Portland State’s 18th Annual Simon Benson Awards Dinner, held on Thursday, Nov. 9 at the Oregon Convention Center, featured keynote speaker Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III. Sullenberger is an American military veteran and retired commercial airline pilot who conducted an emergency plane landing on the Hudson River on Jan. 15, 2009.
Sullenberger’s life has changed dramatically since US Airways Flight 1549, receiving mixed feedback for his decision to make an emergency landing when his plane hit a flock of Canadian geese shortly after taking off from LaGuardia Airport in New York City.
The collision dismantled the plane’s engines, leaving Sullenberger to make a series of important decisions within seconds. Sullenger landed Flight 1549 in the Hudson River without any functional mechanical assistance, saving the lives of all 155 passengers on board.
Sullenberger has since been hailed a hero and was personally praised by former United States Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Obama made a point to call Sullenberger immediately after the landing, inviting him to the following week’s inauguration ceremony.
Sullenberger accepted under the condition of bringing the entire flight crew and their families. Obama accepted Sullenberger’s terms and later joked with Sullenberger’s wife Lorraine Sullenberger, asking her, “You aren’t letting all this attention get to his head are you?”
Lorraine replied, “Mr. President, the world might think he’s a hero but he still snores!”
Although Sullenberger understands why people call him a hero, he is reluctant to self-identify as such and argues the term “hero” is used too much.
“When we overuse [hero] we dilute its meaning,” Sullenberger said. “We diminish what’s an important concept which I think, when it’s used appropriately, goes to the heart of what it means to be the best of being human. But it’s nice to be thought of that way.”
Before the Benson Awards program began, Portland State Vanguard interviewed Capt. Sullenberger to discuss his connection to academic fundraising specifically, a stark difference from his leadership involvement in commercial aviation.
“Well, I have children,” Sullenberger said. “That’s my connection. My wife and I have two daughters, who are now adults, and we’ve always been involved in education since they were in preschool.”
Sullenberger said his piloting schedule allowed him to be very active in his children’s education early on, something he continued to do throughout their college educations.
“My mother was a first grade teacher for 25 years in a small Texas town where I grew up,” Sullenberger said. “So I think for all those reasons it was something that really mattered to us. We know how important education is, and it’s a way of leveraging one’s future and providing more possibilities.”
Over the last decade, Sullenberger has been an active advocate for commercial aviation safety practices and union worker rights, and testified before the U.S. House of Representatives to warn against airline hiring practices involving preferential pilot hiring of less experienced pilots at lower salaries.
Vanguard asked Sullenberger how this business trend has carried over into the U.S. education system. “I think in every field we need to value important things…that make the most difference, save the most lives, and provide the most value to society,” Sullenberger said. “If we don’t, we won’t be able to attract the best and brightest, whether that’s in teaching or being a professional pilot. I think the markets alone don’t always work in the direction of public good. Certainly not for the long term.”
PSU, along with many comparable universities, has a long-standing trend of hiring adjunct instructors with short-term part-time employment contracts, requiring many adjunct staff to work for multiple college institutions to make ends meet. The contracts typically don’t qualify adjuncts for healthcare benefits, furthering economic hardship for these instructors.
Members of the PSU Faculty Association have expressed concerns this practice compromises quality and focus of PSU’s education offerings. This political and economic standard carries over into student welfare, with some students currently struggling to afford annual increases in tuition and cost of living in Portland.
Vanguard asked Sullenberger if he had any advice for PSU students facing the educational, economic and political uncertainties that have followed last year’s election.
“I certainly do, and I share those concerns,” Sullenberger said. “I’m shocked. Disgusted. Angered. And very, very concerned. But that makes me more determined to do what I can to resist, to fight back, in every way I can [and] with every means of my disposal for as long as necessary.”
“We must remain engaged,” Sullenberger continued. “As much as we want to turn off the news and not watch it, we have a civic duty to be informed of others and to make important decisions based on facts and not on fears, and certainly not on falsehoods. So I would say [to the PSU commmunity] get involved, know the facts and vote.”