Divestment proposal is divisive, ill-informed

The Associated Students of Portland State University International Affairs Committee introduced a resolution to student government on May 23 calling for PSU to divest from companies doing business with the Israeli military. The resolution follows a recommendation from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which was started in 2005 by pro-Palestinian organizations seeking international pressure on Israel to end settlements in occupied territories and other measures. The BDS resolution calls for divestment from companies such as Caterpillar and Hewlett Packard.

As President, I support the right of students to express political, economic and social opinions. In this case, however, I think the resolution is divisive and ill-informed.

As an initial matter, it is important to note that Portland State University does not directly invest its funds. We are one of six Oregon public universities whose funds are deposited in the Public University Fund managed by the Oregon State Treasurer, who is prohibited by law from holding any equity investments. Thus, the resolution has no practical effect and is intended as a political statement.

More importantly, I do not support this resolution because I am concerned by the divisiveness and tenor of the conversation that has taken us to this place. There is no question that members of the PSU community have divergent views about Israel, Palestine and the Middle East in general. Robust debate is central to the educational mission of a public university. So it is not clear why the ASPSU International Affairs Committee feels it is appropriate to dictate an opinion about the policies of one nation when there are multiple governments and corporations whose policies and practices we may disagree with.

We are responsible for respecting the rights of all members of our campus community. The tone and tenor of the BDS movement has made members of our community feel unsafe and unwelcome at PSU, and it is not acceptable to marginalize or scapegoat them. Anti-Semitism cannot and will not be tolerated on our campus.

We place a high value on the cultures, religions and political views that make up the rich mosaic of our community. I believe this resolution would divide us at a time when we are striving to nurture our diverse and inclusive campus environment.

A response to The Oregonian’s editorial board

Note: This is an op-ed I wrote with PSU Foundation Board Chair Mark Rosenbaum in response to a particularly harsh editorial in The Oregonian.

By Wim Wiewel and Mark Rosenbaum

We at Portland State University are puzzled by today’s editorial in The Oregonian that describes the pledge by local business leaders to help raise millions for PSU students as a “disaster.”

Really? Our current and future students and their families across the metro area use words like “enthusiastic” and “excited” to describe the prospect of more than $25 million a year going toward scholarships and student support such as advising and hiring faculty.

Strangely, the Oregonian/OregonLive editorial board dismisses such student benefits as “incidental.” With 70 percent of our 28,000 students dependent on financial aid to attend college, the benefits of this new college affordability coalition between PSU and business leaders should be obvious.

Many are unaware that students at PSU have greater need than their counterparts at University of Oregon and Oregon State not only because of their finances but also because PSU receives about $5,000 less per student. The disparity is driven primarily by PSU’s lower undergraduate tuition and our urban campus that draws far more metro students than out-of-state students who pay higher tuition.

Let’s be clear: We proposed a metro business tax because chronic underfunding of higher education by the state has resulted in increases in tuition, student debt and the number of students who can’t afford PSU or drop out for financial reasons. We need a long-term solution to reverse this trend.

The Portland Business Alliance recognizes our need but opposed the tax. Rather than wage an expensive and confrontational campaign, we have come together to develop an alternative that not only will support PSU but help forge deeper connections between us and the PBA’s 1,850 big and small companies in Multnomah, Washington, Clackamas and Clark counties.

That’s an unprecedented breakthrough that ought to be applauded by The Oregonian, as it is by political and community leaders. This is how metro Portland moves forward, in contrast to gridlock in Washington, D.C., and a campaign year already characterized by cynical attack ads and hostile rhetoric.

We recognize that this is just the beginning of what will be a long process to determine how the money will be raised. Business leaders have identified potential sources as philanthropy, a new state funding allocation based on need and an alternative regional tax. Raising $25 million a year is an ambitious goal, and it will take an ambitious partnership to get there.

Greg Ness, president and CEO of The Standard and chair of the Oregon Business Council, who will co-chair the affordability coalition, summed up the significance of the agreement: “The collective human and financial resources of all of us are better put to use solving this problem rather than engaging in a damaging and divisive political campaign.”

