Back in 2008, Wim Wiewel cruised to campus on his bike for his first day as president at Portland State.
He had come from University of Baltimore, Maryland and had ambitions of creating symbiotic relationships between all PSU community members. His new position was then valued at roughly $350,000 a year. He told the Oregonian that Portland felt like Amsterdam, his original home. He was ready to help people abandon the notion of PSU as a “neglected stepchild.”
This month, roughly eight years after his arrival, Wiewel announced his resignation for after the 2016–17 school year. He described the decision as having been made a year and a half ago, connected more to age and not at all to the strained relationship he shares with parts of the student body.
But PSU is sitting at “the big kids’” table now, with fellow state schools University of Oregon and Oregon State University, according to the president. And there is no denying, everything is bigger now. Under Wiewel, a third of campus has been or will be renovated. Tuition has ballooned and the student body has grown from 27,000 to 29,000.
Wiewel won’t be gone for good. After a year-long sabbatical, which pays the same $401,700 salary as a typical year in office, he plans on returning to PSU to teach in a tenured part-time position for the College of Urban Planning and Affairs. Additionally, Wiewel will keep his co-chair position with the College Affordability Coalition.
Vanguard: How do you feel now that the news has been broken? Are you a little relaxed, a burden off your shoulders, a little bummed?
Wim Wiewel: (Displays himself as very relaxed, laughing) A nonverbal response. I’m not sure I’ve ever come to work in a polo shirt before.
VG: What sort of role will you serve in [PSU] when you return as a CUPA professor? What sort of classes are you thinking of teaching?
WW: I hope that it will be some mixture of teaching, as you may know I taught a higher education policy class this spring. So I would like to teach that class again. But I also would love to do some fundraising for the Institute for Sustainable Solutions. That’s sort of an uncompleted task, and I have some research ideas—maybe do some work with junior faculty or with students. So a mixture of activity.
VG: Could you tell us a little bit about the factors leading to your resignation?
WW: It’s what I would summarize as the inexorable march of time. You know when I came I pretty much figured that somewhere between eight and 10 years was the right time . . . [And] by that time I’ll be 67, and I’m still, thank God, in very good health. But one becomes aware that life is not eternal…I would like to do especially some traveling and some athletic stuff while I’m still healthy…I love to work, it’s a great job, but I don’t want to die in office.
VG: According to an article published in the Oregonian last spring, your contract was through 2018, so have the terms of your contract changed or is the sabbatical included in that?
WW: No, people got very confused about that…I could leave anytime as long as I gave three months notice. They just couldn’t fire me without without having to pay me, but I could leave any time. So that’s where there’s no breach of a contract or anything.
VG: On that note, could you tell us a little about your sabbatical? Where are you going?
WW: My wife and I are interested in living abroad. We’re looking [at] Spain and Greece and Italy. Countries I love but have never been able to spend enough time in…I love the idea of being in a place and not being a tourist. As you may know I grew up in the Netherlands. I first came to the United States when I was 18 and had a chance to actually live here for a year, then I went back to the Netherlands. It’s so different living somewhere than being a tourist, where you’re just busy looking at the museums and the churches and the landscapes or whatever.
During the rest of the sabbatical year I will be getting ready for my new academic life. One of the things that I’m interested in doing is writing the histories of some of the big decisions that happened during my tenure. The big one of course is the dissolution of the Oregon University System and the creation of our own board. That’s a history that needs to be written so I want to do that. And the second one is the business payroll tax effort of this last year. While that one didn’t succeed as quite planned, there is now a different part to it, I think that one is worth recording for posterity.
There are maybe two other smaller historical projects where, while I’m not a historian, I do have unique information and access to information about those things and I think it’s worth, for the institution’s sake, to write that down.
VG: In terms of writing these histories, are those going to be published as academic papers?
