Oakland news roundup


Allison Hansen | Staff Photographer

Jay Darr is the current Counseling Center director at Pitt.

By Neena Hagen, Senior Staff Writer

As an urban campus bustling with nearly 30,000 students and more than 5,000 faculty, there’s always news breaking at Pitt. Here’s a quick glance at some of the largest stories from the past semester and a peek into possible future developments.

Tuition Unclear for Next Year, Pitt to Match Pell Grants

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed Pitt’s annual funding bill last Tuesday, with a funding increase of 2% compared to last year. The University requested a 6.5% increase in funding for the upcoming year, and it is unclear how Pitt will resolve the multi-million dollar hole in its budget since it received less than it asked for.

Beginning this fall, Pitt will also match federal Pell Grants awarded to undergraduate students. Currently, more than 5,000 students receive Pell Grants, averaging about $4,500 per scholarship.

This is one of many updates to financial aid programs that Pitt has rolled out in recent years. Panthers Forward will provide 150 eligible students with up to $5,000 to offset federal loans, starting in the 2019-20 school year. The University has budgeted more than $130 million for financial aid this coming academic year, a near 50% increase compared to five years ago.

Graduate Student Unionization

The Graduate Student Organizing Committee has been trying to form a graduate student union at Pitt for more than four years, claiming a union would pave the way for better pay, more flexible hours and health care benefits for the more than 2,000 graduate student employees at the University. But the bid fell just short in a week-long April election, with graduate students voting against unionization 712-675 — a margin of 37 votes.

Organizers remain unconvinced by the results. They filed an objection with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board in May accusing Pitt of “unfair labor practices” and demanding a new election. 

Prior to the April election, organizers had to fend off University opposition to the union effort. Pitt paid close to a quarter-million dollars to “union avoidance” law firm Ballard Spahr between the summers of 2016 and 2018 to argue that graduate students were not employees and therefore didn’t have the right to unionize. But the PLRB ruled against Pitt’s objection in March, allowing for graduate students to hold an election on whether to unionize.

The Board’s ruling on the organizers’ appeal is pending, but PLRB administrator Denis Bachy has said he hopes to make a decision by the end of the summer. If the appeal is successful, another election will be scheduled within 60 days. If unsuccessful, organizers will have to wait up to a year to hold another election. In the meantime, union organizers are still in the field campaigning.

Faculty Unionization

The faculty union campaign, a sister effort to the graduate student union campaign, has also been underway at Pitt for more than two years — and its weathered its own share of setbacks.

Organizers submitted union authorization cards — slips signed by faculty to express interest in a union election — to the PLRB in January. But the PLRB ruled in April that organizers failed to collect enough cards to reach the 30% threshold of eligible faculty necessary to prompt an election. Faculty union organizers immediately appealed the decision, accusing Pitt of deliberately inflating the number of University instructors in its potential bargaining unit to derail unionization efforts — and the appeal succeeded. The board ruled in a June 18 meeting that the size of the bargaining unit is “under review” and scheduled a set of hearings to determine the accuracy of the University’s list sent to the PLRB. 

Organizers hailed the decision as a victory and are now targeting spring 2020 for a union election. They say a union would give faculty better job security, higher pay and a seat at the table in making major administrative decisions. A union would also put happier, more financially secure professors in the classroom, according to organizers, which they claim would benefit students.

Anti-Hazing Policy Updates

When Penn State student Timothy Piazza died after consuming 18 alcoholic beverages at Beta Theta Pi’s Bid Night in 2017, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania immediately began drafting stricter legislation to combat abuse in fraternities.

Pennsylvania’s previous anti-hazing law defined hazing as any forced sex acts, physical and mental abuse or humiliation that could be used to gain entrance to university organizations. The new law, passed in October 2018, added forced alcohol consumption to that list and heightened punishments for offenders.

Pitt students who take part in hazing rituals could be fined up to $5,000 per offense and be forced to surrender their private property to the University as part of a police investigation.

Students can report hazing incidents using the Pitt Police website or the Rave Guardian app — both provide emergency services.

New Counseling Center Director

After former Counseling Center director Edward Michaels was arrested on charges of possessing child pornography in 2017, 19 months passed before the University appointed a new director — finally selecting Jay Darr to fill the vancancy in January.

Students have been vocal about their issues with the Counseling Center. Currently, students have to wait two to three weeks to get an appointment. And even then, they’ve said it’s tough to find the right match with a therapist or psychologist.

Darr said he has a plan to fix that, including implementing initiatives like the Student Success Plan, which will cut down on group therapy and allow students to have their own consult. He wants to streamline paperwork, so students need only fill out one form to see any professional in the office.

“If we can process students’ information faster and demystify the process, we can help more students,” Darr said. 

Darr said his main goal is to address the growing demand for counseling services at Pitt. He plans to grow the staff from 20 professionals to 27 to accommodate Pitt’s influx of students every year.

Master Plan

After more than a year and a half of planning, Pitt released the final version of its comprehensive Campus Master Plan in February. The plan includes major renovations and expansions to existing campus facilities as well as the construction of several new academic and housing buildings, all to be completed within 20 to 30 years.

According to Greg Scott, Pitt’s senior vice chancellor for business and operations, the project aims to help the University “excel academically, lead in research and innovation and strengthen its ties with the community we call home.” Officials have said they have tried to balance building for the future, while attempting to maintain older structures, such as the historic Music Building.

The CMP is broken down into short-, mid- and long-term projects. Short-term projects will be completed in one to seven years, starting in 2019, so incoming students will have a front row seat to construction and the eventual opening of the facilities.

Among the most significant projects are the new Recreation and Wellness Center to be built on O’Hara Street, the One Bigelow complex — two academic buildings and a patch of green space in place of the current UPMC parking lot — and several new residence halls.

Contributed reporting by Jon Moss

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated from the original print story to reflect the results of a June 18 ruling by the PLRB.