Faculty voices support for mandatory Black studies course, allowing students to recognize religious observances


Via Zoom

Pitt’s Faculty Assembly met Wednesday to discuss changes to policy that dictates what material is owned by the University, policies for submitting grievances to the University, and voted to pass the resolution on a required Black studies course and a clarified syllabus statement on religious observances.

By Thea Barrett, Staff Writer

The Faculty Assembly passed a resolution on Wednesday urging the University to create a mandatory three-credit Black studies course.

This vote follows a summer petition from Pitt alumna Sydney Massenberg that gathered more than 7,000 signatures urging Pitt to change its general education requirements to mandate a Black studies course. The University also adopted a required one-credit asynchronous anti-racism class beginning this semester for first-year students. The vote passed with 93% yes, 0% no and 7% abstaining.

The Faculty Assembly passed this resolution as well as a clarified syllabus statement on religious observances at Wednesday’s meeting. They also discussed changes to an intellectual property policy and a policy for submitting grievances to the University.

Alaina Roberts, a professor in the history department, presented the resolution recommending the creation of the Black studies course. She said she believes it’s important because in the classes she teaches on African American history, there are a lot of students from various backgrounds who wish they had a Black studies course in middle or high school. But, she said, until now, they had to seek it out. 

“That’s not enough,” Roberts said. “If we want to build a society and a graduating class that understands racial relations and wants to better them, then everyone needs to understand this.” 

Chiara Rigaud, a senior urban studies major, said while this course is an important first step, it shouldn’t be the end of a student’s education about other cultures and experiences.

“This course would provide a foundational footstep to understanding why minorities are being oppressed,” Rigaud said. 

Some faculty members raised concerns about the resolution though, such as whether it would be free or increase students’ course load too much. Some also wondered why the class solely focused on the Black experience and anti-Black racism and whether it should be expanded to include other discrimination against minorities. 

Claudia Kregg-Byers, a nursing professor, defended the course’s focus on anti-Black racism. She said it is not a matter of culture, but of “otherness.” Kregg-Byers said while other identities can be hidden or ignored, “carrying that Black skin makes you other.” 

“It should be the responsibility of a prestigious university to raise the level of consciousness of our students,” Kregg-Byers said. “And if you raise the level of consciousness for the most at-risk group of students, you have already included all the others.” 

John Stoner, the co-chair of the educational policies committee, said that while it is ultimately up to the administration, the plan is for the class to be a requirement for graduation along with the current 120 credits and 2.0 GPA requirements. 

Chris Bonneau, the president of the University Senate, said the Faculty Assembly also drafted a resolution clarifying what counts as a religious observance. He said this was in response to a Pitt News article from last fall detailing concerns and confusion students and professors had surrounding what counts as a religious observance, and what the guidelines are for absences and missed work. 

The religious observances resolution passed with 96% of the vote in favor and 4% abstaining. 

The resolution adds a new suggested statement for syllabi which says that being allowed to recognize religious observances is an “important part of diversity” and lays out a procedure for how a student should go about voicing scheduling conflicts. The statement echoes similar recommended and required syllabi statements. 

Abbe De Vallejo, an immunology researcher, said if the University starts selectively choosing religious observances to recognize, it can be a very dangerous territory. He then asked for clarification on what counts as a religious observance.

“This may sound like playing devil’s advocate, but Roman Catholics celebrate differently than Eastern Orthodox,” De Vallejo said. “What constitutes a religious observance that we, as educators, would provide flexibility with our students?” 

Stoner responded by joking that he was raised Catholic and wished he could get every Saint’s Feast day off, because there’s one every day, but that the general understanding is that there must be a discussion and agreement between a professor and a student. He said schedule modifications are permitted when observances prevent the student from doing work, require them to travel to see family or similar actions. 

“It would be disingenuous of me to request an exemption for a Catholic holiday I don’t observe,” Stoner said. “But we hope the trust between faculty and students are there and will calm some of these concerns.” 

The assembly also passed a revised intellectual property policy that defines who owns certain content, such as material made for courses, software, research or inventions. For example, the policies will cover whether or not professors and lecturers own their lecture material, as well as who can access it. It also defines the process for distributing any money collected by the University from that content. It was passed with 80% yes, 8% no and 12% abstaining.

Some faculty felt their feedback was not being heard by administration, though. Frank G. Karioris, a visiting lecturer in the gender and women’s sexuality department, said the latest draft was “nothingness” and that it didn’t address any of their previous concerns. 

“It’s a demonstration of the refusal of them being willing to listen,” Karioris said. “The administration needs to listen to faculty’s concerns on this, and they haven’t.” 

But other faculty said the document should be passed. David Salcido, the vice president of the Senate who presented this document, said he believes it’s a good consensus document that had been modified in response to concerns. He said while the Assembly should still hold the administration to high standards, they need to move forward. 

“This document is responsive to concerns, I watched it change,” Salcido said. “The problem with drastically changing this document is that we have to keep in mind that the University has to function. If it can’t function, we can’t work.” 

Bonneau said this is a living document and isn’t the end of the road. 

“This does not foreclose future iterations, revisiting this in a more comprehensive manner,” Bonneau said. “Policies, including this, are always subject to revisions and being a living document.”