Grad Employees Union seeks greater stake in presidential search

Portland State President Wim Wiewel’s retirement is on the horizon, raising a natural question: Who will be his successor?

Finding a new PSU president isn’t as simple as a single interview. A 21-member search committee, appointed by PSU’s Board of Trustees, will work in tandem with a national leadership recruitment firm (Boston-based Isaacson, Miller) to vet and select candidates.

In August, the Board approved a resolution that outlined the specifics of the upcoming search for a president. Although the resolution stated that the search committee would include “representatives from the faculty and staff unions,” one union on campus found itself without an invite.

The Graduate Employees Union, which received certification in May 2016 as the official representative of 800 graduate teaching, research and administrative assistants at PSU, was not asked to submit a list of candidates for inclusion on the search committee.

In an Aug. 17 email to the GEU, University General Counsel David Reese explained that the Board faced a challenge in crafting the committee’s composition—ensuring diverse campus representation while maintaining efficiency of size.

“[The Board] included two PSU students as committee members, one undergraduate and one graduate…It’s certainly possible for the graduate student spot to be filled by somebody who is also a graduate student employee, although it is not required,” Reese wrote.

Reese also suggested that the GEU collaborate with Associated Students of PSU President Liela Forbes to propose names for the single graduate student spot.

However, not all graduate students have the same relationship to the potential president that the GEU represents. Those who are not part of the union may be unaware of the issues that led to its formation such as stipend amounts, health insurance and university fees.

Unions included on the presidential search committee issued letters in support of GEU, urging Board of Trustees Chair Pete Nickerson to invite a GEU representative as well.

“As a recently certified labor union, GEU represents PSU employees that do critical and unique work that keeps our campus running,” wrote Staci Martin, president of PSU Faculty Association, in an Aug. 29 letter. “While we are aware that there is a seat on the Presidential Search Committee designated for a graduate student, the GEU differs in that they represent nearly 800 graduate research, teaching and administrative student employees.”

PSU American Association of University Professors President José Padín wrote a similar letter, urging Nickerson and the Board to reconsider.

Aaron Johnson, a graduate research assistant in the Urban Studies department and member of GEU, said the board simply may not have been aware of the union, given its relatively short lifespan.

“[Nickerson] wasn’t aware of us,” Johnson said. “The Board process to form the committee was people suggesting names, and ours didn’t come up.”

Johnson said Nickerson met with the GEU earlier in September. While he wasn’t ready to change his mind about inviting a GEU representative to the search committee, he invited the union to brief the Board about why GEU formed and what they do.

Johnson spoke to the Board, along with GEU member Christian Marsh.

“They seemed interested in learning more about the role that grad student employees hold on campus,” Johnson said.

The final selections for the presidential search committee were released Sept. 16. GEU may not have received a formal invitation, but one of its members, Andrew Longhofer, is included on the committee nonetheless, in the graduate student seat.

“There were requests from others across campus to be appointed members of the search committee—more requests than could be accommodated,” stated Chris Broderick of University Communications in an email, replying to a request for comment on David Reese’s behalf.

“With 21 members, the search committee is bigger than the Board originally planned, posing a challenge to bring such a large group together on a regular basis in a timely fashion,” Broderick continued. “But the Board wanted the committee to be as diverse, inclusive and representative as possible, so that is why it has grown to 21 members.”

As the GEU prepares to negotiate its first contract with the PSU administration, its stake in the presidential search is high. The university president will oversee the contracting process.

“We want to make sure that we are well-respected in all our doings on campus and treated like other union employees,” Johnson said. “We want a good administration.”