Symbolism is not enough

This op-ed appeared in the ACBJ higher ed newsletter, The National Observer.

This month Portland State University will honor Juneteenth, the day that celebrates the end of slavery in America, as a university holiday for the first time. We are joining other institutions across the country in this symbolic calendar change as we grapple with the horrific death of George Floyd and so many others — glaring evidence of ongoing systematic and harmful discrimination.

But we all know that symbolism is not enough. The effort to eradicate racism and build a truly equitable university requires a sustained institutional effort and support from the top. I want to share some of my own journey in the hopes that it is helpful to other white leaders engaged in this work.

I’ve been involved in equity efforts in higher education for years, but the experiences of the last year have added up to a personal reckoning for me and has led me to commit to learning much more deeply about the life experiences of others from different backgrounds and cultures and to focus my leadership responsibilities in a higher education institution on racial justice.

I have made equity and racial justice the top strategic priority of my presidency at Portland State. Why? Because if we can be successful in eliminating persistent and structural racism, we will usher in success for all students, more equitable working conditions for all employees, and create an environment where people feel safe and can prosper. We are in the process of launching a number of innovations to address racial justice, working harder than ever before to understand discriminatory practices and make changes that advance the success and opportunity of all.

If white leaders sincerely wish to contribute to positive change that advances racial justice, we need to undertake personal journeys. For too long, we have sat back with our good intentions — around here we call it “Portland polite” — and relied on people of color not only to lead the charge on diversity and equity, but also to educate us and help us understand. But that’s not fair. It’s too much to ask people of color to do all of the work to educate us.

As members of the dominant culture, we have a responsibility to not only provide opportunities for people of color — which we should be doing every day — but also to take some time to educate ourselves. Diversify the media you consume, pick up a book that can help you frame the issue of race in a new way. It’s an important first step in starting to make meaningful change.

For me, a book I have found very helpful in my journey is “Me and White Supremacy,” by Layla Saad. It is guiding me through the process of personal understanding and challenging my own biases as well as more clearly seeing the structural racism that exists in so many corners — of the university that I lead and in society at large. Through that text and other books and articles, I feel better equipped to work in partnership with people of color, as an ally to the fight against oppression and the effort for meaningful progress.

Societal change isn’t easy. Portland State, similar to other universities, has been targeted by those on the right as a purveyor of “woke studies” degrees. But racial equity is as much a strategic priority as a moral imperative. As white leaders, we must persist in the effort to uncover and repair harm. It’s about the people in our organizations and our communities — not about us.

We, too, will rise

Oregon’s poet laureate Kim Stafford writes alone every morning in a small shed in his yard, fueled by coffee and inspired by a desire to be “a servant of the world.” 

The Oregonian recently took us – from a safe distance, of course – inside Stafford’s world. An educator, Stafford tells his students that the news only tells part of the story. It’s up to the rest of us to tell the other parts. That’s what I hope this blog will do – tell the full story of Portland State University during a spring like no other, in a world seemingly stilled but still simmering with activity and ideas.

As I said in a message to campus earlier this month, none of us anticipated that the spring term would look quite like this. In many ways, this crisis has brought out the best in our university, and I intend to celebrate our successes while also being candid about what we can do better. I’ll give you my take on what we are doing as a university to keep our students on track while we help flatten the coronavirus pandemic’s curve and protect our university community. 

I’ll tell you honestly: I miss seeing people, and I miss the energy of students and the hum of campus. The days in self-isolation seem to both drag and fly. I hope this blog provides us all a chance to connect, to engage, and to feel a sense of hope. Remember: you’re not alone. We’re all in this together. 

In the words of Stafford:

Tiny virus wears the crown?

Pandemic thinks it’s got us down?

We, too, will rise.

Celebrating some much-needed good news

Spring term gives us so many reasons to feel optimistic. We’re moving quickly toward the end of the academic year. Federal relief funding is arriving at PSU, much of it earmarked for direct student financial aid, and soon all of us will be eligible for COVID-19 vaccines.

That’s a lot of good news coming to us all at once.

By May 1, all Oregonians over the age of 18 will become eligible for the vaccine. I urge everyone to get vaccinated when they can — unless your doctor advises against it — and protect yourself and our community from the virus.

I’m also heartened by the news of more federal relief on its way to Portland State, including more than $30 million that will be set aside for direct financial aid for students. I know it will take some time for many to recover from the past year — both economically and emotionally — but knowing these resources are coming into place I hope will plant the seed of hope for those who are struggling. The relief funding will also help PSU offset financial losses that would otherwise burden the university for years to come.

The unpredictable nature of COVID-19 requires us to remain cautious and vigilant, but vaccination rates of Oregonians are on the rise and state health authorities are working with universities on a safe reopening plan. Like many of you, I eagerly anticipate our safe return to PSU’s campus in the fall.

I am grateful for the students who have persevered through weeks of Zoom classes, found new ways to connect with each other and continued to shine academically.

I am grateful for our faculty whose grace, grit and creativity allowed PSU to continue to foster the work of learning and research that serves our wonderful students and beats at the heart of the Portland community.

