Students question Pitt’s plan following open forum


Meghan Sunners | Senior Staff Photographer

By Lauren Rosenblatt / Assistant News Editor

Students said they came for answers and received a sales pitch at the University’s open student forum Tuesday.

On Tuesday, Oct. 6, Pitt hosted an Open Student Forum from 5:30 to 7 p.m. in the William Pitt Union Ballroom as an opportunity for students to express concerns about the University’s “Plan for Pitt” for 2016-2020.

Approximately 60 students suggested changes and asked questions to a panel of team members the Chancellor organized to enact the plan.

Although Raghav Sharma had a chance to speak, he didn’t feel that University heard his voice.

“It seemed to me that this was an attempt by the University to say they addressed our concerns,” Sharma said. “But in reality, it was a place for us to talk at the University and not be heard.”

David DeJong, vice provost for academic planning and resources management, spent the first half-hour summarizing the plan for students before opening the floor to student questions.

DeJong outlined the five main goals in the plan of advancing educational excellence, engaging in research of impact, strengthening communities, building foundational strengths and embracing diversity and inclusion.

DeJong said the plan has been a work in progress since last year. Last February, the planning team started engaging with students, administration, alumni and local community leaders to decide on which points of concern the plan should focus.

“We are never going to say, ‘Here is the final plan.’ We are never going to etch it in stone,” DeJong said. “We want [the plan] to [change] in response to the input we receive and the landscape as it changes.”

The planning team held the forum in response to a letter Chancellor Patrick Gallagher received on Sept. 25, from members of Free the Planet and Americans for Informed Democracy. The letter stated their discontent with the lack of student input in the plan.

Kenyon Bonner, interim vice provost and dean of students, and students from Americans for Informed Democracy, Free the Planet and Students for Justice in Palestine decided an open forum would be the best way to gather student opinions.

Students asked about 20 questions during the hour and a half-long meeting, covering issues including how to improve interdisciplinary communication, promote entrepreneurship and support wage and contract negotiations for security guards, non-tenured professors and adjunct faculty. Students snapped in appreciation as they listened to their peers express concerns about sexual assault, diversity, fair wages and sustainability.

Sharma, president of Students for Justice in Palestine, was one of the first to pose a question to the panel. Sharma asked if the University had considered the multiple attempts students had made to learn more about the University’s finances and the roadblocks they consistently encounter.

DeJong suggested starting a conversation with the appropriate administration members, which Sharma questioned.

“How can students have a discussion on those issues when they’re not being provided with the information to have those discussions?” Sharma asked.

“That’s a good question, maybe that’s where we need to start,” DeJong replied.

Sage Lincoln, a member of Free the Planet who was involved in sending the letter to Gallagher, asked how Pitt was planning to strengthen the South Oakland community and deal with the issue of high costs for sometimes unsafe living conditions.

Bonner responded that the University is partnering with the local community and that it is an issue Pitt “needs to start addressing.”

Lincoln said there were positives and negatives to the night, but she felt that the students were “talked at” more than they got a chance to talk.

“It felt like we were being sold the University,” Lincoln said. “But we already bought it. We’re already here.”

Other students took to Twitter to express their disappointment.

“We asked for a forum, not a sales pitch. #pittstrategicplan,” @LofquistSam tweeted.

@PghStudentsPSSC tweeted, “Dejong: ‘Sustainability will be center in strategic capital planning’ OK so divest from fossil fuels.”  

Sharma said he felt as if the University controlled the conversation.

“It’s a stalling tactic [the University] do[es] again and again. They will grant you an audience with some dean or some professor. They’ll make you feel like you talked to someone,” Sharma said. “And then go and do whatever they want anyways.”

To move forward, Sharma said students should lead the conversation and plan the events among themselves before confronting the University as a united front.

“What we need is for students to recognize their own individual power and realize the incredible feats that we can accomplish if we put our individual power toward our collective interest,” Sharma said. “We are unstoppable.”

Sharma said he still plans to attend next week’s forum, which DeJong announced will be 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 14.

In the future, Lincoln hopes that the University makes it more clear what they expect from the students at the beginning of the forum.

“It wasn’t clear at the beginning [that the University wanted] students to say ‘This is important, and I would like to see this in the plan,’” Lincoln said.

Most students came prepared with questions and points that they wanted to raise. Lincoln and DeJong noted that several students brought up points, such as improving sustainability, securing higher wages for part-time faculty members and raising the amount of need-based scholarships outside of the plan.

To Lincoln, these diversions represented a lack of opportunities available for students to express their opinion.

Bonner insisted this would change in the future and encouraged students to contact him with their concerns.

“It could be as simple as emailing me. I could set up a meeting, I could invite people or we could come up with some other idea,” Bonner said. “Whatever format, I’m open to it.”

For Bonner, the forum was not about quelling concerns, but about learning what actions are needed.

“This type of forum is not the most conducive to answering questions or responding on the fly. The value is to get feedback,” Bonner said. “I went into this looking to make a list of [the students’] concerns, interests and needs.”

To create the plan, DeJong said the University went through several stages of receiving feedback, creating and revising the plan until it arrived at the plan it has today. Now, the University is moving into the implementation phase, while still maintaining conversation with the community.

“This is the stuff you look forward to. You get out and talk to folks, and that makes it all worthwhile,” DeJong said. “Especially when you know you’re converting this stuff to action. Otherwise it would just be soul crushing.”

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