By MARTY LEVINE
Last month’s Staff Council elections were unprecedented in the recent history of the organization, attracting the biggest field of contenders, almost all of them women. As Staff Council’s previous president, Andy Stephany, liked to point out, he ran for both of his elections unopposed.
The University Times sat down with the group’s top two officers — President Angie Coldren of the Office of Research Protections and Executive Vice President Kenny Doty of the Swanson School of Engineering (who was re-elected) — to hear their ideas for Staff Council’s future, how it might change and how It fits into a post-COVID Pitt. The conversations have been edited for conciseness and clarity.
Coldren has long history in Staff Council
Angie Coldren has been at Pitt for 25 years, beginning in the School of Dental Medicine dean’s office, then the Department of Pathology and then to the Research Conduct and Compliance Office (in essentially her current job). She left to become assistant director of housing, then returned to her old office.
“I needed a better work life balance because I had gotten married and I had young children,” she said.
She moved first to the Katz Graduate School of Business as a part-timer and finally back to her old job in February 2016, in what was now called the Office of Research Protections. For 21 of her years here, she has been on Staff Council.
“Back in the day,” she says, “I think I attended one or maybe two meetings and all of a sudden I was named chair of a committee, and within another probably six months or so I was actually in an officer role.”
She has held many Staff Council offices through the years, including communications officer and treasurer, but this is her first executive position.
What do you think are the biggest issues Staff Council should address in the near future?
I was very familiar with the (Chancellor Mark) Nordenberg … regime, I worked very closely with them. I haven’t had an opportunity to work closely with Chancellor (Patrick) Gallagher and his current staff. … (but) I have a view of staff from many different perspectives. …
I don’t want to be set in my ways because I know that there are fresh ideas and the world looks much different in 2021 that it did in 2001. We’re in flux. I don’t want to say it’s volatile but it’s a time where there are so many balls in the air, so many things that can happen. Will they be positive for some people? Yes, but not for others, so I worry about that. Not only do we have people who are overworked, overloaded departments who are short staffed, but we have this whole dynamic of who comes back to work.
I think we’re going to see a shift: If you’re somebody who likes working remotely but your department can’t allow it because of the business need, are we now going to see all of these internal transfers or people leaving the University to find these permanent remote work roles?
What is Staff Council’s role in helping with the transition back to campus?
Staff Council needs to reassure employees of, number one, their safety (and) job security. I’m not anticipating that a lot of people are going to lose their jobs or anything, but people get worried when there’s change. I think we need to keep in mind employee morale and how the employees feel. Do they feel overworked? Do they feel underappreciated? Are they still motivated? I believe staff were thrown into this environment (in March 2020) — everyone was — and from what I could see people were very motivated to jump in and do whatever they needed to do to keep the business moving forward. Have we reached a point where there’s burnout now?
Staff Council pushed for Pitt’s family leave policy — what changes are you looking to advocate next?
With the remote-work or the flex-work arrangements one of the things that bubbles up is (the need for) child care. … Is there some way we can ease you and your family back into a similar routine that you were into before? I look at myself and I think, OK, I drove and sat in traffic for 25 years over an hour to get in, over an hour to get home. It’s going to be an anxiety attack when I have to start doing that every day again … so changes like that are hard.
Is Staff Council representative of the staff?
Twenty-plus years ago, there were positions (on Staff Council) that were elected from within the certain schools … I believe we’re nicely represented (today) — but I think we can make some improvements there, and that’s not just improvements because of what departments and what areas we’re coming from. Even though we talk a lot about diversity, equity and inclusion, are we including everyone who really would like to be included? Are we looking at people who are in different chapters in their life? … I don’t think joining is the obstacle. We do have a limit on the amount of members and I think that may need to be revisited. … I’d like to see the membership grow and with the membership growing maybe the committees grow … and add additional committees that look at other areas that we might be missing …
Shared governance is a constant byword all around the University; how do you think it needs to be enhanced for staff?
Staff Council is pretty well represented along the shared governance realm and I think we have a lot of seats at a lot of different tables. … Sometimes I feel that the message doesn’t come across that we are well represented (on Senate and Board of Trustees committees). Some of the things we can’t talk about (until the University announces them).
I wish there were more town halls, (then) maybe more employees would feel more included, they would feel they were understood a little better. When you are in Staff Council, when you first come in, you’re not really sure what to expect, but then you do see that you’re part of the shared governance, but you also see that things don’t happen immediately. There’s a process and sometimes you have to know when to speak, when not to speak … We’re sitting in these shared governance meetings, we’re absorbing it and we’re taking it back and thinking, OK, now how do we work with this? … We can’t just go into a meeting and pound our fist and say, “We want this.”
(As part of HR’s committee studying the reclassification of administrative jobs) I feel well represented, and I feel that I’m doing a pretty good job of representing people who are doing administrative work. … Hopefully that will help us.
Is the administration being forthcoming enough with the staff and Staff Council?
I have things that I’d love to sit down (with the administration) and just talk about — salaries, obviously; that’s always going to come up. I know there’s no magic money tree, (but) I’d love to be hearing more about what happens with the state budget and the state appropriation. I feel like we’re always hanging there, just waiting to hear something. … Maybe more talk about how the endowment works, more talk about how facilities and buildings all work. … If there was a way to share a little bit more of the behind-the-scenes process with employees, that would be a positive thing.
Does Staff Council plan to return to in-person meetings?
I think we do, but I think we need to keep in mind that not everybody is going to be on campus, and when they are it’s not all going to be on the same day. So I do think we’re going to need a hybrid model. It’s nice to see people and to talk to them in person and just be able to chit chat off to the side for five minutes, but I think we need to keep some virtual in just about everything that we’re going to do.