That makes sense. Metro business leaders depend on us to produce skilled graduates for their success. PSU generated $1.44 billion into the local economy last year. More than 100,000 PSU alumni live and work in the metro area. They are scientists and engineers at Intel, designers at Nike, physicians and nurses at OHSU, teachers in metro schools, tech startup innovators and small business owners.

From a personal standpoint, both of us have worked for years to build public support and increase private giving for PSU. We welcome the challenge of working for another year or two with business to make this commitment a reality. Our students and our community depend on it.

New coalition to raise millions for PSU

I am pleased to announce that Portland State University and regional business leaders have joined ranks to raise millions of dollars annually for PSU scholarships and student success measures.

We have formed the College Affordability and Success Coalition, which I will co-chair along with Greg Ness, chairman, president and CEO of The Standard. Working together, Greg, I and other Coalition members will develop a plan to raise a minimum of $25 million a year dedicated to need-based scholarships and other forms of student support.

This agreement is an important breakthrough for the university and the region. A citizens group had begun gathering signatures for a metro area business tax that would have raised money for the same purpose. Because of this agreement, the committee is suspending the campaign to focus on this new initiative.

Chronic underfunding of higher education by the state has resulted in tuition increases, more student debt and a growing number of students who either can’t afford to attend PSU or drop out for financial reasons. We need a long-term solution, and today is a step toward that goal.

The Coalition is made up of prominent business leaders from the Portland region and University supporters. Please join me in supporting the Coalition and this effort to make college affordable to more local students.

Task forces being formed for two new cultural centers

Last week, I sent an all-campus email detailing the action steps that PSU is taking to enhance student cultural and academic support. Those include establishing two separate task forces to assess the strengths, weaknesses and opportunities in serving PSU’s African American/Black/African students and Asian American/Asian/Pacific Islander students.

The two task forces will guide university leadership by focusing on key areas such as academic offerings, student and faculty recruitment and retention, improving campus and community support and developing the two planned cultural resource centers for these student populations.

I and John Fraire, Vice President of Enrollment Management and Student Affairs, would like to invite student, faculty and staff to participate in these task forces. If you are interested, have questions or wish to nominate a member of the PSU community, please email the Office of Enrollment and Student Affairs at emsatf@pdx.edu

Tough but necessary decision on tuition hike

The PSU Board of Trustees last week approved a tuition and fee increase for next year. While it troubles me as much as anyone that the cost of higher education continues to rise, it’s helpful to put this latest increase in perspective.

The increase, 3.77 percent for resident undergraduates, is necessary to balance PSU’s budget in the face of rising costs, including additional staff and operating costs, salaries and benefits – traditional cost drivers at any university. Without an increase, we would be looking at budget cuts of nearly $6 million. Cuts of that size obviously would be painful and hurt our goal of increasing student success.

PSU has worked hard to keep tuition hikes reasonable. Since 2011, resident undergraduate tuition has increased by an average of 2.2 percent annually. The cost of attending most other public universities in Oregon has been going up more. With our new tuition rates, only Eastern Oregon University is lower.

Nonetheless, the continued escalation is bound to have an impact on the ability of Oregonians to go to college and get a degree. That is why our new strategic plan calls on us to find innovative and strategic new ways to contain costs and raise revenue.

Measures include the streamlining of processes developed as part of reTHINK PSU; the comprehensive fundraising campaign; and our continued advocacy with the Legislature and Higher Education Coordinating Committee.

We will keep you informed on all these efforts and welcome other suggestions.

We’re all in this together

Oregon’s public universities are as together as we’ve ever been in our effort to bolster state investment in higher education. This was made clear Thursday, when several hundred students, staff, faculty and alumni from all seven campuses turned out at the Capitol for a show of force and unity.

We spent the day meeting with lawmakers, thanking them for last year’s funding boost and pressing the case that we’re still running behind much of the nation in state support. I can’t say whether we changed any minds, but we made sure that Portland State and the other universities aren’t forgotten this session.

