SENATE MATTERS: Time for Senate votes to count


There was recently an editorial in the Pitt News framing the case for a faculty union in terms of the present COVID-19 crisis. The piece curiously omits the substantial role of shared governance in the University’s response and formulation of plans, but even so it serves as a timely reminder that faculty representation is especially important right now.

While I am faculty union agnostic, I am sympathetic to the motivations and goals of our union colleagues with respect to ensuring our faculty are effectively represented at Pitt. I think it is fair to say that the University Senate and the faculty union share the same fundamental principles in this respect, despite different approaches. 

Right now, I believe there is still potential in the University Senate to answer many of the concerns our union colleagues raise through the shared governance apparatus we currently have. This mechanism has a history, and it has shown itself to be effective for a diverse array of issues. To say (or assume) that it has failed during the present crisis, a crisis with absolutely no precedent in living memory, and before the crisis is even over, is unfair. The time to make that judgment will come later, and we will take that evaluation with utmost seriousness.

For the moment, shared governance, including the Senate, remains engaged in tackling the crisis, and faculty can and should use all channels available to make sure that their views are represented.

To be clear, it would also be unfair to say the current shared governance system is ideal. Right now, the Senate offers the faculty very little in the way of binding recourse to major decisions that impact their lives. Historically, this might not have mattered because dialogue could progress over prolonged periods and issues could wax and wane. But here we are in a situation where decisions must be made on a narrow time scale, yet consequences may be irreversible and long lasting.

A theme that I have heard recurrently during the past four months is, “What can we do? What are our options?” This has come up in Senate meetings that have seen unprecedented participation, despite or perhaps because of the current remote format. In this setting, the answers are not satisfying to anyone. We can advise against. We can communicate objections. But we cannot say “No.”  This needs to change.

I want to suggest one way in the short term that the Senate can be improved and empowered, and with sober reflection assuredly will not wreck the operational agility of the University:

A majority vote in the Senate Council should be binding to approve or send for revision any current, amended or new University-wide policy or procedure. 

It is time for Senate votes to carry more than symbolic meaning. It is time to trust the Senate with legitimate power. Not only is this level of faculty representation long overdue, the present crisis warrants a substantive acknowledgement of the burdens faculty share with the University as a whole. I previously made the argument this should come in the form of compensation, but budgets are tight and that argument was dismissed. Fair enough. Yielding us this significant power instead is cheap, and there is no indication that the historically reliable Senate will misuse it.

David Salcido is the University Senate vice president and a non-tenure-stream research assistant professor in the School of Medicine. He receives significant compensation in the form of research funds for his Senate service and believes you should, too. Service matters.