Senate elections: Vice presidential candidates respond to questions

Kristin Kanthak, Melanie Scott and Geoffrey Wood

We asked the three people running for the Senate Council’s vice presidency to answer a few questions to help voters make their choice. Elections will take place from April 1 to 16 for Senate officer positions. 

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

Senate Secretary Gosia Forte is running unopposed.

The three candidates for vice president are:

  • Kristin Kanthak, associate professor of political science, Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences

  • Melanie Scott, associate professor of surgery and director of graduate education for surgery research, School of Medicine

  • Geoffrey L. Wood, associate professor of sociology and director of the Center for Applied Research at Pitt-Greensburg

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

Geoffrey Wood: During these difficult times, it is crucial for the shared governance system at the University of Pittsburgh to work well. The faculty have the responsibility and the right to provide input and leadership in the shared governance of the University. In order to meet the academic missions of the University, the importance of research, service and teaching are critical venues in which faculty can and should discuss salient issues to advance the goals and interests of the University. I believe faculty representation in the development of ideas, plans and priorities are paramount to the development and growth of the University.

As we move forward after the COVID-19 pandemic, we should continue to work together to continually improve the University. The Senate needs to maintain a role in representing all faculty, including part-time, appointment-stream, and faculty at regional campuses. By keeping an inclusive approach in the generation of ideas for the betterment of the University, the Senate needs to focus on topics and issues that impact the largest number of faculty. The importance of committee tasks as well as working with the administration on priorities is crucial to the work of the Senate. Our connections to the community around us, federal and state governments, and our leadership in the Senate are needed to help move the University of Pittsburgh forward.

Kristin Kanthak: Clearly, the University’s biggest challenge over the next several years — and therefore likely the central focus for the University Senate — will be coping with the ongoing reverberations from the global pandemic. As the end is starting to come into sight, we are all eager to move beyond the challenges of this past year. The global pandemic has affected our careers, our families, and our communities, and the University will have no choice but to respond. The University Senate will play a vital role in assuring that these responses reflect our shared academic values.

At the same time, rebuilding provides the University Senate a unique opportunity to play a leadership role in co-creating a community that better addresses our shared values. COVID-19 was relentless in its precision in pointing out our weaknesses, both as a university and as a society as a whole.

To give an example, COVID-19 poses an ongoing challenge for assessment. COVID-19 has had a dramatic impact on many careers, as members of our community faced massive disruptions, increased caregiver responsibilities, personal mental and physical health challenges, and in many cases, dramatic variation in the ability to respond to those challenges due to ongoing inequities in our society. Our shared desire for excellence and for equity require us to rethink assessment, both as a response to COVID-19 and as a part of an ongoing process of making our community more excellent, more equitable, and more just. I am enthusiastic about the opportunity to draw on the University Senate’s role in shared governance to help forge a path to addressing these issues.

Melanie Scott: The biggest issue I see, certainly in the next year or so, is figuring out how we navigate academic life, teaching and working in a post-COVID world. As challenging as this past year has been, there have been some positive aspects that I think we should try to continue to embrace. These include better use of technology in all aspects of our lives, the ability to do some of our work remotely to enable worker flexibility and reducing time wasted commuting, and the ability to get together across a virtual environment for meetings, seminars and teaching even when we are separated geographically. I would like to see us endorse and adopt some of the flexibility and modernization we have enjoyed over the past year, and not reflexively return to the “old ways.”

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

Kristin Kanthak: The most tangible accomplishment for which I am most proud is my part in the creation of researchers’ writing groups as part of a collaborative project through the provost’s office. The IDEAL-N project was a National Science Foundation-funded multi-university program to assess and improve the status of women within academia. I was glad to be a part of a team that listened to the needs of faculty and came up with tangible responses.

When we sought out the perspectives of mid-career women at Pitt on the issues that most prevented their advancement, many faculty members reported that they had difficulty finding time to do their own writing and research. Organizing researchers’ writing groups provided faculty with the opportunity to join a group that provided support, accountability, and just a quiet place to allow them to focus on their research goals. The writing group also allowed faculty to claim a prior commitment when they were asked to attend one more meeting or provide one more piece of service. And for this reason, it turned out that the writing groups were especially helpful for faculty who were members of under-represented minority groups, who often face the greatest challenges toward finding time to work on research. I am particularly proud that the researchers’ writing groups persist, even after our team’s project ended.

