‘We Stand United’

As Portland State prepares to wrap up fall term and many students get ready to go home for the holidays, prolonged contract negotiations between the administration and the largest faculty union on campus are seeing almost 1,200 instructional faculty and academic professionals at PSU end the quarter without a new contract for 2013–2015. The next step is a two-day mediation in mid-December. The current contract, NOW on its second extension, is set to expire at the end of the month. If mediation fails, the university can impose its own contract. At that point, the two parties can either continue negotiating, or the union can authorize a strike.

The union, PSU’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, has been in contract negotiations with the university since April, when both sides presented their positions.

The AAUP on campus has been focusing its efforts on, among other things, improving wages for all faculty and providing more stable work conditions for fixed-term faculty—full-time instructors teaching on renewable short-term contracts.

The university has stood fast to its original proposals, reportedly arguing that dire financial straits and the need for flexibility are limiting its options. The union has adjusted course as a result.

“We’ve come down considerably from a lot of our wishes and requests,” said Ronald Narode, AAUP’s vice president of collective bargaining, in an interview. “We go into mediation with a compromised package from AAUP.”

Mary King, president of PSU’s chapter of the AAUP, said that while she’s optimistic that the union and administration will eventually arrive at a deal, there’s more work to do.

“The thing about mediation is that it’s not as facilitative as it sounds,” she said. “You just sit in two separate rooms and the mediator goes back and forth and asks if you’ve changed your mind.”

Among other salary adjustments related to tenure, the union is looking for a 2.5 percent cost of living increase to keep faculty salaries in line with inflation.

According to the union’s Nov. 19 bargaining report, the administration’s proposal is for an across the board increase of 1 percent per year.

“[The administration’s] offer is not even to keep up with inflation,” King said.

Conditions for fixed-term faculty have also been under union scrutiny. According to King, two-thirds of these faculty are on one-year contracts, and should they face termination, they get a maximum of six months’ notice.

Fixed-term faculty teach half of the student credit hours taken at PSU, and King and others in the union say that without longer contracts, the curricular stability and relationships that students need with their professors and instructors will be increasingly difficult to come by. AAUP is looking to extend both the lengths of these contracts and their termination notice period.

King said the administration is proposing no multi-year contracts and no notice greater than six months.

“They want to go backwards from the status quo, which is already bad,” King said.

“Right now, it doesn’t seem like what’s on offer is something we’d be able to recommend to our members for ratification.”

Scott Gallagher, director of communications at PSU, said that while he’s unable to comment on the particulars of this round of contract bargaining, PSU does have a pressing financial situation.

“We have no indications that we’re going to be getting [increased] money from the state,” toward PSU’s general fund next year, he said.

In a Nov. 5 letter to the campus community, PSU President Wim Wiewel said the university was looking for ways to contend with an anticipated $15 million budget shortfall for 2014–2015.

“Eighty-one percent of our operating budget is essentially personnel costs,” Gallagher said, adding that the primary source of revenue for PSU is tuition dollars.

According to data prepared by the Oregon University System, faculty salaries at PSU rank last among 10 “peer universities” from around the country for the 2011–2012 academic year. Universities on this list include San Diego State University and the University of Illinois at Chicago.

In an expanded analysis that compares PSU, Oregon State University and the University of Oregon against a larger group of comparator schools, PSU is last of these 19 institutions. This list includes such schools as the University of Washington in Seattle and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Gallagher said that in making these comparisons, it’s important to compare apples to apples.

“People forget that PSU is a very young school,” he said. “We haven’t been a research university for as long as OSU and U of O,” which affects the kinds of funding that the university can attract.

“We do have over 100,000 alumni, but it’s harder to raise money from alumni when you don’t have a strong sports program or a really long history,” he said.

Earlier this year, AAUP commissioned a study that used publicly available financial information about PSU in the university’s library to examine how the money at PSU is spent.

The October 2013 study, called “How PSU prioritizes its money,” was written by researchers at Florida International University and found that between 2002 and 2012, “the cost of tuition and fees increased 86 percent for resident undergraduates and 79 percent for resident graduate students.” Accounting for inflation, the study found that tuition for resident undergraduates at PSU rose 158 percent since 1987.