And I am grateful for every professional staff member who kept Portland State not only operational but excellent despite the many challenges of the past year.

I look forward to seeing you all on campus in a few short months. In the meantime, take care of each other and Go Vikings!

PSU stands with Minnesota and Georgia, calls for justice

Our country has witnessed with horror the untimely deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, black men whose deaths have come even as we struggle to absorb the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on minoritized communities. All around us, people of color are dying at a higher rate, making further visible the structural inequities that pervade every area of the American experience.

As Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said, “These are things that have been brewing in this country for 400 years.”

It is easy to feel overwhelmed by these events and give in to despair. But we must not give up because we know that inaction supports injustice, inequity and racism.

We must deepen our work to make our community one where justice and equity are central to who we are. We must work towards equity and justice at Portland State, in Portland, in Oregon, in America, and across the world. It will take intentional and collective action to dismantle systemic structures of oppression.

We stand with communities in Minnesota and Georgia calling for justice, and we affirm our commitment to doing our own work to ensure that justice and equity are a core part of all of PSU.

Today, and always, black lives matter.

Stephen Percy, President
Julie Caron, Interim Vice President, Global Diversity & Inclusion and Title IX & ADA/504 Coordinator
Ame Lambert, incoming Vice President, Global Diversity & Inclusion

Alumni ignite creative ideas, solutions

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERANearly 179,000 people have earned a PSU degree. That’s a lot of people who are driven to make a difference in a world that needs them desperately. Here are two quick stories about how PSU alumni are boldly putting their values into action.

With COVID-19 testing kits in short supply outside of the Metro area, Portland State University alumnus Jeremy Filip found a way to develop an interim test for Southern Oregon.

Filip drew upon his experience working under Ken Stedman, a biology professor and virologist, and modified an instrument at Asante Lab in Medford to begin testing patients for hospitals in the area. As Stedman told PSU News

“… Jeremy was working on determining the sequence of some new viruses that we had discovered. This turned out to be very difficult because of how weird these viruses are,” said Stedman, who runs PSU’s Extreme Virus Lab. “So Jeremy had to try lots of different techniques to solve the problem. This kind of problem solving apparently has served him well, so that he was able to establish COVID-19 testing in Southern Oregon.”

In another example of PSU alumni supporting our community, a group of 2019 MBA alumni developed a pro bono enterprise called the Portland Business Support Project to help the city’s economy stay afloat.

By offering free consulting, the collective of more than 20 prominent professionals in finance, human relations, lending, operations and management is helping about 20 small businesses in fields including law, hospitality and construction.

“Sustainability and giving back to the businesses around us are the foundations of the PSU MBA program, and we wanted to do something positive,” project volunteer Jennifer Greenberg said.

I cannot tell you how much it cheers us at PSU to see our alumni taking on the challenges of today with creativity, determination and optimism. Have your own story to share about alumni making a difference? Please share it in the comments, and thank you for being a part of PSU.

Advisors find a way to support Vikings

LarryBrister_-6213The nearly 300 students-athletes at PSU have a tough goal to reach during our remote spring term – meet or beat the record they set for grade-point average winter term.

As a group, PSU student-athletes earned a 3.29 GPA last term. Thirty-two players earned a perfect 4.0. Thirty-six players made the Dean’s list. The women’s tennis team served up a combined 3.85 GPA. 

It’s a terrific set of accomplishments by students who keep some of the most hectic schedules on campus, juggling practices, training, games, travel, mandatory study hall, and classes. And now, just like every other student on campus, they’re trying to keep up with classes from a distance during an unprecedented disruption.

Enter the three academic advisors assigned to student-athletes. These professionals must understand the academic requirements for every department on campus. Where in the past they would have met in person with student-athletes, they’re now relying on the phone and Zoom to keep students on track this quarter and help them plan for future terms. This provides important structure and accountability to students-athletes who have temporarily lost the anchor and outlet of sports.

“If they are at this level as a Division 1 athlete, more than likely they have been playing this sport since they were about 10,” says Val Cleary, director of athletics. “This is the first time in their life that they have not been able to play their sport.”

Vikings are mourning what they lost this academic year –  as are all of us. But academic excellence won’t be among the losses they reckon with – and that’s largely thanks to the support of their advisors.

So to our high-achieving Viking athletes and the advisors who provide them critical support: I see you. I respect you. And I think you make a great team.


PSU staff innovating to serve students

Branden HarveyCare and concern for students has always powered the Portland State staff. The Coronavirus emergency has galvanized many of our talented staff members, who are devising creative solutions to new problems. I couldn’t be more pleased with or grateful for their contributions.

Here are just a few examples of our staff members putting ideas into action to keep the campus community engaged and healthy this term.

The Transfer & Returning Student Resource Center has organized a virtual financial coaching session to connect current and returning students to the community and answer common questions about finance and budget. 

The Portland State Programming Board has developed a virtual midterm stress relief session.

