By DONOVAN HARRELL
“We’ve reached the end of an academic year like no other,” Senate President Chris Bonneau told Faculty Assembly members on May 6. “Normally this meeting would be time for us to take a deep breath, look back on the year behind us, and eagerly anticipate summer break in the year ahead. But this is no normal year.”
MEETING IN JUNE
Faculty Assembly will hold a rare June meeting this year to deal with issues arising from the pandemic. The meeting is scheduled for 3 p.m. June 9 via Zoom.
As Pitt continues to adjust to the pandemic, Bonneau gave a slew of updates on Pitt staff, students and policies at the meeting, which also featured a presentation from the Senate’s Student Admissions, Aid and Affairs (SAAA) committee.
Major updates included:
The Plan for Pitt 2025, which was set to be unveiled this fall, will be pushed back six months to account for new information and revelations gathered during the pandemic, Bonneau said. “In addition to the main challenges, COVID-19 has presented some opportunities, and it is prudent to think carefully about how this may affect things going forward,” Bonneau said.
The Office of Legal Counsel has created the Office of Compliance Investigation and Ethics, which will operate like the Office of Policy Development, Bonneau said. “This has been in discussion for the past couple of years,” Bonneau said. “I am hopeful this will ensure that those who are being accused of violations of University policy will have their due process rights protected. The stakes, both professional and personal, are too high for investigations to be left up to those with little or no training.”
Pitt’s projected retention rates for the incoming class are promising, Bonneau said. First-year deposits are ahead of last year by 17.8 percent, Pell eligible deposits are up over 25 percent. Deposits by underrepresented minorities are up by 23 percent and out of state deposits are up 22 percent. Bonneau attributed these statistics to the work of Vice Provost for Enrollment Marc Harding and his team at the Office Admissions and Financial Aid. “But the work is not done,” Bonneau said. “We’ll be spending the next few months working with others across the University … to attract and retain every student possible. This is definitely positive news on the enrollment funding.”
The future of Pitt’s budget
Bonneau said that while multiple committees are strategizing how Pitt would open up in the fall, many things are still uncertain.
Around this time of year, the University Planning and Budgeting Committee typically would have made a recommendation to the chancellor about the budget, but the financial impacts and uncertain future of how the pandemic will affect the state’s budget have made that impossible. There is an ongoing hiring freeze as the budget committee gathers information, Bonneau said.
Bonneau said, “it’s hard for me to see any compensation increases for next year” for Pitt faculty and staff, and noted that the chancellor has said tuition increases are unlikely.
Restarting the University will not be an instant process, he said.
“But I just want everyone to realize that reopening Allegheny County and Pitt is not just flipping on a switch and think we go from darkness to light,” Bonneau said. “Think of it more like a dimmer switch.”
He said he’s expecting a budget recommendation to be made toward the end of May when the restart committees plan to turn in recommendations. The stakes are high, Bonneau said.
“While I cannot get into specifics, I think it’s pretty obvious that if we lose a lot of enrollment, and state support, things are going to be pretty bad for us from a financial perspective, we are cautiously optimistic that we are not going to be in that bad scenario.”
Later in the meeting, Tyler Bickford, the co-chair of the Budget Policies Committee, said it was crucial to keep the contributions of part-time faculty in mind when making hiring decisions for the fall.
Bonneau said that “everything’s on the table” when it comes to the budget, but there haven’t been any specific discussions yet on how the budget will be balanced. But he committed to advocating against furloughs and layoffs.
“I think that is not the way you build excellence,” Bonneau said. “I think program cuts are not the way to go from there.”
When it comes to part-time instructors, Bonneau said that hiring decisions may ultimately fall on academic units and their unique budgetary needs.
“There’s been no centralized order or edict, not to hire or anything like that in terms of staffing classes and part-time faculty,” Bonneau said. “But is it realistic to expect that you’ll have the same number of say part-time faculty next year as this year? Probably not, if we’re being honest.”
Bickford said that part-time faculty are “full members of the faculty” who do important work, which may not be adequately reflected by just looking at a budget. These people should be kept in mind when it comes to decisions on salary freezes or increases.
“I think we should all have at the front of our minds that there’s a lot of long-term people who, who actually did heroic work this term … like supporting students during the pivot online,” Bickford said. “That can be kind of invisible.”
Paul Adams, an associate professor and division chair of Political Science at Pitt–Greensburg, said that with the conversion to online classes, he’d “most likely” get pressure from administrators to combine class sections, which could negatively impact part-time faculty.
“And certainly, the part-time faculty would bear the brunt there,” Adams said. “So that definitely is a concern. You know, we haven’t quite seen it yet, but you know that’s certainly a possibility.”
Alexandros Labrindis, professor and chair of the Department of Computer Science, agreed with Bickford on the importance of part-time instructors. If layoffs aren’t handled properly, it could create “a negative feedback loop with the quality of the instruction that there are not enough options, and at a time period that we’re not doing raises of tuition but also we’re not giving refunds.”
“I think that would be a bad precedent,” Labrindis said. “Just looking at the bigger picture, I understand there’s a lot of priorities, but it does have an effect.”
Committee proposed on emergency preparedness
Senate Council Vice President David Salcido said he was looking into the potential for a new Senate committee that focuses solely on emergency preparedness amid the pandemic.
The committee would address matters related to the pandemic along with health, safety and preparedness.
While standing committees already address some of these issues, there’d be a greater benefit from a dedicated committee that would focus on major emergencies like the pandemic and policies related to handling “extraordinary conditions,” Salcido said.
“Those items don’t really fit neatly into a single committee,” Salcido said. He later added that this doesn’t necessarily mean current committees can’t handle these topics.
Psychology Professor Emeritus Irene Frieze, who co-chairs the Faculty Affairs Committee, said that committee has already begun looking into these issues and how they relate to faculty.
She suggested that an ad hoc committee may be the best way to go about this and if in two or three years if it’s still operating, it could be considered for a new standing committee.
SAAA Committee report
Marylou Gramm, senior lecturer in the English department and co-chair of the SAAA committee, said the committee has been focusing on three main topics: student upward mobility, out of state tuition waivers for graduate students and student internet security.
Committee members are particularly concerned about financial mobility after graduation. The committee has proposed to Steve Wisniewski, vice provost for Budget and Analytics, that a question be added to the poll of alumni asking about their financial health after graduation.
In the past, members of the committee have advocated for out-of-state tuition waivers for graduate students, and they will continue to look into the issue.
Committee members also are communicating with Dean of Students Kenyon Bonner about how international students can be supported when they re-enter the University in the fall
Finally, Gramm said there were some policies in the works that would clarify how student data is tracked, used and disclosed.
Data is collected every time a student swipes a card when they grab a meal or when they visit the library. This data is being used for public health and safety at the moment, but students don’t seem to be aware that this data is being used at all, Gramm said.
“The reason that a policy is really crucial is that there are a … number of units in the University interested in making use of that data,” Gramm said. “There’s a lot of wishes to do analytics based on the data of the movements of students. There’s no permission for that now, but with a policy that might allow students to opt-out, it’s possible that data would be disseminated for more than just public health and safety.”
Bonneau said that this was an important topic to keep an eye on for the next year.
“I suspect most students realize that nothing they do is private now anyway,” Bonneau said. “But we still need to have a policy on how that data is going to be used.”
Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-383-9905.
Have a story idea or news to share? Share it with the University Times.