SENATE MATTERS: Lessons from the IP Policy process


Over roughly the past two months, I have had the privilege of working with many of you in order to resolve concerns about the proposed Intellectual Property Policy. Those of you who have heard me speak on this topic know that I personally support the current language of the policy, but that as Senate vice president, it is my job to acknowledge and advocate for the concerns of our faculty (and all University members), and I take that responsibility very seriously.

That is not to say that I did not agree with the concerns that our faculty raised in the policy review process nor that I believe the policy perfectly addresses all concerns. In fact, many concerns were valid on examination and resulted in substantial improvements over its original language, demonstrating the essential role of the Senate in ensuring a fair and thorough policy development process.

Many concerns also were ultimately predicated on misunderstandings. I will go on the record here and say that these concerns were still valid at the outset, and those who raised them had every right to do so. Faculty should always feel free to raise their concerns through our shared governance mechanisms. If our process works, and I believe it does, those concerns will be addressed with diligence, which includes the possibility of determining their premises are ultimately flawed.

And with regard to the perfection of the current policy language, I will repeat two personal beliefs that I hope are familiar to those of you I have worked with in this process: no policy is perfect, and all policies should be living documents.

Some of the frustration in the review and revision of this policy has come from concern that we only get one shot at getting the language right. If we admit that premise, we undermine the role of shared governance at the University, which presupposes that conditions, needs and priorities can change, and therefore it is worth actively engaging our faculty for their perspectives.

The premises that give rise to the Senate reflect the fact that the full extent of a policy’s flaws will not be known until it is tested in its intended context, and the existence of the Senate provides some assurance that when these flaws manifest, our faculty and other University members will have a venue to address them. In other words, we will be watching. This does not mean we should accept seriously flawed proposed policies with the understanding that we will work to fix them later. It does mean we need to be diligent from the outset and be willing to calibrate our expectations to the practical machinery of the University.

That last part is especially important for the credibility and hopefully future empowerment of the Senate. The Senate is Pitt, just as much as the administration is Pitt. That identity does not imply that we can dictate the operational realities of the institution. We could not, for instance, reasonably expect revisions to a policy that would conflict with federal law, nor could we expect policy revisions that would prevent the University from fulfilling its academic mission.

And in the review of the narrow language of a single policy, it is easy to miss the big picture implications of seemingly small changes to language unless we are willing to do the homework to understand their impact. Of course, this is a two-way street, and including the present case, it is essential that the policy development process proceed with a complete understanding of faculty concerns.

The major “surprise” with the Intellectual Property Policy seemed to be that faculty were concerned about the terms of use and licensure of course materials that they develop and own, a concern that only became apparent after full review in the Faculty Assembly. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.       

David Salcido, a research assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine in the School of Medicine, is the Senate vice president.