Senate Matters

Looking Back, Moving Forward

As my final year as University Senate president is drawing to a close, I’ve been reflecting on what has happened at Pitt over the past three years. Revisiting my Senate Matters columns and reports I’ve made makes it clear that change — especially organizational change — and the importance of shared governance were primary themes. They remain so today.

In July 2015, I began working with a chancellor who was just settling into his new office, having brought some fresh ideas, enthusiasm and new people to fill important administrative positions that were becoming vacant. He also began redrawing some boundary lines and creating new offices at the top level of the organizational charts. The Office of Research, which had been the primary responsibility of the provost and senior vice chancellor of health sciences, became part of the chancellor’s turf, to be headed by a senior vice chancellor for research, a position that had not previously existed. Other new positions (i.e. the senior vice chancellor for engagement) were setting roots, and other departments were in reorganization mode — some dividing and some combining. Even with a program, it was hard for many of us to keep track of the changes. Not everyone felt excited about this state of affairs.

The provost, whose whole academic career has been at Pitt, was just beginning her fifth year as our chief academic officer. She had already been instituting programmatic initiatives and implementing organizational change, albeit not at the pace of the new chancellor. For many of us, she represented the traditional, tried and true, culture of Pitt that had been steady, productive and the successful approach that elevated the status of our University significantly. Some saw the difference between the two top officers as a culture clash that produced a fear of impending chaos. Not everyone felt comfortable with this state of affairs.

As a witness and participant trying to objectively understand the recent period in Pitt’s ongoing story, I’d say the worst fears and predictions have not come pass, nor do I think they will. In large part, my judgment is based on a claim that our structure and practice of shared governance — however limited and flawed it may be — has been serving us well. This is not something that resides in a single entity like the University Senate, although we have an important role to play that can (and should) be larger.  Rather, it is a realization that working together, throughout the organization, provides a way for different ideas to emerge, compete and sometimes mesh without descending into bureaucratic warfare.  Pitt’s culture begins by creating — and sometimes requiring — various kinds of collaborative practice from the bottom up.  We engage, by policy, in forms of shared governance at the program, department and school levels as administrators, faculty, staff and students. Sometimes — as with the University Senate — this happens with all of us participating together. The practice and culture encouraged and produced by this structure can help prevent component groups within and between us from behaving in narrowly selfish and destructive ways. If all of us — from those of us at the bottom to those at the top administrator level — can look for and find ways to speak up, advance our positions, debate respectfully, compromise and then work together, we can face our challenges with some real hope of success. We do not stand much of a chance if we become our own worst enemy.

I am not trying to romanticize the idea of shared governance, and I am not Pollyanna. I am an optimist, but also a Pitt sociologist who tries to practice and teach critical thinking and the use of systematic methods to pose questions, understand phenomena and find answers and implement solutions to problems. Everything is not hunky-dory, all the time, especially not now.

As I only look at the organizational changes that have taken place during my tenure as Senate president, I will offer this fact: During that relatively short period of time at one important level, the deans and major center directors under the provost, 13 out of the 18 positions have new leaders or are in the process of filling announced vacancies. More than that, a search is now underway for a new provost, as well as new a chief investment officer and a chief financial officer. There are a lot of Pitt people, old and new, who will need to adjust to each other right away. These changes are dramatic, but are not the result of failure or organizational civil war. They do, however, create the real possibility for serious problems developing. We need now to draw on authentic shared governance practice to minimize that possibility and increase the likelihood that we can deal with other challenges facing us.

There are two union organizing drives (among graduate students and faculty) underway at Pitt right now. As someone who was shaped significantly in my youthful days as a labor activist; union reformer; and full-time labor union officer, organizer and representative, I will simply note that these collective bargaining efforts do not typically happen primarily because of a general principle that unions are a good thing. They emerge when workers are not happy with their working conditions. We need to listen and try to understand the issues and grievances that the various groups are articulating. One place where this process can and should happen is through the University Senate. I expect that it will soon, hopefully in an orderly fashion, since the agenda for the first Faculty Assembly meeting of the next academic year will have the labor union question on it. I know that Chris Bonneau, my successor as Senate president, is fully qualified to chair that meeting so the discussion can be useful for all of us.

Finally, I will remind us that an ongoing threat to Pitt — namely the attack on higher education from large factions of the Pennsylvania legislature — continues and is ramping up. We have increasingly become aware of this in the reductions (threatened and actual) of our state funding by those politicians. At the moment, they have taken aim at the 14 school PASSHE system, the most state-controlled sector of higher education in the Commonwealth. As we come to better understand implications of the RAND Corporation report suggesting possible changes to that system, do not think it lets us off the hook. It will be a fatal mistake if you assume you are safe because you are at Pitt, are tenured or are some kind of awesome researcher or scholar. This change should not be ignored by any of us.

If there was ever a time for us to take our practice of shared governance to the next level, it is now.  While I will soon be stepping down as Senate president, I will remain an active member of the executive committee as immediate past president. My commitment to strengthen the University Senate will continue, and I know that it will be in solidarity with the Senate’s new and continuing officers.


Frank Wilson is a sociologist at Pitt–Greensburg and the University Senate president.