When the Fossil Free Pitt Coalition attended a University Board of Trustees meeting in late February 2017, its leadership came only to speak with board members and have their voices heard about an important issue.
The meeting was open for the public to attend and listen but not to speak, and the issue of fossil fuel divestment — the practice of removing all financial investments from companies involved in extracting fossil fuels and the Coalition’s chief concern — wasn’t discussed at all. Instead, members of the group waited until the end of the meeting before getting the chance to talk with board members and administration. After the administration suggested FFPC submit a formal research proposal, and agreed to fund it in December 2016, the group is still waiting to hear from the administration about further details.
The Pitt News’ approached all of the board members but they declined to comment, except one: Chancellor Patrick Gallagher. When asked about the Coalition’s goals, the Chancellor denied to give his or the board’s thoughts, instead saying that letting the group speak for themselves was the “best thing [he] could do.” He encouraged the group to work with the administration to find ways to make campus more environmentally friendly and to reach out for resources to further their research in the issues. He ultimately said that he couldn’t speak directly to the board about the matter.
“I can’t be an advocate against my own board,” Gallagher said.
This statement doesn’t make much sense. According to the office of the chancellor’s website, Gallagher is an ex officio member of the board with full voting rights — meaning he holds just as much power on the board as any of the other trustees. Given this and the chancellor’s history of engagement with student groups, we should be holding him accountable to stand up to the board when he feels inclined, particularly when student groups are involved.
If the chancellor were to petition the board on a topic that is important to him, he would be doing what any member of a board does: bringing an issue to the table for discussion. That’s not lobbying, that’s a vital part of the position he holds.
Gallagher has a history of being friendly and involved with students since beginning as Pitt’s chancellor in 2014. He’s been active in communicating with students and encouraging them to seek recourses, crafting letters on his commitment to battling sexual assault and the campus climate after the election of Donald Trump and even chowing down on donuts at last year’s Donut Dash, a CMU-Pitt partnered race that raises money for ALS research.
Gallagher even emphasized his commitment to fostering personal relationships with students in a Dean’s Hour in February 2014, right after being announced as the University’s next chancellor. “When I am walking on the street, I hope people will stop me and want to talk to me,” Gallagher said at the time. But maybe he’s forgotten these promises.
As the University’s chancellor, he’s the board member most apt to act as liaison between students and voting trustees. And given his involvement in the University community, it should be easy for him to advocate on behalf of his students. But his statement tells us one of two things: he either doesn’t know the extent of his power on the board, or he’s attempting to hide behind the board’s inaction so that he does not have to take a stance on the issue.
If Gallagher believes in what students are doing and the changes they wish to see, he should most certainly be advocating to the board to consider it. And if it’s the board objecting to student demands or the chancellor himself who doesn’t believe in these student causes, then it works the other way as well: he should be helping students evaluate their plans to cooperate with the administration and the board to push the best decisions for the University through.
We know the chancellor is a busy guy — he doesn’t have time to sit down with student groups and discuss how he can best address their needs individually. But he does have a whole staff and campus community that can streamline these requests. Dean of Students Kenyon Bonner meets with students every month at Dean’s Hour to talk with them one-on-one. And one of the duties of Student Government Board President is to serve as a student representative to the administration, meaning the president can also pass on important student issues to the chancellor.
The chancellor can’t pretend to be interested in student issues and take their ideas seriously if he’s more committed to playing politics than standing up for student concerns.
The Board of Trustees should not be a group of people who sit in a room and agree on everything. When issues as contentious as divestment come to the table, board members should be willing and able to take stances on the matter — even Chancellor Gallagher.