Campus Rec is offering everything from Abs to Zumba in a virtual setting. Check their online schedule for class times. Their Zoom Pictionary League kicks off May 6 and is open to students, faculty, staff and all Campus Rec members. Register as part of a team or as a free agent.

Unwilling to let a closed campus stand in the way of giving prospective students a taste of PSU, admissions has developed a virtual campus tour. KATU 2 took notice of the innovation and featured it in a recent story.

University Career Center staff are offering remote career counseling by appointment or drop-in. Check with the career center staff to sign up for a Zoom webinar about effective job interview techniques.

The innovative spirit of the PSU culture once again is fueling creativity in the face of adversity and opportunity.


Leaping to cover the distance

Today, the spirit of PSU looks like a dance instructor doing a curricular pirouette to bring her ballet class to students’ home computers.

It looks like a math professor redesigning his course on the fly so students can visualize COVID-19 information and viral genome data.

It looks like the College of Education launching a six-week series to help parents cope with teaching their own children at home.

It looks like the Speech & Hearing clinic pivoting from in-person internships to telepractice to ensure students finish their master’s programs on time.

It looks like creativity, flexibility, resilience, and service.

In the days leading up to the start of the Spring term, PSU faculty converted roughly 3,500 sections from face-to-face instruction to the remote format. It was a heroic effort, aided by an impressive assortment of resources developed by OAI.

Behind every successful class are faculty and staff who are stepping up to this new reality with energy and determination.

Yet it’s a gut-wrenching time for educators of all levels who are witnessing so many inequities laid bare by this crisis. We were reminded of this by Oregon’s Teacher of the Year, PSU alumna Mercedes Muñoz, who wrote in a recent Facebook post:

“Tell me, does hanging out on a zoom call with your family feel the same as bantering over the dinner table? Does your heart fill up in the same ways? I can assure you it does not. Likewise, our teaching practices are intimate …

“See, in a learning community, I am the equalizer … My job is, in fact, to both cover the distance and dismantle it.

“In these uncertain times, the well of my compassion has not run dry. But my tolerance for educational inequities has. I have not yet learned how to seal up the cracks on a computer screen but every day I am trying.”

To the PSU faculty and staff: I see you – leaping to cover the distance and wielding the knowledge that will dismantle it. And I am so honored to work by your side.

A big step forward on affordability

One of the things I have always liked best about Portland State is our commitment to providing a college education to students who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to pursue a degree. This access mission keeps us real. We focus on what universities, at their core, are supposed to do: offer opportunities to students to enrich their lives so they can go out and make a better world.

We do all we can to keep costs down for students and their families, knowing that a bump in tuition here or there can be a breaking point. In fact, we’re now the second most affordable public university in Oregon, and a full $2,000 less per year than the other two big research universities.

I’m proud to announce that we’re taking yet another step to help engaged students with limited means pay for college. Today we’re rolling out Four Years Free, a program that covers tuition and fees for students who meet these criteria:

  • Resident of Oregon
  • Entering PSU as a first-year freshman in fall 2017
  • 3.4 or better high school GPA
  • Receive a federal Pell grant
  • Enrolled full-time

Students who qualify must apply for and accept federal and state grants. For these students, any remaining cost of tuition and fees won’t be an issue at Portland State.

There’s a lot of talk nationally and in Oregon about college affordability. We are not just joining that conversation. We’re doing something about it.

My to-do list

As I enter my ninth and final academic year as PSU President, I will be working hard to move the university forward on several fronts, and to ensure a smooth transition. Let’s call this my “No lame Viking” post.

Earlier this week, the PSU Board of Trustees approved my three key goals for the year. I’ll give a brief rundown of each.

Implement our strategic plan. The plan lists more than 70 separate initiatives that we all want to accomplish. Almost half are well under way or already ongoing. Keep in mind, this is a five-year plan, so we won’t get to everything in the first year.

We are, however, making notable progress in a number of areas. One is student cost containment, such as reducing the cost of textbooks, adding flexible and online courses and creating a faster pathway from bachelor’s to master’s degrees. Another is in our commitment to equity, in which we are working toward more culturally responsive curricula and classroom experiences.

Increase revenues. We have a number of opportunities to bring more resources to PSU in the coming months. When the Legislature convenes in February, I will once again be part of a joint effort by all seven public university presidents to make a case for solid investment in Oregon higher education. Much depends on the outcome of Ballot Measure 97, the $3 billion statewide corporate tax proposal. If it passes, we will push for a substantial share. If it fails, we will strive to avoid harmful cuts.

In the same vein, I continue to work with the College Affordability and Success Coalition to come up with $25 million a year in additional local revenue for PSU. This effort sprang out of the proposed regional business tax for PSU scholarships. Two other tracks we’re working on include beefing up philanthropic giving through our Foundation, and working to attract more out-of-state students.

Assist in transition. We already have a search committee and search firm in place to start the process of recruiting candidates to replace me. I have been working with the Executive Committee to increase collaboration among departments so the university can continue to operate smoothly under new leadership.

It’s going to be a busy year. I am confident PSU will continue its upward trajectory.