By FRANK WILSON
Like most major universities, Pitt makes a pledge to embrace the idea of “shared governance,” whereby administration, faculty, staff and students are all given voice in the making and implementation of policy.
It’s fair to say that the practice of shared governance varies widely among those universities. It’s also worth noting that our University has a structure and tradition of a strong, multi-layered shared governance system that is not the typical version one might observe at our peer and aspirational institutions.
There are multiple levels where Pitt’s shared governance process is supposed to function. One is at the level of department and programs. Most of our schools also feature governance bodies, for instance, the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences Council and the regional campus Faculty Senates. At the university-wide level, the University Senate is the official body for shared governance.
You may be, as I once was, skeptical about how the idea is actually put into practice. Many, including me, felt that even if the rhetoric sounded good, the bodies where the action was supposed to be happening were essentially just window dressing — not much more than rubber stamps for what the administration wanted.
Trying to find out if my assumption was accurate was what first motivated me to participate in my school’s Faculty Senate, and then to engage in the University Senate itself — on committees, through the Faculty Assembly, Senate Council and eventually as Senate President. Clearly my initial view changed through that involvement.
Make no mistake, shared governance has its limitations. The Board of Trustees is the ultimate power center for Pitt. The chancellor, provost and deans have clear positions of authority, and our councils, senates and assemblies all serve in primarily advisory capacities.
Make no mistake, however, Pitt’s practice of shared governance has proven to be robust historically and continues to strengthen as time goes by. The advice, sharing of ideas, and debates that have been permitted and encouraged have made a difference in how things work at Pitt. It is my judgment that our university has been made stronger as a result.
It is the time for you to think about being part of the process. University Senate elections are at hand. Our officer positions — president, vice president and secretary — are all open for nominations. These are for one-year terms (to a maximum of three). Only our current president, Chris Bonneau, has announced that he is running for re-election.
In addition, there are multiple open positions for Faculty Assembly seats. This constituent body is made up of faculty representatives from Arts & Sciences departments, professional schools, Health Sciences schools, and regional campuses. These positions have three-year terms. In the second and third years, these Assembly members also serve on the Senate Council, the body where administrators, faculty, representatives from the Staff Council and student government (undergraduate and graduate) organizations all have a voice and voting power.
Elections for officers and Faculty Assembly positions will be held from April 3 to 18. That will be followed by elections to positions on our 15 standing committees from April 24 to May 6. This is the level where much of the ongoing work of the Senate takes place. Besides faculty representatives, there are voting members from Staff Council and student governing bodies. Non-voting administration liaisons work with each committee.
As the immediate past president of the University Senate, I chair our election committee, which began meeting Feb. 20. Our task is to encourage and recruit nominees for all of the available positions. I’m trying to get that moving right now.
You may ask, “How much time will be involved?” The answer is there are monthly meetings of Faculty Assembly and Senate Council during the fall and spring terms. There are typically monthly meetings of our standing committees. Officers also regularly meet with top administrators at least one a month, and more frequently as issues arise. Again, depending on the issue, standing committee work may be more than a single monthly meeting. The bottom line is that there is some time and effort involved.
You may also ask, “Is that time and effort worth it?” My answer, from experience, is unequivocally yes. Our University has been and is undergoing dramatic organizational change at a time when we face many serious challenges and must make difficult choices. If there was ever a moment when strong and critical shared governance practice was called for, this is surely that time.
For those most directly involved it, promises to be interesting, stimulating and a chance to learn a great deal more about how the University works and to make a real impact on the direction Pitt will head. It is a time for many of you to seriously think about serving for the good of the institution.
You also can learn more about the University Senate from our website.
Frank Wilson teaches sociology at Pitt-Greensburg, and is the immediate past president of the University Senate.