WW: Yeah, they might be. Even just to have them in the library as historical documents about the institution is valuable, and maybe they are interesting as academic articles as well. While I’m not a historian, I have done a lot of writing on the relationship of a university to its city, that has been my main topic. How do universities contribute to making cities better places to live, work and play? Both of these topics are relevant to that; it fits into that history, into that line of work.
VG: In the past your salary has been attacked by faculty and students. Do you think there will be any backlash against the sabbatical, or do you think it’s pretty typical after as long as you have been a president or a teacher to take a sabbatical?
WW: Sabbaticals are very typical and very normal, right? So, you know, it’s done. Its contracts is kind of moot.
VG: Could we ask you some questions about the College Affordability Coalition? How will the co-chair role change or evolve?
WW: Not at all, I’m still a president for a whole year. The reason to announce now is that academic searches take typically a year, so this gives the board ample time to gear up for a search. But I’ll be here, be working, doing whatever I’ve been doing for the past eight years; that includes in this case co-chairing that coalition with Greg Ness…That coalition really better get a lot of its work done this coming year. This is when we really have to put everything in place.
VG: We were wondering about any regrets you have or things you wish you had been able to complete in your time here, or things that you’re going to try to get done in this last year?
WW: That’s a great question. You saw the list of what I consider to be main accomplishments. There’s a lot there that I’m really pleased with.
I would’ve liked to have seen the Business Bureau Tax done. This process that we’re in with the College Affordability Success Coalition is going to take a long time…I regret that, but you know, we did the best we could. We got the best compromise out of it that we could and we got a heck of a lot more than we had a year ago today.
The second one is the fundraising campaign that the [PSU] Foundation is doing. I wish we had been able to get that off the ground a little bit quicker…We had the leadership changes there last year, with Vice President [Françoise] Aylmer leaving, so that kind of made us lose some time. [Those are] two key things related to money.
We made huge progress on state funding. I hope that in whichever way, there will be more revenue, so the legislature will be able to continue what they started in 2015, which is to really restore the funding levels that we had in ’07 and ’08. Before the recession started, that would allow us to continue to have very moderate tuition increases while improving the quality by hiring more advisers, more faculty and so on.
Associate Vice President of University Communications Chris Broderick: The other part of that question, I think, was a good one. In these next 12 months, what are your priorities?
WW: So in these next 12 months I’m going to focus on the College Affordability and Success Coalition, on the 2017 legislative session, on the comprehensive fundraising campaign. More broadly, I’m going to make sure that the strategic plan gets implemented. My role there is sort of oversight, because most of the pieces of that fit in the domain of specific vice presidents.
The final part is to work with the board on whatever help they may want on the search for a replacement. Typically, that is handled by the Board of Trustees itself and by the search committee. Often, sitting presidents really do not have a lot of involvement in that. So that’s just, if and when I’m asked, I’m available for advice. I have no formal role in that whatsoever.
VG: What kind of qualities do you hope for in PSU’s next university president?
WW: I think you want a president who strongly supports the notion of community engagement, who strongly [supports] the notion of sustainability.
Somebody who can be an inspiring leader. As a president it’s not so much what you do—the piece of paper that you move around—but whether you can inspire people to do their best to make this place work better. But also somebody who understands finances well enough. That’s going to continue to be a challenge, no matter what happens on revenue. You know, universities are hard-pressed financially, and that’s not going to change—a fine balance between quality on the one hand and price on the other. All students, all faculty, want more of everything except tuition…Tuition is such a large part of our revenue that it’s always going to be very important. So how do we contain the rise in tuition while still providing a quality education and good working and salary conditions for our faculty and staff? It’s a balancing act. You’re always going to make somebody mad, obviously.
A final characteristic is communication. You relearn that lesson every time, that you can’t ever communicate too much about what is going on, what the challenges are, what you’re doing about them, [as well as] listening to people about how they see the world and about what they want and what they’re worried about…When you don’t communicate enough, especially in this era of distrust of institutions and leadership, people get very angry very quickly.
