PSU’s desperation and the $100 million that never showed up

Portland State President Wim Wiewel has a lot of egg on his face after the recent cause célèbre regarding a Portland citizen’s fake promise of a $100 million donation to PSU. The university isn’t exactly smelling like a rose afterwards, either: Two PSU employees resigned in the fallout, and the local media has been having a field day pointing out the school’s ineptitude in handling the situation. I won’t rehash the details of the whole situation as it’s been covered already ad nauseam by both local and national press (yes, it made national news).

However, I think something has been missing from this narrative: Why exactly did PSU pant and drool and suspend all manner of critical thinking when this money was promised to them? The answer is simple: PSU is broke, and that money would have been a nice life preserver in a very stormy sea.

Oregon universities rank #47 in nationwide per-student funding. Because of the lack of state funding, endowments or investments the school uses to help fund itself are vital to ensure student success—whether it’s by providing scholarships, improving or building new campus structures or paying the wages of faculty and support staff. The PSU endowment in 2014 was approximately $84 million, a paltry sum compared to the University of Oregon’s $700 million endowment. In fact, of all the public universities in the Oregon University System, PSU has the smallest endowment—despite having the highest enrollment.

So what does this mean for students at PSU? It means, frankly, that the status quo will continue: PSU will have limited funds to pay faculty or do improvements on their infrastructure, tuition prices will continue to rise unchecked and more students will struggle. This is not an inherent flaw unique to Portland or, indeed, Oregon: Schools nationwide struggle to make ends meet.

It’s understandable that Wiewel and the rest of the school were excited about a $100 million donation. The fact that the money never materialized is hardly surprising given the shady nature of the would-be donor. Wiewel and others responsible have been properly chastised and hopefully will employ stronger critical thinking skills when faced with similar situations in the future.

I also hope that the PSU Foundation, Wim Wiewel and everyone else involved in this fiasco realize that not only was this debacle a huge embarrassment for PSU, but they let the students down mightily. The students needed that money. They needed that money to continue to be able to take classes in one of the most culturally rich, diverse cities in the country. They needed that money to ensure top-notch faculty and staff continue to be available to instruct, share with and lead those of us who are taking over the world’s reins. They needed that money so that they could be secure in the knowledge that programs, clubs and other academic opportunities will be available for years to come.

So it isn’t Wiewel or the PSU Foundation that’s suffering the most. It’s the students—who make this school the largest, most diverse university in Oregonthat are suffering the most. I hope the powers that be at PSU know that and next time will do some homework before getting our hopes up.