Chancellor Addresses Diversity During Senate Council Meeting

Issue Date: 
November 16, 2015

Speaking to the University’s Senate Council on Nov. 11, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher drew attention to recent news events that, he said, have highlighted issues of racial intolerance and free speech on American university campuses.

“This pertains to Pitt in a very direct way,” Gallagher said, noting that he has addressed these issues before the Senate Council previously. Actively seeking and supporting a culture of diversity that is really built upon respect for the rights of others, compassion, and freedom of thought is vital to our mission of learning and discovery. It is a core part of the vitality of the University.”

Gallagher said that Pitt has been actively addressing the diversity issue, seeking to engage the community and to support a meaningful dialogue. He cited as recent concrete steps the establishment of Kathy Humphrey’s position as senior vice chancellor for engagement and, reporting to her, Pam Connelly, associate vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion. Diversity is also part of the University’s five-year strategic plan, which contains “specific and concrete actions” to enhance diversity. “But as I think about the last week, the one takeaway for me is that we have a lot to do still,” Gallagher said. 

The chancellor said that from a personal perspective, the issue of tolerance for race, ethnicity, gender identity, or sexual orientation is an issue of vital importance to many in the Pitt community. “For them, they are dealing with the consequences of intolerance on a daily level. And so for many people, and this is important to remember, this is personal—they have lived with it,” he said. “But if we are a community that is built upon compassion for others, that means it has to be important to us, too.” 

He pointed out that while emotions are running very high at the moment, there is an upside. “This is the kind of environment where you can catalyze action, where you can raise attention to an issue, where it creates a prominence that is important. But it is also an environment that magnifies the potential for misunderstanding and even open conflict, and we have seen that happen,” he said. (Last week, both the president of the University of Missouri system and the chancellor of its flagship school, the University of Missouri-Columbia, resigned following months of protests over racial tensions and other issues.) “So I think it is really important that our approach has to seek to maximize understanding and open dialogue.”

Gallagher said there is a very real tension built into the question: how do you balance an individual right that includes freedom of expression—even when that expression is ugly or hateful— with the civil right to be in a setting free of discrimination and harassment? “This tension that exists between freedoms and responsibilities is one that is built into the fabric of our society and woven into the fabric of this University,” he said. 

Noting that this tension is a necessary but difficult aspect of our civil culture, he emphasized that Pitt, as a great university, should be in the middle of the greatest issues. “We are not a backwater. So it shouldn’t surprise any of us—and it doesn’t surprise me—that our students, our faculty, and our staff are engaged in, care about, and want to participate in this issue.” 

 “How do we do more?” Gallagher asked. He said that question led to several conclusions. One is that while the University administration has a role, it should not be viewed as the source of the answer. “I think this is an ‘all hands on deck’ kind of issue. I think this touches faculty and how they teach and create a learning environment. I think it certainly includes the staff, and it certainly includes the students,” Gallagher said. 

He said that he sees this as an issue that speaks directly to the model of shared governance at Pitt. “I think we have to look at the Senate Council and the ways that we can engage the entire University community around this issue,” he said. He termed the Senate Council’s planning for the next plenary, on the topic of freedom of speech and academic freedom, an “incredibly important” first step. 

“While I think we have done a lot, I think that we need to hit the gas pedal harder,” Gallagher said, “by deliberately expanding the range of ways that we engage the community to hear the many views on this topic. There are a lot of smart people on this campus and on our regional campuses who care about this and are thoughtful about it, and I would like to hear from as many as possible.” 

He added that beyond the dialogue and discussion, everyone should try to focus on the things that they can do that would in some ways operationalize the Pitt Promise. A key question is, “how do we put those principles into practice?” he said. 

He concluded by asking the Senate Council to take on this topic and to work with Kathy Humphrey and Pam Connelly to develop a strategy and a schedule that can support this expanded engagement and dialogue, “where we are participating together to improve our campus culture.”