Faculty Assembly discusses vaccine data, unionization vote at September meeting

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Pitt’s Faculty Assembly met Wednesday to discuss the details of Pitt’s vaccine requirements and how the University would continue to keep all campuses safe from COVID-19.

By Betul Tuncer, Staff Writer

Dr. John Williams said with high vaccination numbers and the COVID-19 positivity rate at less than 1%, Pitt is in a “great place” for the start of the fall semester.

“From a public health standpoint, these are really good numbers,” Williams, head of the COVID-19 Medical Response Office, said. “This is, as you know, better than Allegheny County, and way better than the rest of the country.”

Pitt’s Faculty Assembly met Wednesday to discuss the details of Pitt’s vaccine program and how the University would continue to keep all campuses safe from COVID-19. Williams said the CMRO has been “doing great” in terms of collecting vaccination data from students, faculty and staff.

Williams said Pitt’s current vaccination numbers are good, especially since the percentage of faculty, staff and students that are currently marked as “unvaccinated” most likely are not all unvaccinated, but have yet to submit proof of vaccination online.

“The total student numbers are only better than what we’re showing you,” Williams said. “Overall, on all campuses 77% of faculty, 79% of staff, 86% of graduate students and 83% of undergrads [are vaccinated],” Williams said.

Geovette Washington, senior vice chancellor and chief legal officer, said testing is required for non-vaccinated students. She said mandatory testing invitations will be sent out to individuals starting Monday, and those who fail to comply with testing will face repercussions.

“If they’re not compliant, their access will be denied to buildings on campus, and then they will be referred if they’re students to Student Conduct, and if they are employees to HR for disciplinary action,” Washington said.

The Assembly, which met solely through Zoom due to extreme rainfall in the Pittsburgh area, also discussed the salary increase policy, updates from the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, transparency on faculty tenure and promotion and expanding the ombudsperson program at the University, which currently only services graduate students and postdoctorates.

The OEDI updated the Assembly that it will continue to increase diversity among faculty in all fields, as an extension of initial diversity initiatives in STEM. Lu-in Wang, vice provost for faculty affairs, also said the committee which advises the provost on faculty tenure and promotion is working to be more transparent about the tenure and promotion decision process.

Wang said an ombud working group is developing a proposal to add a centralized ombudspersons service — tasked with resolving conflicts and issues that arise in the course of a student’s education — on top of existing services and would be available to undergraduate students, faculty and staff.

“What we’re talking about is establishing a neutral and independent office that would assist individuals and groups in the resolution of conflicts or concerns,” Wang said. “A number of us who formed this working group have felt that there’s a need for something like this at the University.”

Wang said the ombuds working group consists of students, faculty and staff and they are working with other universities to learn how to structure a potential ombuds office at Pitt. 

“An office that would offer a wide range of services and support that can help individuals whether they are faculty, students or staff to address issues that are getting in the way of their ability to navigate the University or ability to do their work or their studies,” Wang said.

Another main topic at the meeting was the ongoing vote on faculty unionization and how that would affect all members of the faculty. Robin Kear, president of Faculty Assembly, said she wants members of the assembly to stay neutral on how they think eligible faculty should vote for unionization.

“As we are elected to represent all faculty, I want the Faculty Assembly and Senate Council to take a neutral position on whether those eligible should vote yes or no. I do not plan to be an obstacle, or an advocate for either position,” Kear said. “I am continuing to examine the interaction between faculty unions and faculty governance, and other institutions, and in research. And I encourage you all to share your opinions and perspectives on a union effort.”

Some members in the assembly also raised concerns about the School of Medicine’s exclusion from the unionization vote, which began last Friday and will run until Oct. 12. Abbe De Vallejo, associate professor of pediatrics and immunology, said it was “discrimination” to exclude the School of Medicine faculty from the vote when they would also be affected by the outcomes. 

“My main concern is that the School of Medicine, which comprises 50% of the faculty, are effectively excluded from this,” De Vallejo said. “To my knowledge, the School of Medicine faculty was never consulted as to whether or not we would even consider this and now we are voting, and the majority of us are excluded.”

De Vallejo said only having a small percentage of the faculty vote for unionization goes against the shared governance initiatives encouraged by the University and he urged his fellow assembly members to speak up about the matter. 

“We are supposed to be one University, why is it that only a fraction of the faculty would be involved in this process and half of us are excluded? This is not what joint governance is about,” De Vallejo said. “I am very passionate about this and I think this body must make a stand, as to whether or not it is time for this vote to even happen right now.”

Despite others and the University also expressing concern about the exclusion of the School of Medicine in the vote, the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board already ruled which members of faculty were eligible to vote back in April.

Tyler Bickford, an associate professor of English and a faculty union organizer, said there were legal challenges surrounding the School of Medicine faculty, given that many of them are also UPMC employees. He added that while there’s nothing that can be done now to include them in the vote, he thinks they could also benefit from unionization. 

“School of Medicine faculty are absolutely faculty with interests and priorities that I think could be improved through unionization,” Bickford said. “The process here is that there were serious legal delays that were brought on by the administration’s efforts to slow the process down, and that changed the landscape over the course of it, but it’s also not something that we have control over.”

Kear said since the legal process already happened, the vote would still have to occur, and encouraged faculty that are eligible to vote to do so, considering the effects of unionization would be seen by all faculty.

“The vote is not for all faculty, but I would still like faculty who are eligible to vote to consider all these perspectives and vote, because the effects will be felt among all faculty regardless of who is legally able to vote right now,” Kear said.

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