Advising positions secured

Portland State students in the pre-health professions track became concerned after hearing rumors that all advisers for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences were to be terminated at the end of the current term.

Portland State students in the pre-health professions track became concerned after hearing rumors that all advisers for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences were to be terminated at the end of the current term.

The college did send out letters on Dec. 19, 2008 informing five academic advisers, as well as 50 other employees and faculty members, that their contracts would be terminated as of June 30, 2009.

Due to uncertainty about future economic situations and budgetary outlooks, termination letters are sent out annually in December to employees who are not tenured or on long-term contracts, said CLAS Dean Marvin Kaiser.

“Every year we are asked to make some sort of judgment six months prior to the end of the year,” Kaiser said.
However, after receiving additional insights on the condition of the 2009-11 higher education budget on Monday, the college announced that it would not be terminating any advising positions. 

“We are now sending out renewal letters, and we’re doing that across the board,” Kaiser said.

In line with the policies of the American Association of University Professors, the union to which Portland State faculty and academic professionals belong, staff must be informed of possible termination a certain number of months before the end of the contract, depending on how long they have been employed.

Kaiser explained the difficult position the administration faces when dealing with academic professions, who do not have a fixed-term contract like other faculty members or tenured professors with long-term employment agreements.

Due to AAUP union rules, they must either inform staff members of termination in December, or run the risk of having a budgetary crises and not being able to legally layoff employees. 

Administrators and faculty have pushed for a third option in lieu of the current all-or-nothing system, which would allow for two-year contracts for some faculty members. These contracts would be assigned based on seniority.

“We have argued for that third option for a long time,” Kaiser said.
While the third option is ideal, it can lead to problems if there is an economic crisis, like the one the world faces today, he said.

In light of uncertainty over budget projections, the college must plan for the worst and hope for the best.

This system of termination and renewal applies to a select group of employees classified as academic professionals, such as advisers who work with students and those who do not teach but provide support services for academic aspects of the university.

Academic professionals are essentially contracted indefinitely but are rehired annually after initial termination, said Melissa Leonard, health sciences advising coordinator.

The annual termination letters allow for some negotiations and flexibility between the employees, university and union. While Kaiser does not feel that this is an ideal system for renewing contracts, he said it is currently the best way to ensure equity as well as safeguard against unforeseen economic situations.

The termination letters that Leonard and her colleagues received were a little more serious than those of previous years, Kaiser explained, due to the heightened fears of a drastic budget shortfall.

“How do you create certainty in an uncertain economic environment?” Kaiser said.

In December, Portland State President Wim Wiewel asked all the departments to provide worst-case scenario plans for the 2009-11 biennium.

For CLAS, the worst-case scenario was not rehiring the advisers and 50 other academic professionals and support staff in the college, and the best case was to offer renewals for all the contracts.

“We are expected at the university level, and certainly at our level, to live within our budgets, to try to act as responsibly as possible,” Kaiser said.

With the tuition increase, and the uncertainty over the amount of money the state is going to offer, Kaiser and other administrators wanted to be as honest as possible with those who were at risk of being terminated.

“We were waiting, as much of the rest of the university was, on the budget office projections,” Kaiser said.

The budget recommendations from the Oregon Legislature were released Monday, providing a little more certainty for the future.

“We will not impose at this point non-renewals for the contracts,” Kaiser said. 

This decision was met with much relief on both ends, but the question over several aspects of the university’s future still loom over all administrators. 

“First, what is the legislature and governor going to say about our allocations from the state?” Kaiser said. “And second, what is it that we’re going to be able to do about revenue generation?”

He said that the situation was more substantively hopeful now than it was a few weeks ago. The drop in revenue was not as dramatic as it was month ago, and from a state perspective, the deficit is a bit less than predicted.

With more clarity and stability, the outlook has improved for Portland State. Kaiser said that CLAS is now focusing on prioritizing expenses through putting students first.

“We want to serve students,” Kaiser said.

Kaiser stressed the importance of both having classes for students to attend and providing support services such as advising to increase retention and success.