Professors come at a price. But is it more than PSU can afford?

Over the past three years, Portland State students have seen tuitions rise and class sizes grow. At the same time, Portland State faculty members have watched their salaries remain stagnant.

Approximately two-thirds of PSU professors, in contract negotiations since April of this year, have been working without a contract since an extension of the previous contract expired in October. The negotiations have stalled over a dispute about salary increases and the administration, highlighting the impasse, requested a third-party mediator last month.

According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), Portland State faculty are paid among the lowest 10 percent of their peers and live in a city with a high standard of living. The AAUP represents full-time faculty and other academic professionals. These university employees constitute over 1,000 people at Portland State, approximately two-thirds of faculty teaching classes at the university.

The university administration offered an immediate 3 percent raise with a 2.25 percent raise next year, but union negotiators rejected the deal. The union is requesting an 8 percent across-the-board raise, with a possibility for individual merit raises later.

"Our best estimates of the cost of the recent [faculty] proposal would equate to substantial budget cuts," said Mike Driscoll, the vice provost of Academic and Personnel Budget at Portland State. While he was unwilling to guess where the budget would be cut, he hinted that it would likely increase student tuition.

"What we’re asking for is fair," said Martha Hickey, chief negotiator for the AAUP at Portland State.

For Sy Adler – chapter president of the PSU-AAUP and a professor in the Urban Studies and Planning department – blame for the salary dispute stretches from the Oregon Legislature to the state Board of Higher Education and extends all the way to Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

"The [higher education] board said it was going to make a big push for faculty salaries. Kulongoski was supposed to be a spokesperson to the legislature on behalf of faculty salaries," he said. "[And the legislators are] protecting what they see as a resource for their constituents."

To Adler, a strike is an option that nobody wants to use, but it is still a possibility. The steps from mediation to striking are many, and as both sides of the negotiation don’t want a strike, the likelihood of it happening is slim.

"The administration still has choices to make," Adler said.

Hickey said she was disappointed to see the call for a mediator after only "three paper offers were on the table."

"They decided they didn’t have anything else to say to us," she said. The administration requested mediation on Nov. 8 and the mediation process is expected to begin sometime in January.

The Employment Relations Board will appoint a mediator. According to that board, 77 percent of mediated cases are settled prior to a strike.

Portland State’s reluctance to make a higher offer is not from lack of concern over faculty pay. In fact, many top officials at the university are painfully aware of their inability to offer professors a heftier check, and the adverse effects low pay has on quality of education.

Because PSU and other state universities in Oregon are not able to stay competitive with offers from other colleges, they struggle to retain and recruit talented faculty. When professors leave the universities for better-paying jobs elsewhere, they also take research dollars with them.

Portland State President Daniel Bernstine, testifying to the Education Subcommittee of the Oregon Legislature’s Joint Ways and Means Committee last March, pled for more state funding for Oregon University System faculty salaries. He also provided several concrete examples of the impact of low faculty salaries on the university system.

An English professor at PSU left a position that paid $41,000 per year two years ago for a position at Cornell University that paid $85,000, Bernstine said. From 2003 to 2004, faculty leaving Oregon State University for better-paying positions also took over $10 million in research funding with them.

"The result of Oregon’s lack of investment in faculty has put our universities at risk," Bernstine told the committee. "There isn’t much in the chart about faculty competition in the marketplace that would give a prospective or current faculty member much hope."

Portland State’s inability to offer a competitive salary has also hurt the university’s recruitment efforts, Bernstine told the committee. Over the past three years PSU has had three failed searches for dean-level positions, all due to salary issues. Portland State also lost first-choice candidates in six searches in one year due to salary, Bernstine said.

Because Portland State is a public university, its budget woes, which contribute to the inability to offer higher salaries, are largely tied to decisions made by the state legislature, which has been coping with statewide budget crisis over the past several years. Tight fiscal times for the state have resulted in limited funding for the state’s university system as well.

In January 2003, the legislature froze wages for all state employees. Faculty and administration at Portland State remain among the last 10 percent of state employees who have not been given a raise since the state-wide freeze was lifted in July.

"By the end of December, it’ll have been three years since the people here have seen a raise," Hickey said.

In part to make up for funding shortfalls from the state, Portland State has sought to grow its enrollment, but the growth has caused funding problems because of another decision made by the legislature.

Funding for enrollment growth in the Oregon University System has been fixed at 2001-02 levels, a decision made by the state legislature to protect smaller, regional schools in the system.

Southern Oregon, Western Oregon, Eastern Oregon and the Oregon Institute of Technology had experienced declines in their enrollment and were threatened with funding cuts. Combined, the four smaller schools in the Oregon University System account for almost 17,000 students. Meanwhile, Portland State reached its highest enrollment yet this term with just over 25,000.

"More students means more money," Driscoll said.

Portland State has plans to add another 10,000 students by 2015, leaving the university with a bulging student body of 35,000 students. Meanwhile, tuition reached a new high this year and continues to rise. The current tuition at Portland State for a full-time, 15-credit student, without fees, is $1,270 per term. In 2002-03, it was $964. That amounts to almost $1,000 in additional tuition for each student per year. This increase has come at time when Oregon has dropped to the bottom of the list in state funding of higher education.

Henry Lorenzen, president of the state Board of Higher Education, affirmed that the university is aware of the enrollment freeze, yet it continues to seek higher enrollment figures.

"Portland State has chosen to grow, the other universities have limited their growth," Lorenzen said. "It was a conscious decision by Portland State to grow."

According to the Oregon University System, in 2002-03, Oregon ranked 44th in the nation in state funding per student with $5,631. New Hampshire was placed 50th, where they averaged $3,633 per student. In 2004-05, Oregon fell below even this number and provided just $3,620 for each student. Portland State has added over 3,000 students since the legislature stopped funding enrollment growth, contributing to Oregon’s decline in the ranking. No other university in the system has experienced growth like Portland State.

Tim Nesbitt, who sits on the Board of Higher Education, said that the model for allocating state funds obviously needs to be "updated and recalibrated," but a lot of different variables go into dispersal of the budget. One of the variables is the mix of part-time and full-time students at each university.

As an urban university, Portland State has a higher percentage of part-time students than most other public schools in Oregon. According to the Oregon University System, Portland State has almost 7,000 part-time undergraduates, whereas the smaller universities together have just over 4,000. Nesbitt claimed this might account for the large discrepancy in school funding, where Portland State represents over 30 percent of the state university system’s student body but receives 22 percent of the state’s general fund.

The state legislature made the decision to no longer fund enrollment growth, but the higher education board unanimously approved it in a vote of "mere acceptance," Nesbitt said.

"We accept the decisions [the legislators] make and their authority," he said. The path the university budget travels is long and, according to Nesbitt, the board acts only as advisers to the legislature and the governor.

"We do our best to get money for enrollment growth," Lorenzen said. When asked what would happen if the board broke with the legislature and did not accept the budget, he said they would be in "big trouble" with the legislature.

"It’s a moot point" to discuss what would have happened if the board had voted against the budget, he said.

"It’s moot because they’ve already let it slide through," Hickey said. Hickey, also a professor in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature, insists that proper funding from the state would provide Portland State with enough funds to supply professors with salary raises.

But Adler, who has taught at Portland State 24 years and has only recently seen a significant increase in class sizes, from 30 to 60 students in one class in the last few years alone, thinks the quality of education at Portland State could be slipping. He points to the large amount of adjuncts teaching classes, a type of teacher with low pay and no job security.

"Everybody wants this thing settled," he said.