Budget committee gives suggestions on using stimulus money


Members of the Senate Budget Policies Committee had some ideas on Jan. 22 about how Pitt can use the $30.6 million it’s slated to receive from the federal stimulus signed in December.

Steve Wisniewski, vice provost for Budget and Analytics, said decisions are still being made on how to use the money, but probably at least one-third to one-half will go directly to students, depending on what restrictions the government puts on the funds.

Pitt also received another $3 million from the federal government that was funneled through Pennsylvania’s counties and $1 million from the governor’s emergency education relief fund, Wisniewski said. The University also has submitted forms to get funds through FEMA but has no decision on that yet.

Committee co-chair Tyler Bickford and member Yolanda Covington-Ward wondered if this money could be used to ease faculty and staff hiring freezes and possibly have salary increases in next year’s budget, or to restore some of the one-time cuts Pitt made to weather the pandemic.

Wisniewski said a lot will depend on guidance from the federal government on how the money can be used. Some of that guidance has been slowed because of the transition to a new administration in Washington. He said work is just starting on next year’s budget, and the biggest unknown is what money Pitt will get from the state.

Postdoc salaries

Amanda Godley, vice provost for Graduate Studies, gave the committee a report on benchmarking she and her staff have done on post-doc salaries. The salaries they reviewed were for postdoc associates, who are Pitt employees. The salaries of postdoc scholars are generally set by grants.

In comparing Pitt with 60 other schools, they found that 48 schools use the NIH minimum of $53,000, while Pitt and 11 others start post-docs at $47,500. She said that number probably was set five or six years ago when $47,500 was the NIH minimum.

“What I would like to look into is doing what most other universities do, which is just staying the minimum along with NIH, because then there’s no need for the University to adjust it as you go, it just kind of automatically happens,” Godley said.

She said Pitt contributes the same or more for health care benefits than the other universities and is one of the only ones to provide a retirement plan for postdocs.

Another area she is studying is the term limits for postdocs. Pitt sets term limits at two to four years, while at most other schools it is five years.

Jenny Jones of the Pitt Postdoctoral Association thanked Godley for doing this benchmarking. “To my knowledge, this is the first time this sort of thing has been done. And I know the Postdoc Association has been really interested in seeing this kind of data.”

She said the group is in favor of the five-year term limits. “I think that in a lot of cases, based on our own internal surveys, postdocs do actually leave within two-four years,” Jones said. “But I think, like in my case, anyone in biomedical research postdocs are a little bit longer and it puts sort of this undue pressure on the postdoc to have this expectation that they will be out in four years.”

Godley also reported that as of Jan. 1, all postdoc associates are being hired through Pitt’s Talent Center. “People no longer just kind of word-of-mouth hire a postdoc associate,” she said. “And I think this is really in line with the University’s diversity, equity and inclusion mission.”

Annual faculty review letters

The committee had asked Lu-In Wang, vice provost for Faculty Affairs, how the process of auditing annual faculty review letters works.

From 1999 until last year, the provost’s office would request a representative sample of 10 percent of the letters, she said, which would then be reviewed to make sure they met the provost’s guidelines. Detailed feedback was then given to the department heads.

“There are a number of references to overuse of OMET scores for teaching evaluation, and also discussion of how you can be more specific about goals, about a person’s progress toward tenure and promotion, and also specific suggestions on how support could be provided to faculty who were having issues,” Wang said.

The review of the letters, which former Vice Provost Laurie Kirsch had been doing for several years, did not happen last year because of the shutdown in March when the pandemic hit.

Going forward, Wang said there are revised guidelines — developed with input from Faculty Assembly and the Provost’s Advisory Council on Instructional Excellence — which focus on reviewing the entirety of a faculty member’s work, particularly when it comes to teaching and appointment-stream faculty, and having more shared discussions about performance and goals.

Wang said she won’t be doing an audit of the letters this year. Instead, she’ll be spending time this spring training deans and department heads on the new guidelines and then will resume the audits next year.

She’s also considering not auditing 10 percent of each unit every year, but putting them in a rotation so that each unit comes up for review on a regular cycle.

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at suejones@pitt.edu or 724-244-4042.


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