‘Walk out to save spring term’

On Jan. 30, the Portland State University Student Union hosted a public info session called “There Might Not Be a Spring Term.” Co-sponsored by the Student Action Coalition, Students for Unity, Service Employees International Union and the PSU chapter of the American Association of University Professors, the panelists addressed a range of issues as they sought to contextualize the current possibility of faculty strikes within a broader struggle to protect public higher education.

The info session packed the Multicultural Center with nearly 150 students. Some attendees were coming out to show their support for a strike. Others attended in hopes of securing answers and reassurance.

“Who would lose their visa if classes were canceled spring term?” asked Elona Togrub, a student organizer with PSUSU. “Who would not be able to pay their bills without financial aid?”

Hands went up in the affirmative. Others indicated that they may not be able to graduate on time in the event of a strike.

This informal poll was designed to convey the necessity of a solution to the current deadlock in faculty contract negotiations. The PSU chapter of AAUP, which includes academic professionals in addition to full-time faculty, has been negotiating a contract for the current biennium with the PSU administration since spring 2013.

Panelists included Mary King, president of PSU-AAUP, and Rayleen McMillan of the Associated Students of PSU. Both sought to assuage students’ concerns while simultaneously emphasizing the need for action.

“A strike is a normal way for a union to express its extreme dissatisfaction,” King explained. “We are not expecting to quit our jobs or cancel classes. It is rare that education strikes last more than a few days or a week. Everyone is concerned to end them.”

However, McMillan admitted that at this point no one can say for sure how strikes might play out.

“Other than one staff strike from the 1990s, a strike at PSU is unprecedented,” she explained. “The University Affairs Committee [at ASPSU] is working hard to compile a document with answers to all these questions, but in many cases we are waiting for answers from the administration.”

When asked what students should expect, Scott Gallagher, director of university communications, referred to official language published on the office’s website: “PSU has policies and procedures in place to maintain campus operations in the event of a strike by any group of represented employees, including faculty. Our top priority is to ensure that students remain on track with their courses.”

‘Demanding a plan’

Both sides were scheduled to reach an agreement months ago, but this time faculty say they are standing up against the type of cuts they should have opposed years ago. The current offer on the table does not see PSU-AAUP salaries keeping pace with inflation, at a time when academic departments have also been told to plan for a three to eight percent cut to their programming budgets.

The administration does not comment on negotiations that are ongoing.

PSU-AAUP’s current contract has been renewed through the end of February. If no resolution has been reached, at that point faculty could declare an impasse. Thirty days after an impasse is declared, the union would be eligible to authorize a strike. This timeline places a potential strike right at the beginning of spring term.

Staff and faculty panelists attested to the broader crisis in higher education, where money at both state and federal levels has been diverted from public universities.

“If we live in one of the richest countries in the world, then why are students going neck-deep into debt to get a college degree?” Michael Chamberlain of the Office of Academic Innovation asked the crowd. “We need to roll back historically high tuition, roll back historically high debt.”

“We are demanding a plan from this administration. We are not asking for any miracles—just a plan.”

‘A coordinated mass walkout’

Panelists clarified that the current negotiations represent more at stake than one biennial contract; faculty assert that the current priorities of the administration threaten to permanently jeopardize quality of education, and true change will only result from shared governance and increased transparency.

Cameron Frank, a StAC organizer, recounted the demise of Article 44, a contract item proposed by AAUP at the bargaining table. This article addressed caps on class sizes and on faculty work loads, and if passed would have tied PSU-AAUP salaries to the averages established by comparable schools. The article also requested the establishment of a task force to set criteria for the review of administrative performance.

“The administration refused to even acknowledge these demands,” Frank said. “They went so far as to call the concept of administrative review ‘ludicrous.’”

Frank asserted that students need to find alternative ways to “demand the changes that those profiting off our student loan debts are not going to make for us.”
With the primary source of PSU revenue coming from students, Frank said, students hold greater power than many realize.

“StAC proposes a coordinated mass walkout to save spring term,” Frank concluded. “With enough folks we can send a clear message of solidarity between students and faculty, and put the kind of concerted pressure on the administration that could actually stand to change their position at the bargaining table.”

Regarding the possibility of a student walkout, Gallagher commented, “It is students’ right to pursue such an action, and they can exercise that right if they want to do that.”

As the two-hour session came to a close, one student attendee evoked the student protests from the 1970s that are memorialized in black-and-white photos displayed in the stairwell of the
PSU bookstore.

“The university clearly celebrates that walkout as an important part of PSU’s history and culture,” he pointed out. “So we’re just carrying on the legacy.”

Editor’s note: It has recently come to our attention that Sara Swetzoff has been reporting on issues concerning the Portland State University Student Union while also maintaining personal involvement with the organization. The Vanguard recognizes this is a conflict of interest that contradicts our mission to serve as a fair and balanced news source for the Portland State 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.