Doty says relationship with HR is strong
Kenny Doty has been at Pitt for 15 years, and on Staff Council for 14 years, prompted to join by his former boss, then-Staff Council President Rich Colwell. He has been the chair of the Staff Life committee for the past eight years.
“That’s how I got into it,” he says, “and then it was like, you know, I really do like this. … That’s where I really started to realize how important Staff Council is and how much you can help, not just the people in Staff Council but everybody in the University.”
He also has participated in the IT job committee as part of HR’s compensation modernization effort, and as a Staff Council officer joins the HR partners group meetings monthly.
What does an executive vice president do?
As second in command, when I worked with Andy (Stephany), he and I would bounce ideas off of each other, work hand in hand. I was more of the behind-the-scenes (person) … The executive vice president is the head of the steering committee, so my role is to guide the organization in the direction that we want to go. … I am steering the ship but I’m not plotting the course. We let the body as a whole decide which direction we’re heading, obviously with guidance from the officers.
Where do you think the organization is headed now?
I think we’re headed in a really good direction. There are a lot of things to be hopeful about right now in the University. I think that we’re going to keep working directly with HR and Dave DeJong (senior vice chancellor for Business and Operations) on a lot of the projects that are out there now like the compensation modernization — that’s one of the key ones for me. We all know that system is broken, and we’ve been waiting for a while for it to get revamped and now it seems like it’s finally getting some traction. … It’s going to be a few years before everything is sorted out, but it’s nice to know that we’re actually headed in the right direction there.
Do you think Staff Council has had a greater or lesser voice in shared governance in recent years?
I would have to say greater now. Some of that might be that I’m more involved so I can see more of it. … We have a really good relationship with Dave DeJong and with Mark Burdsall (assistant vice chancellor, HR, Consulting Services) and I think that really helps us. … We aren’t getting blindsided by stuff; we’re seeing things a little bit, even if it’s a couple hours before it goes out. They’re at least getting us something we can look over, and we do the same. When we’re putting together a proposal to go to HR, we bring it up to them and we have an open dialogue, which I think is great.”
But is getting news just a few hours before everyone else shared governance?
I do think overall, during the pandemic, for good reason, there wasn’t as much shared governance. … There were things that needed to come out in a timely fashion with as few people in the room as possible to get it done. Everything was moving so fast, and I think some of that took a little step backward from where we were with shared governance, but I do think that it’s there. On the times that there isn’t as much shared governance as we’d like, it usually seems like an oversight — it’s not actively keeping us out of the room, it’s “Oh we didn’t think of that.” And when we bring it up, then it’s fixed almost immediately. For the most part, that’s been really key. The people that are running the show, so to speak, are very open to involving us … they want us to be a collaborator with them. … That’s been working pretty well, at least in the last two years that I’ve been an officer.
What do you think Staff Council’s role is as people start to come back to campus?
Staff Council’s role is education, communication and advocacy. So we can be a conduit for things that need to get out … like us amplifying the signal of the vaccine incentive program or even back before that, when the vaccines were rolling out …
Andy (Stephany) was the moderator for the town hall (concerning the return to work). Because of my former role in Staff Life (committee), I meet regularly with Kevin Sheehy (assistant vice chancellor for auxiliary operations and finance) to see what’s going on with regard to parking, transportation, childcare, those kind of things. Those are the questions that a lot of people are asking …
We have impromptu meetings with Dave (DeJong) about what we think the return should look like. We had a town hall with Staff Council maybe six months before COVID, trying to advocate for more flexible work and it was always, “You’re in the office unless you can prove that you don’t need to be.” … It seems like the University as a whole is looking at that differently now, almost the opposite, almost, “You should work from home unless you have to be in the office or you should be flexible unless you have to be in the office,” which I think is great. Keeping in mind that … not everyone does want to work from home … I want to make sure that we’re making it easy … for people to do what’s not only best for the job but what’s best for them. That’s where I think we can speak up.
Before the (June 2021) town hall, there were a couple of different departments that were like, “Hey, you’ve got to come back to work starting June 1st,” and we heard about it in Staff Council and we were like, “We don’t even have any plans to come back to work. HR and Dave (DeJong) haven’t given us those.” So we brought it up to Dave and he was like, “Tell me which departments.” … It’s not quite shared governance, but it’s more like, we trust him to do what’s best and he trusts us to come to him if there’s something that we see that’s sort of out of line with what we’re trying to accomplish.
Is Staff Council representative of the staff?
That’s one of the things that we’ve been focusing on. … (The) chair of our equity, diversity and inclusion committee says there are a lot of middle-aged white women (in Staff Council) and it’s it’s tough to see this group (as) representative of a larger population. But when you look at the numbers, … it turns out the University, especially staff, is a lot of middle-aged white women. So we’re trying to be more representative for sure as a group but also we’re trying to work with the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the University to see a way that we can be more representative of the Pittsburgh area — not just Staff Council but staff as a whole at the University.
That’s one of the many directions that we’re pushing toward, moving forward. We’ve been having conversations for the last two years about … a way to do a type of mentorship or job shadowing for people working with the Community Engagement Centers, ways to bring people from the local area into jobs at the University.
(Andy Stephany’s) famous line is: “You know, no one coming out of high school says, ‘I want to be a grants administrator’ ” (Stephany’s position at Pitt). If you know his back story, he made his way there via the mailroom, he sort of worked his way up, and that’s a great story. But it would be nice if we could get people in the local area excited about that kind of stuff and figure out a way to get the training (to them) through those engagement centers. … Hopefully we’re going to have at least one intern next summer come and work for us in engineering, which I think is a great start.
Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at email@example.com or 412-758-4859.
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