The Legislature is meeting for its every-other-year short session — a 35-day sprint to pass new laws and adjust the two-year budget. Public universities are seeking $15 million in additional funding targeted to juniors and seniors who are doing fine academically but are in danger of dropping out for financial or other reasons. We also are asking for some relatively small capital improvement projects, and an extension of tax credits for the University Venture Development Fund. Finally, we’re asking the legislature to refer a constitutional amendment that would allow public universities to invest some of their funds.

Students, as always, make the best spokespeople for our cause. In one meeting I attended, several PSU students talked to Rep. Margaret Doherty, a Portland Democrat (and PSU alum) and talked about overcoming economic and cultural odds to attend college. They also talked to aides for Sen. Ginny Burdick and Rep. Jennifer Williamson.

One student, Trhona Johnson, said she grew up in a low-income family and “thought college wasn’t possible.” With help from high school and PSU advisors, she enrolled and is now a junior, working toward a degree in social work. Extra funding provided by the Legislature last year has made it easier for her to get the advising and counseling she needs to stay on track to graduate, she told Doherty.

It was one of many messages that resonated Thursday at the Legislature.

Our creative, crazy busy PSU alumni

Recently, I invited PSU alumni to become more vocal advocates for their alma mater. I also asked them to share stories of what they were up to. Nearly 700 have responded so far, and their accounts of life after college have been a pleasure to read.

Our alumni are doing very well. They have started businesses, they’re teaching, they’re getting doctorates, they’re helping people with disabilities, they’re making movies, captaining ships and piloting airplanes.

They work for Nike, Intel, Boeing, Google, Sony, Nikon, Cambia Health, city of Portland, Washington County, Multnomah County, the FBI, the White House and the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe tribe, to name just a handful. The list underscores the myriad opportunities out there for graduates, and just how valuable a Portland State degree has become.

They are a creative bunch.

“I recently retired from the motion picture business,” wrote one. “I’m now a professional fused glass artist.” He went on to note that one of his pieces had been acquired by the Colburn School of Music in Los Angeles.

“I hope you will be hearing about my novel in the future,” wrote another. Another is “revitalizing and preserving indigenous languages.”

Former PSU President Natale Sicuro wrote to say he is enjoying retirement and golf in Palm Desert, Calif. Another alum wrote that she has returned to Oregon after living in Greece and volunteering with the Mediterranean Association to Save the Sea Turtles.

I’ll close with one of my favorites:

“I am currently the Senior Vice President of Marketing and Business Operations for the Seattle Storm, one of 12 WNBA teams in the world. Our purpose is to prove that achievement has no gender. We seek to not only show the world what’s possible but to change what’s possible. I am a PSU grad, and I am fearless.”

Autonomy has been good for PSU

A classic line from political campaigns is: Are you better off now than you were four years ago? As we enter a new year, let’s apply that to Portland State. Are we better off now than we were a year ago? Two years ago?

The answer, without doubt, is yes. And one of the main reasons is our newfound autonomy, embodied in our Board of Trustees.

Start with PSU’s finances. Under the old system, we and the other public universities fell under the governance of the Oregon University System and were not allowed to lobby state lawmakers for better funding once the governor produced a budget. During the 2015 legislative session, however, those restrictions did not apply. This allowed all of us – presidents, board members, faculty, staff and students from all seven universities – to persuade the budget-writers to provide $700 million in state funding for the seven public universities. That figure is significantly higher than the governor’s recommendation, and it ended many years of state disinvestment in higher education.

This dividend alone far exceeds the costs of independence. It is just one example of how our ability to self-govern has strengthened PSU.

The board – volunteers appointed by the governor – made some tough decisions in its first 18 months: a tuition increase and sworn campus police among them. While there have been some protests and acrimony about these issues, in the past there would not even have been a PSU-specific forum for debate. This board is uniquely committed to ensuring the long-term success of PSU.

With greater independence comes greater responsibility, which is one reason PSU supporters and the Board of Trustees are discussing a possible Metro-area measure to raise revenue for scholarships and other student support. This discussion would not have been possible under the old system of governance. The board also was closely involved in designing our new five-year strategic plan, which focuses on student success, excellence, equity, community engagement, and innovation.

