On Oct. 18, the newly-formed Portland State University Student Union held its first general assembly meeting in the Native American Student and Community Center. The event, organized by the Student Action Coalition and Students for Unity, saw a panel of students and faculty discuss student debt, student rights, and how a student union might address these issues.
Indeed, the discussion of student debt was central to the afternoon’s agenda.
“Students leave the university today with an unconscionable debt that you’re going to carry for the rest of your life,” said Michael Chamberlin, a panelist and executive council member of PSU’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors.
According to data compiled by the Oregon University System, 64 percent of PSU’s class of 2011 graduated with student loan debt. That same year, the average student loan debt amounted to $26,287 at PSU.
Chamberlin argued that the administration is not leading the university in a way that benefits PSU students, faculty or non-administrative staff. “Students need to put demands on the administration, and we as faculty will support you,” he said.
“The problem in Oregon is there’s not enough state funding to go around,” said Diane Saunders, director of communications at OUS, in an interview. “Twenty years ago the state paid 70 percent of the higher education budget and students paid 30 percent—this has flipped. Students have had to pick up the slack. Students can’t take much more.”
Cameron Frank, a StAC organizer and PSU student, hopes PSUSU will become an activist community for students. The student union, he said, could help unite students for common causes, as well as support students pursuing their own projects in activism.
In a later interview, Jackie Balzer, vice president of Enrollment and Student Affairs at PSU, said that “if [PSUSU members] have a desire to be heard or to collaborate, we [in administration] stand ready to really work with them.”
So far, PSUSU is seeing substantial buy-in from students. As of Friday, Oct. 26, more than 500 students have joined the student union.
PSUSU is not a part of Student Activities Leadership Program, nor is it a part of the existing PSU government structure. “PSUSU is necessarily operating outside of the preordained political process reserved for students by the university administration,” Frank said.
However, PSUSU and ASPSU intend to work together. “We believe ASPSU does valuable work,” Frank said, adding that the student union and student government are “fundamentally complementary rather than antithetical.”
“In order to transform PSU into a university that treats its students sustainably, it is vital we work together to shake the present system from within and without,” Frank said.
Eric Noll is legislative affairs director at ASPSU, and Chair of the Oregon Student Association’s Board of Directors.
The OSA, he said, works to “represent, serve, and protect the collective interests of students in postsecondary education in Oregon, for the sake of a more affordable, accessible and quality education.”
Noll explained that the OSA, like PSUSU, uses direct action to advocate for students. “A lot of our work is about empowering students,” he said.
While Frank said that he sees the student union working with ASPSU and with PSU OSA representatives, he also hopes the student union will be “more decentralized and agile.”
“The framework of the student union is still developing,” said Frank. “PSUSU could provide a scaffolding that folks can plug into—however they can use their skills and knowledge.
“We want to create opportunities for people to get creative,” he said.
For more information, visit the PSU Student Union website at www.psusu.org.