It also found that staff levels at PSU steadily rose between 2002 and 2012, with tenured faculty numbers increasing by nearly 38 percent and instructors by nearly 50 percent. During this time, the number of administrators rose by 54 percent. Tenure-track faculty fell by 5.9 percent.

The study also found that salary growth between faculty and administrators was uneven, saying that average salaries for fixed-term and tenure-track faculty rose around 1 percent over the decade. For tenured faculty, these increases were closer to 0.6 percent.

“When we compare the salary growth figures of PSU faculty to those of PSU administrators at the assistant dean and above level over the decade,” it said, “it is clear that the administrators’ salaries have stayed well above inflation, while faculty salaries have not.”

The study’s authors found that during this time, the salaries for vice presidents and assistant vice presidents rose 29 and 23 percent, respectively. Provosts and vice provosts saw increases of 56 and 54 percent, respectively.

President Wiewel, in a Nov. 26 follow-up email to his Nov. 5 letter, announced that administrative salaries were going to be reined in, saying that “unrepresented unclassified administrators and staff earning an annual salary of $100,000 or more will not receive general pay increases in 2013–14 and 2014–15.” This move, he continued, would save PSU approximately $860,000 over those two years.

Gallagher said that this would affect approximately 80 administrative-level staff.

“In general, I think it’s clear that the administration is taking the budget very seriously, and we are indeed looking at the whole university,” Gallagher said.

“That’s a concern that others have had, and we’re still working on it.”

‘Shared around the world’

AAUP’s bargaining negotiations are not happening in isolation.

On Nov. 19, AAUP and other teaching unions and workers’ rights advocates made appearances at a pre-bargaining rally. Beginning on the sky bridge between Smith Memorial Student Union and Cramer Hall, about 250 people marched to the steps of the Market Center building, where PSU administration is housed.

Kelly Cowan, president of the PSU Faculty Association, which represents part-time and adjunct faculty, criticised the university’s spending priorities.

“The university is saying there’s a huge crisis going on right now,” he said via megaphone to the crowd on the sky bridge. “They’re saying that if they don’t make a bunch of cuts, everything’s going to fall apart.

“But you know what? We’ve heard that before. We hear that constantly,” Cowan continued. “And who do they need the cuts from? It’s always the workers, it’s always the people who make this university run.”

Rachel Hibbard, an adjunct professor at PSU’s School of Art and Design, has been teaching at PSU for 15 years. In an interview, she said that she thinks the university is moving in the wrong direction and that she’s observed a disconnect between the faculty and the decisions that are being made at the administrative level.

“I’ve seen a really dramatic change in the level of administrative pay and then this lack of serious input from the large faculty about running the school,” she said. “It’s become separated.”

A recent survey run by PSU-AAUP sought to gauge faculty perspectives, both of their salaries and workload as well as their opinions of the university’s administration. The survey had 395 respondents.

Asked whether they believe that PSU administrators have a good understanding of the faculty’s academic mission and are taking the university in a positive direction, the majority replied that they “completely disagree.”

Francisca Romero, president of the state secretaries’ organization within the National Association of Salvadoran Teachers in El Salvador, spoke to the crowd once it had arrived at Market Center.

“It’s very important that students, like employees and faculty, are involved together,” she said through a translator.

“These problems are not individual, they are shared around the world…Around the world, in schools, everywhere—we’re all sharing the same problems.”

Gwen Sullivan is president of the Portland Association of Teachers. The PAT and Portland Public Schools are also in a contract standoff—PPS declared an impasse in those negotiations on Nov. 20, making a strike possible.

“As I stand up here, I look around and I see people, I feel like I’m looking in the mirror. We are dealing with the same thing,” Sullivan said.

“As we get closer, as you guys get closer, I want to remind you of something. Your students are counting on you, they are watching you. You have to make sure to stand up for yourself…Your students are counting on you to lead the way.”

Correction: Dec. 3, 2013
An earlier version of this story misstated that Francisca Romero was the president of the National Teacher’s Union of El Salvador. She is the president of the Department (State) Secretaries Organization within the National Association of Salvadoran Teachers in El Salvador.