Protesters shut down Board of Trustees meeting

Note: Article published with permission from Pacific Sentinel reporter Mike Bivins

“Mic check,” sang a woman sitting in the front row of the audience.

The 30 minutes the Portland State Board of Trustees allowed for public comment at its spring board meeting was not enough time for a substantial number of the 100 or so attendees crammed into the standing room only board room. A substantial section of the crowd—buoyed by Portland State University Student Union members and their allies—then rose from their seats and moved into formation in front of the board.

Going into public comment, board chair Peter Nickerson advised the crowd—some with duct tape over their mouths in protest—that “there is no legal requirement for [the board] to hold public testimony at these meetings.” Nickerson also commended those who signed up to speak and noted that the process is “not easy.”

The board also notes on its website that it chooses who is or is not allowed to speak via the posting of a list 24-hours before the meeting.

During the 30-minute comment period, PSUSU member Olivia Pace told the board the duct taped mouths symbolize “the way in which we have been silenced as students” by the Board of Trustees and administration.

As Donna Erbs—the parent of a PSU student—took the floor, Nickerson advised the group that it was out of order. Nickerson then called for a 10 minute break. The board would not be returning to this room and, like the winter Board of Trustees meeting before it, this meeting was going to be conducted remotely from an unknown location with a live audio stream available on PSU’s website.

The community members then continued with their own public comment period, where a May 10 student walk-out was announced by Pace.

The rumor was that the Board of Trustees had relocated to an unmarked emergency communications room in the basement of the Engineering Building. Acting on a tweet by a reporter for the Oregonian, this reporter sought out the relocated meeting.

Campus Public Safety Office Chief Philip Zerzan could be seen positioned at the bottom of the staircase leading to the Engineering Building’s basement and so, accordingly, the board room must have been nearby. Zerzan would not tell [the Pacific Sentinel reporter] where the meeting was relocated to and had no comment on the situation in general.

After several jiggled handles of random doors in the basement hallway, a door opened and an armed CPSO officer greeted [the Pacific Sentinel reporter] and asserted, after inquiry, this was not where the board room was located. Carrying on, and having no success, the reporter went back to the mysterious door and noticed the room number was obscured by a yellow sticky note. This time I knocked on the door, and it opened suddenly. I again inquired about the nature of the room, and insisted on being let in to see what was going on. The guard, after ascertaining my identity, said to “hold on” and closed the door. It turns out CPSO had lied.

A short while later, the door opened and I was greeted by PSU Communications Director Scott Gallagher, who invited me into what the Oregonian—the only organization with a reporter inside at the time—was referring to as “the bunker.” This was somewhat awkward because the Pacific Sentinel was not told where the board had relocated to, with earlier inquiring phone calls to Gallagher either missed or ignored.

[The bunker moniker was appropriate as the various maps and security feeds did hint toward the potential usefulness of this room during a real emergency.]

The board was conducting business as usual, and approved a raise in tuition and fees for the 2016–17 school year from 3.3 percent to 3.7 percent depending on whether a student is a resident, nonresident, undergraduate or graduate.

During another board break the students eventually found their way to “the bunker” and could be heard chanting “Disarm PSU.”

At this point PSU Vice President of Finance and Administration Kevin Reynolds remarked that the university has “got enough officers to push [the protesters] to the side when the board walks out.”

This “planned brutality,” as PSUSU member Alyssa Pagan described it, would not be necessary, and after giving over 1,000 signatures to raise campus wages to $15 per hour to a university representative who had emerged from the bunker, the protesters went on their way.

The board, after some tense discussion, also passed a motion to draft a proposal for the board to have an open forum with PSU community members.

PSU President Wim Wiewel said the board meeting had to be moved to the new location because, “It’s very important for the board to be able to conduct its business and that was made impossible in the room where we originally were.”

The legality of this move has been called into question. The Oregonian reported that a local attorney specializing in Oregon’s open meetings laws said he was unsure how the moving of the meeting from a public location to a private location could be considered legal.

The university has not responded to inquiries about the legality of the board meeting’s secretive venue change.