Creation of those writing groups is not dramatic, but it represents an example of how I might operate as Senate vice president. We sought out advice on what faculty most needed and worked to provide that for them. I particularly appreciated getting to collaborate with others to create a shared solution. Certainly, shared governance will require the University Senate leadership to play an adversarial role at times, and I take that requirement seriously. At the same time, collaboration is vital as we move to construct solutions to our shared problems. Collaboration is hard work, and I acknowledge it is not always possible or advisable. But the number of problems we can solve by working together with others who share the power to create a solution is myriad.

Melanie Scott: I’ve never been afraid to speak up and discuss important issues with those in decision-making positions. This is an important attribute for anyone who is in a position to advocate for colleagues, such as the Senate president and vice president. I also think that the vice president may be able in some situations to be more of a dissenting opinion, or be able to push issues more forcibly than the Senate president sometimes can. I hope to bring that energy and enthusiasm to find the best solution possible to issues raised by faculty and staff, and continue to build and strengthen our Pitt community.

Geoffrey Wood: If elected Senate vice president, I would be the only member of the Executive Committee of the Senate from a regional campus. As a sociologist, I recognize the importance of having diverse and multiple points of view present in the shared governance process. I have also spent the last 20 years working in applied social science research and evaluation settings, and I believe these skills will assist in developing priorities and evaluating outcomes.

I currently serve as vice president of the North Central Sociological Association and as president of the Pittsburgh Youth Philharmonic Orchestra. These leadership experiences will enable me to both lead and work well with others in accomplishing goals and outcomes. Based on my recent experiences in the Pitt–Greensburg Faculty Senate as vice president, serving on the Governmental Relations Committee, and my connection with the Pitt Faculty Assembly and Senate Council representing my regional campus, I contend it is vital to have representation from the regional campuses at the leadership level. I noted this while working on the Plan for Pitt.

If elected vice president of the University Senate, I will represent regional campuses so faculty governance can provide the most benefit to all of our faculty, and I will work diligently with the chancellor, president and other leaders of the Senate to improve the efficiency of faculty contributions in the governance of the University of Pittsburgh.

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?

Melanie Scott: Providing for input from all faculty is vital to strengthen the shared governance process, and to ensure that decisions made through the process are fair, equitable and truly representative. One group of faculty who are currently left out of shared governance are part-time faculty. I certainly will advocate that this currently underrepresented group of faculty, who are vital to the teaching mission of the University in particular, should be represented as part of Faculty Assembly and able to vote in Faculty Assembly elections.

This past year, Faculty Assembly and Senate committees were charged with focusing on inclusion, diversity and equity campuswide, and making a start with addressing a range of issues across the remit for each committee, from budget policies, to research, to facilities planning. These initial projects will provide a great foundation to continue building on, to not only shed light on issues of equity, inclusion and diversity but to begin the process of finding ways to address these issues and find real solutions together as a Pitt community.

Geoffrey Wood: As the only vice president candidate and faculty member from a regional campus, I believe I would bring a unique and important perspective in terms of diversity of perspective in shared governance. It is increasingly important to make sure that faculty from across the Pitt system are engaged in shared governance. The Senate should continue to support concepts, ideas and programs that promote diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice. It is vitally important that faculty at all levels are involved in shared governance. The Senate needs to continue its connections to administrators in the chancellor’s and provost’s offices as we attempt to advance equity initiatives across the University. It is critical in advancing the University’s goals and mission, and crucial in setting positive examples for our developing students.

Kristin Kanthak: The key challenge of inclusion in any organization is that those with the least amount of power often have the best information about how the organization needs to improve. Similarly, those with the most power are often the least affected by — and therefore the least likely to observe — these same defects. Shared governance puts the Senate in exactly the right position to amplify those voices. This is not easy, because listening with humility can often be a painful experience, particularly for those in power, who have become accustomed to a certain level of comfort. And a pledge to “listen” often comes with the unspoken caveat that the listener’s demand for comfort must always take precedence. Indeed, much of my academic research of late has been on this very problem. The Senate’s challenge, then, is to model this willingness to do the hard work required to hear — and respond to — voices that challenge the status quo, because doing so is the only way for us to truly be inclusive, diverse, and equitable.