Portland State infrastructure scrambles to keep up

Academic departments are not the only areas to be hit hard by budget cuts in recent years.

Though perhaps less noticeable to students, non-academic offices at Portland State responsible for keeping the university running, have also had to do more with less.

Some offices are pushed to the wall, like Human Resources. Others, like Facilities, have found ways to realign their organizations and ease the pain. All are dealing with budget cuts that came with the last state legislature. There will be no potential relief until the 2005 legislature draws its budget.

Meanwhile, Portland State bumps up against the continuing growth of student population. An increase of about two percent is anticipated for fall term, although the count won’t be official for another two weeks.

“We’re tired, we’re exhausted,” Cathy LaTourette said, associate vice president for finance and administration and head of the office of Human Resources. “I don’t know how much more I can get out of my staff.”

LaTourette sees no relief in sight.

“The university is getting bigger than my maximized staff can handle. We can’t maximize any more. And there is a wage freeze on.”

LaTourette said she has eliminated every possible frill from her office except bottled water. Neither she nor her staff can stomach the tap water.

LaTourette took over the job in 2001 and was immediately faced with budget cuts. She inherited a gigantic area of responsibility. LaTourette’s office handles payroll, 4,500 paychecks a month. It fulfills the employment function, which includes recruiting, selection, orientation and retirement.

Labor relations also come in her portfolio along with employee relations. The office is responsible for performance management of employees. And there is a whole list of other functions connected with the human element of running a university.

Upon her hiring, LaTourette embarked on a transformation of the staff. She had 23 staffers to start. At one point she was down to 16; currently the number is 19.

LaTourette’s overall solution was to automate, bringing advanced computer skills on board. She wanted to eliminate the handling of paper as much as possible. She eliminated single-function jobs which had become specialized and reorganized to build a staff of generalists.

“Now we have people connected with the big picture instead of people who have their own little fields,” said LaTourette.

But, she added, the bounds have been reached. They’re struggling to meet increased needs with no increase in resources.

“More students, more employees, more employee turnover,” she enumerated. “Our incremental change is not keeping up with demand. And there is no relief in sight.”

On the other hand, she said, she is maintaining, whereas she is not sure that is true campus-wide.

“I see whole departments crumbling,” said LaTourette.

Mike Irish, director of facilities, saw a more optimistic picture in his office. Irish has been in his job not quite two years and saw his most recent budget cut in the last biennium.

Upon coming to Portland State, he soon instituted a system that had worked well for him at Eastern Washington University.

“We managed to build staff by taking all contracting in house,” he said. This saved budget dollars previously spent to hire outside contractors for various jobs.

He pointed to current evidence of the success of this system, the completion of two new classrooms in the basement of Shattuck Hall.

“We finished them just in time for school,” he said. “In fact, we’re still waiting for doors.”

Irish said he has heard other departments have had morale problems but he believes morale is high in his office. He said he meets with his crews and asks them “Do you look forward to coming to work like I do?” and, he said, the response is positive.

“It’s not that we’re doing more with less,” he said, “It’s that we’ve found a way to make it happen.”