By ROBIN KEAR, KRISTIN KANTHAK AND PENNY MOREL
Our robust system of shared governance has existed in its current form for over 60 years, but it now faces an existential threat. We, as the elected University officers, are working together to try to find resolution to that threat. We believe strongly that a University-wide system of shared governance is absolutely vital for a robust University community that values inquiry, collaboration and intellectual freedom. We are developing an official position statement for presentation at the December Faculty Assembly meeting, and now seek your thoughts on how best to address this important issue.
Just over a year ago, a subset of Pitt’s faculty voted to form a union under the auspices of the United Steelworkers (faculty in the School of Medicine are not included in the bargaining unit). We understand that negotiations between the union and Pitt administrators have been ongoing. Sadly, this negotiation has had a chilling effect on the free and open discussion that is vital to the operation of the University Senate. What used to be a free, transparent and open dialogue in our committees and the floor of the Faculty Assembly and the University Senate has become at best stilted and at worst nonexistent, as members of our community worry that conversation without specific permission from members of the union inner circle might run afoul of state and federal labor law.
And we have recently read in media reports that members of the union’s inner circle have threatened to file a claim of unfair labor practices against the University if administrators continue to participate in shared governance via the University Senate. To be clear: This has nothing to do with being for or against unionization. Even among ourselves, we have differing views on unionization. But we agree that to be effective, any union needs to understand and respect what is special and particular about the academic workplace.
This is a new set of circumstances. There is no rule book to be followed here. But that means we need to write our own. The University Senate is not part of the union negotiations, but we have been reckoning with a frustrating wall of silence, built both by University administrators and the union inner circle. In its current state, this wall is not compatible with the goal of shared governance. As your elected University Senate officers, we are beginning the process of exploring strategies to navigate this wall in order to protect and defend robust, effective and collaborative shared governance at Pitt.
What makes the University Senate important and unique is that it comprises all members of our community — faculty within the union inner circle, faculty outside that circle but still in the bargaining unit, faculty outside the bargaining unit altogether, staff, students, administrators and those many individuals whose identities traverse those categories. Transparency, openness and communication are absolutely vital to finding a solution that works for everyone in our community. To that end, we invite you to contact us with your concerns and perspectives, regardless of whether we agree with you. Sadly, we know that the current environment has chilled communication between community members within the bargaining unit and those who might be considered management. If you have those concerns, we invite you to reach out to Senate Secretary Penny Morel (firstname.lastname@example.org) who is a member of the faculty in the School of Medicine and to whom all members of our community can safely communicate.
Robin Kear is president of the University Senate; Kris Kanthak is vice president and Penny Morel is the Senate’s secretary.