VG: Do you have any real life examples where you were able to communicate and a challenge was [resolved]?
WW: I think an example of that is [from] two and a half years ago, when we had that negotiation with our faculty unit…We had made the mistake of not having enough communication channels so that we tried to do some things in those negotiations that were misunderstood and misinterpreted.
People [said] that the provost and the president wanted to get rid of tenure; I mean, nothing could be further from the truth. But the fact that somebody could even say that…just shows that there hadn’t been enough communication. [After that] we started a very deliberate communication effort to reach out in all variety of ways: office hours, meetings with departments, faculty breakfast, Provost [Sona] Andrews’ blog, my tweeting—a whole bunch of things. All very intentional, and I think those things made a difference. The fact that our last round of negotiations with the union went very smoothly, using a different process, to me proves that that whole effort works.
VG: How do you think the role of the university, in general, has changed over the last eight years?
WW: Well, in a couple of ways that are important. One metaphor I’ve used is that eight years ago, when I came, if you thought about higher education in oregon, there was [University of Oregon] and [Oregon State University] up there. There was Western, Southern, Eastern and [the Oregon Institute of Technology] down there, and PSU was sort of in the middle. Nobody quite knew. We were too big for the kids’ table and too small for the adults’ table. Now, we are very much at the adults’ table. We are one of the three bigs…If you look at the surveys we’ve done, [PSU] is recognized much more broadly in the metropolitan area than it was eight years ago…And that’s partly based on our increased size, increased quality. But some of it is simply communication. Telling more people about us. You know, the number of press exposures that we’ve had in the last, let’s say, eight years, was vastly greater than, on an annual basis, the period before that. That didn’t just happen, that was work.
VG: So what direction do you hope PSU will move in after you leave? We are hoping to discuss hopes and fears and what you have for the future.
WW: I hope that PSU will continue to grow as a research institution. When I came, we did $40 million in externally funded research. This past year was $65 million…it will be good for our students, it will be good for the region to have more research that improves quality of life…I hope we will continue to increase our attractiveness to nonresident students. For the reasons that I’ve always cited, having nonresident students increases simply the diversity of the student body…Secondly, to attract nonresident students, you have to be good and have qualities or else people aren’t going to come.
VG: So it’s an indicator.
WW: Exactly, that’s precisely what it is. And thirdly, because they do help our bottom line because they pay more tuition. If you look at U of O, more than 50 percent of their student body is nonresident, and while they have fewer students than we do, they have about $100 million more in tuition. We have $200 million in tuition per year, and they have about $300 million. With a smaller number of students! Can you just imagine what we’d be able to do with $100 million? Now that would be huge.
VG: That would change this place.
WW: I want to do that without reducing, in any way, the number of resident students. Or changing the admissions requirements for students in any way. For us, it’s always been, we let in everybody who fits our admissions criteria. We don’t have a set class, so you’ve got the qualifications. We let you in and if we have more nonresident students, fine, we just grow in size.
VG: Is there anything else you’d like to say about your feelings at this time, leaving this job?
WW: As I have reflected on these last eight years, and on just being here, Alice and I were talking about this, it truly has been a tremendous honor and privilege. And I’m not just saying that because being able to lead an institution that is so wonderful, as wonderful as PSU is, you know, I really mean that there is no place anywhere else that I know of that is as committed to this idea of let knowledge serve the city, to being engaged.
I mean, is everything always wonderful? Of course not. There’s all kinds of difficulty and there isn’t enough money but I can’t think of a better place, as a university or as a city, that I would rather have been. And I’ve gotten inquiries during the years…It’s always nice and flattering to be asked, but I’ve never even been tempted, frankly. Secondly, everything that we’ve accomplished is because of a lot of great work by my predecessors as president. They did a lot of the ground work. And through my eight years, of course, I’ve been working with the faculty…my leadership team. I probably haven’t said enough about this but right now I think my executive committee is the strongest team I’ve had in my eight years.