific domains that again and again raise transparency red flags. The faculty misconduct investigation process repeatedly draws scrutiny in the Senate for its opacity, even given that our venerable Tenure and Academic Freedom committee is involved by policy in the grievance process — a process that needs to be overhauled, by the way. Budgetary oversight is a recurring theme as well. While there is in theory great potential transparency in this area, the crux is that the process as currently structured pits our faculty who want to participate against what might be an unmanageable amount of work. In all cases, I would pursue practical reform anywhere there is a transparency gap, working under the guidance of our domain experts in the Senate. 

9. How effective is Pitt’s shared governance system? What is the Senate’s role in ensuring that University policies and procedures are followed?

David Salcido: If you take a step back and ask, “What would Pitt look like without its current shared governance system?”, I think the conclusion would be that our current system works very well because it gets results. However, I would assert that it actually gets results, not because of the system, but because of the people. And in fact, these results come in spite of the system, which leaves the Senate, for instance, with very little real power beyond advising. The shared governance system we deserve should reward the time and effort our people dedicate to this work with some official power. People worry when they hear that word in this context because they believe it implies that bodies like the Senate should have a direct role in management of the University. That’s not the Senate’s job and that’s not what I mean. It is entirely possible to make some votes in the Senate binding under policy while still keeping management of the University in the hands of the administration. So, why bother? Because it is the right thing to do in the spirit of fair shared governance. 

Robin Kear: The Faculty Assembly, the University Senate and our Senate committees can create positive change. I have seen it happen many times, including through the work of previous ad hoc committees and now the Faculty Affairs committee to bring appointment-stream issues forward. There is invaluable perspective and influence that shared governance brings to University policies and procedures, especially in the gray areas leading to decision making. But final authority does lie elsewhere, we are a hierarchical decision-making institution. However, that authority is best, most legitimate and persuasive, when it is shared and that is the value in our shared governance.

The Senate has a long memory and that is a valuable role; it is essential to making sure policy and procedure are followed and issues are not forgotten.

10. How effective has Flex@Pitt been? Are there parts of it that should continue after the pandemic?

Robin Kear: I am very appreciative of Flex@Pitt. It allowed us all to attempt to stay balanced this past year. We could be adaptable in how we offered classes, labs, and other experiential learning experiences to students. I think that instructors have come up with creative solutions within Flex@Pitt to deliver their classes and connect with students, which can continue to influence our practice in the future. Our senior administration was consistent with messaging and support that Flex@Pitt was a choice for faculty. I believe there was real flexibility, not just in name only. As we move back into an in-person experience in the fall term, I think we will be more cognizant of student’s needs in the classroom to be more inclusive, and we will be able to offer alternatives more readily. Through shared governance and with transparent decision-making, we can listen to each other’s varied experiences with Flex@Pitt and figure out the best ways forward.

David Salcido: Adopted in another time and context, I think Flex@Pitt would have been universally viewed as an enormous benefit to our faculty working conditions, because it would have arrived as an option, not the default mode of operating during a crisis. As the pandemic passes, I think our faculty should continue to be able to teach under this model, provided that the University continues to invest in the necessary infrastructure to support it AND provided that it meets the needs and expectations of our students.