Faculty Assembly discusses unionization vote, Outlier partnership


Rachhana Baliga | Staff Photographer

Pitt Faculty Assembly members discuss the faculty union vote on Wednesday afternoon.

By Donata Massimiani, Staff Writer

Despite Pitt faculty members voting to form a union by a wide margin, some disapproval of the vote still lingers. Melanie Scott said it’s “very troubling” how those in the School of Medicine are excluded from the bargaining unit that will negotiate contracts with the University administration.

“I’m still really concerned how this is going to affect faculty in the School of Medicine, which is a large number of faculty, nearly as large as the collective bargaining unit,” Scott, associate professor and director of graduate education for surgical research in the department of surgery, said. “It seems that there’s so much uncertainty and seems beyond belief that they were allowed to do this and not include basically half the faculty at the University.”

Pitt’s Faculty Assembly met Wednesday afternoon in a hybrid fashion to discuss the faculty union vote, union contract negotiation and a report from the Senate Budget Policies Committee about Pitt’s partnership with the Outlier program.

Scott said the exclusion of School of Medicine faculty from the collective bargaining unit will have “real world consequences.”

“I’m quite concerned and wanted to point that out to those of you all really excited about having a union, when it doesn’t include half of your colleagues,” Scott said. “It’s a definite issue that I think needs to be really considered thoroughly and I don’t think it has been.”

According to a copy of an election returns document obtained by The Pitt News, 2,203 faculty members voted in the election — 1,511 voted in favor of a union and 612 voted against it. 80 faculty members submitted challenged ballots. The faculty union will be affiliated with the United Steelworkers’ Academic Workers Association, which has supported the unionization effort since 2016.

President Robin Kear also spoke about the faculty unionization vote. Kear said a Pennsylvania Labor Review Board ruling in April determined the scope of the bargaining unit and is key to understanding who is and is not included in the unit.

According to Kear, faculty involved in the unit includes all full-time and part-time tenure stream faculty and librarians in the “Provost area,” School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences and the School of Law employed by Pitt at all five campuses. Kear said faculty excluded from the unit includes faculty in the School of Medicine, research associates, postdoctoral associates, graduate student employees and all “non-professionals” such as guards, supervisors, managerial staff and confidential employees.

Kear said an institution’s relationship between faculty government and faculty unions are unique and depend on the history of shared governance and size of bargaining units. According to Kear, Rutgers University and University of Florida are good examples of how faculty governments and faculty unions can successfully coincide. 

“Legal contract negotiations for this subset of faculty will be conducted outside of council and assembly and within an elected bargaining committee representing those employees,” Kear said. “There is a status quo, expectation by the employer and individual negotiation, for what could be also termed direct dealing, is limited for the employer.”

Kear also gave her president’s report at the meeting, focusing on five main areas — Pitt’s new vaccine requirement, travel policy, general policy updates, academic searches and the union vote and shared governance. The general policy updates included the protection of children policy and procedure, campus crime awareness policy and procedure and gifts that support projects policy and procedure.

Pitt announced in an email on Monday that it will be requiring students, faculty and staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit an exemption by Dec. 6. Kear said the University Senate has been formally advocating for this requirement since voting on a resolution in May 2021, and is happy to see the policy in place for spring term. 

Kear said the Senate is also working to change Pitt’s travel policy that went into effect in May 2020 and is continuing to be enforced this academic year. The current policy follows the CDC’s guidelines for travel, but there is movement to draft a policy revision within the next couple of weeks, according to Kear. 

“The concern is that faculty have to go through Anthony Travel and have to use their University travel card,” Kear said. “That’s what I’ve heard the most dissatisfaction with.”

Tyler Bickford, chair of the Senate Budget Policies Committee, presented a report on activities and policies the committee has engaged in over the last year. The committee has oversight over the planning and budgeting system, which includes the guidelines for review of academic planning proposals, according to Bickford. 

Bickford said the budget policies committee created a subcommittee in February to look into procedural questions raised by Pitt’s partnership with Outlier — a for-profit company that offers online courses for Pitt credit. 

Bickford said the committee questioned if courses offered through Outlier can be created outside of Pitt’s typical processes, and if the pilot year for the program in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences gave Pitt-Johnstown faculty the same opportunities to receive data, deliberate and make decisions about the curriculum.

The guidelines for review of academic planning proposals — a structure academic departments follow when developing new academic programs — require that new academic programs be created through a process that includes detailed budgetary impact and plans for ongoing evaluation or assessment, according to Bickford. He said the Outlier partnership did not include that process, so the administration’s position is that Outlier isn’t an academic program, but rather just a collection of courses, meaning those policies don’t apply. 

“The report finds, if that’s the case, the guidelines and also the norms and precedents still require that credit-bearing courses be created and overseen by existing academic programs using their established policies and procedures,” Bickford said. “We did not find precedents for credit-bearing courses existing or being created outside of an academic program, and every academic program has detailed procedures for creating, approving and overseeing new courses.” 

Bickford said Pitt departments and divisions are not currently involved in creating or overseeing Outlier courses. The committee report does not address questions regarding educational quality and reputation of the courses, but Bickford said these concerns would be ameliorated if normal procedures for creating an academic program are followed. 

“National standards for University governance affirm that the most basic rule for faculty is our responsibility for the curriculum, subject matter and methods of instruction,” Bickford said. “Our interpretation is that these guidelines interpret that principle by involving faculty in structural, transparent and bottom-up ways in the creation and oversight of academic programs.”