Pitt updates rules to comply with National Science Foundation crackdown on harassment


As of Oct. 21, any institution receiving money from the National Science Foundation will have to adhere to new rules on harassment in the workplace that could result in loss of funding.

The NSF posted the rule change on Sept. 21 that require any awardee organization, such as Pitt, to notify the foundation within 10 days of any “findings or determinations” of sexual harassment or assault or civil rights harassment (based on sex, race, religion, disability, etc.) by principal or co-principal investigators in NSF-funded projects.

The rules will apply to all determinations made on or after Oct. 21, 2018, even if the underlying conduct occurred before that, and it includes conduct off campus and unrelated to the grant award.

Pitt currently has approximately 251 direct NSF awards, and 16 pass-through awards, which span 11 schools and units and total approximately $110 million in funding, according to Pam Connelly, vice chancellor for Diversity & Inclusion

Connelly said complaints would be reported to NSF after a finding of a policy violation. If a complaint is lodged and it’s found that the person did nothing wrong, then it is not reported NSF.

For reportable complaints at Pitt, the notices must be submitted to Jennifer E. Woodward, vice chancellor for Research Operations, who is the University’s Authorized Organization Representative.

After NSF has been notified, it will consult with the awardee organization to determine subsequent actions, which could include:

  • Substituting or removing PIs or co-PIs
  • Reducing, suspending or terminating funding

In an Oct. 22 memo, Provost Ann Cudd and Senior Vice Chancellor for Health Sciences Arthur Levine outlined how Pitt will address these new rules.

Under Pitt’s current policies, all sexual misconduct reports must be sent to the Title IX Office, which is prepared to work with Woodward to adhere to the NSF reporting requirements. Therefore, no policy changes are needed concerning sexual misconduct.

“A mechanism already exists that allows us to comply with this,” Connelly said.

In regard to other forms of harassment, the University has issued an interim amendment to its Nondiscrimination and Anti-Harassment Procedure. Previously, faculty, staff or students who thought they were a victim of discrimination or harassment would report it to his or her department chair, dean, director or immediate supervisor, and the Office of Diversity & Inclusion may not ever be informed.

The amendment makes clear that any such complaints against PI or Co-PI in an NSF-funded project must be referred to the Office of Diversity & Inclusion for investigation. The ODI then will work with the Authorized Organization Representative to make any required reported to NSF.

In a meeting of the Senate Research Committee on Oct. 27, Rob Rutenbar, senior vice chancellor for research, called the policy changes at Pitt “a good short-term” solution.

“Here’s a band-aid,” Rutenbar said. “It’s a good band-aid. It’s a thoughtful band-aid. We had lots of discussion with governance structure. This is the big thing: this gets us into legal compliance.”

University Senate President Chris Bonneau said the new changes promote a much-needed move toward centralization and away from investigations being handled at the unit level.

“There are a lot of people who don't know what … they’re doing because it’s not their job and they’re not trained,” Bonneau said. “One of the things that, I think, going forward, people are going to start thinking about is creating some kind of mandatory training or some kind of centralized office for investigations.” 

Rutenbar added that, over time, broader changes to Pitt’s various policies will take place with the establishment of its new Policy office.

The letter from Cudd and Levine made clear that the Non-Discrimination and Anti-Harassment Policy and Procedure will continue to get a comprehensive review this academic year. More amendments might be necessary to comply with other regulatory changes. The National Institutes of Health also is working on updating its policies.

Connelly said that during the 2017-18 school year a committee was formed to do a wholistic review of the non-discrimination policy, which she said hadn’t been looked at in a long time. The committee has finished its work and now the proposed changes will go through the shared governance process.

More information on the NSF policy can be found here.

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at suejones@pitt.edu or 412-648-4294.