On Thursday, Jan. 16, representatives of eight local unions and student organizations came together for a community discussion on the state of public services and public-sector employment across Portland. Called “Strikes on the Horizon?”, the event filled one of the larger rooms in Smith Memorial Student Union with nearly 150 attendees.
Portland State sociology professor Jose Padin, a faculty senator for the social sciences and a spokesperson for the PSU chapter of the American Association of University Professors, kicked off the panel with an ominous description of the situation at hand.
“There are dark clouds over our region as far as the eye can see—for working people, for educators and for others. We have two of the largest public education institutions [in Portland] on the verge of striking, PSU and Portland Public Schools,” he warned.
“Our institutions are being run by a class of people that [are] an enemy to our mission,” he continued. “To them, education and public service is a secondary interest. They are interested in their own personal careers.”
Across the board, panelists ranging from schoolteachers to bus drivers concurred that quality of public services and employee conditions are being traded for top-heavy managerial structures that mimic or directly hire out corporate management.
In the context of PSU, panelists asserted, this means increasing upper-level administrative positions and less money for academic departments.
“There is only one group that has benefited from the increase in tuition, and that is administrators,” Padin told the audience. “In the last decade we have seen increases in their salaries of over 50 percent. Our president makes over a half million dollars a year, plus fully paid housing. Yet they are asking us every year to roll back costs.”
Student speakers Rayleen McMillian and Cameron Frank echoed Padin’s sentiment.
McMillian is an elected representative with the Associated Students of PSU and Frank is a member of PSU’s Student Action Coalition. Both have attended the contract negotiations regularly for the past nine months.
“Faculty salaries are not the reason our tuition is going up, and that must be clarified,” Frank said. “The fact is that the number of executive administrators has doubled over the past two decades.”
“It’s extremely disheartening to see so many dollars spent outside of the classroom,” McMillian lamented.
In response to these claims, Scott Gallagher of university communications did not deny an increase in administrative hires.
“It has risen–so it is true. But why has it happened? There are lots of reasons for that. Number one, over the last two decades we’ve seen a huge increase in enrollment.”
Gallagher explained that the increase in administrators is more complex than it appears—some personnel were simply reclassified, meaning they are doing the same job as before but now they come under the category of administrator.
Other administrative staff were added in the areas of services that directly support students, such as the Resource Center for Students with Children or the new Office of Global Diversity and Inclusion.
As for the annual raises taken by the highest-earning administrators, Diane Saunders of the Oregon University System explained, “We are in the national market, and we have to compete to get high-quality administrators.”
Without sufficient state funds, explained both Gallagher and Saunders, public universities across the country are forced to pay big money for management that is qualified to address and assuage their financial situation at the institutional level.
“In order to continue to provide a quality education to Oregonians, we have to be more flexible and work harder to find other sources of revenue. Because we can no longer depend upon the state to do it,” Gallagher said.
Saunders offered an example of what things were like in decades past: “Twenty years ago, students paid about 30 percent of what it cost to educate them on an annual basis. Costs were very reasonable. I went to PSU class of ’81, and my tuition was $1,000 a year.”
According to Saunders, the early ‘90s marked a critical shift in higher education.
“Two main things occurred in the ‘90s,” she explained. “In ’92 the state became the primary funder of K-12 public schools. That took away funding from universities immediately. The second thing that happened was mandatory sentencing for prisoners. That meant a lot more people in our prisons, and a huge increase in cost [to the state].”
Today students cover more than 70 percent of the university’s expenditures, and the state kicks in only 12 percent of the general budget.
Gallagher summarized, “When you have such minimal financial support for higher education from the state, nobody wins.”
However, PSU staff and faculty assert that, regardless of the decline in state funding, soaking up the existing budget with swelling administrative salaries and corporate-style campus development is indefensible and unsustainable.
“They waste huge amounts of money on real estate deals and other questionable priorities that have nothing to do with academics,” said Michael Chamberlain of the Office of Academic Innovation.
By striking, explained Padin in an email, faculty aim to defend what they see as the indispensable foundation of any successful university: excellence in education.
“In my view, and I believe this is widely shared, PSU faculty (including academic professionals), will strike if, and when, it is clear we don’t have any other option left to secure a legally-binding agreement from the PSU administration that protects and advances the interest of students, faculty and quality education at PSU,” Padin wrote.
“We don’t want a strike. But I believe we must, and we will strike when that becomes the only way to prevent something that is far worse.”
Thursday’s panel was coordinated by Portland Rising, a movement organized by Jobs With Justice.
For more information, visit jwjpdx.org/campaigns/portland-rising.
Editor’s note: It has recently come to our attention that Sara Swetzoff has been reporting on issues concerning the potential faculty strike while also maintaining personal involvement with the Portland State University Student Union—an organization that has come out in full support of the PSU chapter of the American Association of University Professors. The Vanguard recognizes this is a conflict of interest that contradicts our mission to serve as a fair and balanced news source for the PSU community. We apologize for failing to catch this problem before the stories made it to print and have since taken action to ensure it will not happen again.