Last but not least, board members have been personally extraordinarily generous to PSU. Their lifetime giving totals $36.2 million, which has gone to student scholarships, faculty endowments and capital projects.
There’s no doubt in my mind–autonomy and having our own Board have made PSU much better off than we were before.

College affordability and student success: A PSU initiative

As some news outlets have reported, Portland State University is considering an initiative that would ask voters in the tri-county area to approve a local revenue measure to make college more affordable. I would like to add some context and explain why we’re looking into this idea.

Let’s start with the Oregon Legislature. For the first time in years, lawmakers increased funding for higher education rather than make cuts. Yet the state allocation for 2015-17 remains well below what public universities received in 2007-09. PSU needs a long-term solution to avoid future cuts and tuition increases. We simply can’t pin our future financial stability on a hope that the state will invest enough in higher education.

As Oregon’s main urban university, PSU embraces a unique access mission – we offer an excellent college education to a broad cross-section of mostly Oregonians. PSU students have more financial needs than their counterparts at the University of Oregon or Oregon State University. Two-thirds of PSU’s 29,000 students qualify for financial aid. Nearly half of last year’s graduates qualified for Pell Grants because of their low incomes. Only one in five students who qualify actually receive state Opportunity Grants. More than 40 percent of our freshmen last year were students of color.

Our exploration of a possible revenue measure – most likely some sort of small business payroll tax – stems from our desire to offer more scholarships, and hire advisors and faculty to boost the region’s highly educated workforce. We’re calling it the College Affordability and Student Success Initiative. It is one of a variety of solutions we are working on to ease the cost of college and help students graduate with smaller debt loads. Among them:

• Persuade the Legislature to increase funding during the February session.
• Increase our efforts to encourage philanthropic giving.
• Launch new reTHINK initiatives that encourage efficiencies and cost-effective ways to offer courses.
• Offer additional support to help students graduate more quickly and with less debt.

We haven’t made a decision yet on whether to go forward with a possible ballot measure, and we won’t move forward without authorization from our Board of Trustees. But this is an idea well worth pursuing. I will keep you informed on new developments.

PSU opportunities in Southeast Asia

Recently I visited Vietnam, with side trips to Malaysia and Indonesia, to identify recruitment and training opportunities for PSU. We’ve been quite involved in Vietnam for some time, primarily through the training program for engineers that Intel sponsored for several years, and work by the Center for Public Service to train public officials. (I have to admit that I still marvel at the historical irony of a U.S. university training Vietnamese communist party officials in governance, citizen participation, and budgeting!)

Vietnam is an amazingly impressive country, with a great entrepreneurial spirit and rapidly growing infrastructure and employment base. However, 80 percent of the population is still employed in agriculture and the challenges the country will face as it industrializes are huge. A key area of need is higher education, and PSU already is working with Vietnamese universities to enhance their capacity. Additionally, about 90 Vietnamese students are studying here in Portland.

My visit was part of the celebration of the 20th anniversary of normalized U.S.-Vietnam relations — a series of events that our Center for Public Service in the Hatfield School is helping organize, at the request of the U.S. State Department. We held a conference on emergency preparedness in Hoi An, in Quang Nam province in the center of the country, and we co-sponsored a conference on higher education in Hanoi. We also visited about half a dozen universities and signed several memoranda of understanding, intended to increase faculty exchange and create programs that will bring more Vietnamese students to PSU.

Malaysia and Indonesia both present great opportunities for student recruitment, but our relations there are at an earlier stage. We have a great ally, though, in Melanie Billings-Yon, wife of the U.S. Ambassador to Malaysia. Melanie is a PSU alum and adjunct professor in the School of Business Administration!

These three countries present enormous opportunities for PSU to internationalize our education and research. Their students will expose ours to different cultures and fascinating development challenges, while joint faculty work can contribute to ‘letting knowledge serve the world’. We will continue to strengthen these relationships.

Photo: Wim and Alice Wiewel touring Southeast Asia