Strategic Plan: Ideas, initiatives pour in

Now that the year is winding down, I’d like to offer a quick progress report on where our strategic planning effort stands. It’s not done yet – we won’t hand a finished draft to the PSU Board of Trustees until December — but it is starting to take shape.

Eight “topic teams,” including about 100 faculty, staff and students, have delivered several dozen proposed initiatives that they would like to see PSU undertake over the next five to 10 years. The initiatives are meant to keep PSU abreast of changes in higher education and to move the university forward.

Here are just a few examples, edited for brevity:

• Reduce organizational barriers to student success.
• Facilitate innovation and revenue generation.
• Prioritize diversity in the curriculum.
• Drive next generation scholarly agenda on “The Engaged University.”
• Develop quantitative and qualitative metrics to measure research activities, degree programs and faculty activity.

These are just a handful, selected more or less at random. The Strategic Plan Development Team, about 30 faculty, staff and students, is working to synthesize all the proposals. It also is working to rewrite PSU’s vision and mission statement, which needs an update.

Over the summer, a small subcommittee will work on distilling all the proposals into a draft strategic plan. In the fall, the plan will be put out for public comment.

While the final elements of the plan are still taking shape, the effort already has been a success based on how many of you have participated. Thousands of you have weighed in on PSU’s future, whether online or in person. You helped flesh out the proposed initiatives and let us know what we’ve missed. At last month’s “Strategic Ice Cream” event, more than 700 of you took the trouble to visit one of the booths in the Urban Plaza and fill out a form listing your recommendations.

It’s not too late to provide input. And in the fall, there will be further opportunities to provide input. I want to thank everyone who has participated so far; the collective effort is helping PSU move in the right direction.

The push for $755 million goes on

The Oregon Legislature is heading into the homestretch, and the budget for higher education remains in flux. However, a lot has been happening behind the scenes, and I’d like to share some of that with you.

We started the 2015 session with all seven public university presidents united behind a request for $755 million – a figure that roughly puts us back to the level we were at before the Great Recession of 2007. Our argument has been that all other state agencies have been restored – now it’s higher education’s turn.

At this point, the leaders of the Joint Ways and Means Committee – the ones who write the budget – have proposed $670 million. That’s an increase, to be sure, but not nearly enough to make up for years of cuts. That figure, however, was proposed before the most recent revenue forecast, which indicates that the state could have significantly more money to spend over the next two years.

Now we get to the behind-the-scenes part.

The presidents are asking legislative leaders to boost the Ways and Means proposal to $705 million. Then, if the economy continues to improve as expected, we would request the additional $50 million be approved when lawmakers return for their short legislative session in February 2016. If we were to get that level of funding, the presidents have agreed to hold tuition increases at most universities, including PSU, to 2 percent during the following academic year.

My viewpoint? This is more than fair. Attaining a college degree is more important than ever before, and we have to find ways to keep it affordable for all Oregon students. I believe Oregon legislators understand that and hope they will come through for us — that is, Oregon’s students.

Does sustainability still matter?

As president of Portland State University, my role is to provide the very best educational opportunities and ensure our graduates are ready for the 21st century workforce. That means exposing students to the key ideas, problems and solutions they will face after they graduate — an obligation we take seriously at PSU. I believe, as do nearly 700 of my colleagues who have signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, that a focus on sustainability is critical to that preparation.

Yes, it’s a buzzword that rankles some people. What we have found at PSU, however, is that our students learn to analyze problems from multiple points of view — economic, social, technological, environmental. They become better thinkers and ultimately better global, and local, citizens.

Think of some of the bigger debates swirling around Oregon today: Should we allow coal trains to travel through the Columbia Gorge for eventual export to China? Should we build a liquid natural gas facility on the coast? The sustainability lens on these matters doesn’t reduce them to the binary good/bad, yes/no arguments that we hear so frequently. Instead, we apply systems thinking, which takes into account many other variables: Would it be better for the world if China burned cleaner U.S. coal? Would a natural gas facility produce jobs and serve as a bridge to reducing global carbon emissions?

When students tackle those difficult questions, they develop skills in determining complex trade-offs, in weighing long-term and short-term costs and benefits, and in devising creative and often low-cost solutions.

I mentioned above my affiliation with the ACUPCC — the Climate Commitment group. This is a voluntary effort by nearly 700 higher education campuses — from community colleges to research universities — to reach carbon neutrality. I serve as chairman, in part because of my deep belief that climate change is one of the most critical issues of our time. At PSU, we’re walking the talk as much as possible, from the small things like hydration stations that reduce the use of plastic water bottles, to construction of multi-million dollar LEED buildings that rely on natural light, reuse of rainwater and other energy-saving innovations.

PSU also is home to the Institute for Sustainable Solutions — command central for most of our sustainability efforts. The center works with PSU faculty to include sustainable concepts in student curriculum, with researchers and with partners in the Portland community. One of our key partnerships is with Portland General Electric, which is helping put PSU on the forefront of electric vehicle and energy conservation research.

At PSU, we require most students to get out in the community and learn by doing, which might include helping plan the best transportation systems in a rapidly changing neighborhood, or helping a local grocery chain reduce waste to near zero.

In short, sustainability as a term may be overexposed, but as an intellectual pursuit it offers experiential learning for real problems and projects. Of course, I don’t suggest that most — or even many — students pursue sustainability science as their formal degree. Most careers need in-depth knowledge in other areas. I am a firm believer, however, that a focus on sustainability drives our students to learn and innovate in ways that will help meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Note: This piece was first published in the Portland Business Journal

A challenging and successful student election

The recent elections for student government generated quite a bit of media coverage on and off campus and were a test of the ASPSU’s ability to handle a tough and unexpected challenge. They not only passed the test but get extra credit to boot.

Before I go further, I want to acknowledge the results and congratulate the victors – President Dana Ghazi, a graduate student in conflict resolution, and Vice President David Martinez. I look forward to working with you as we help guide Portland State through another year.

Most of all, I want to commend students involved in ASPSU for their conscientious and resolute handling of the election, given the difficult issues that arose.

Midway through the initial voting, the student Judicial Board discovered improprieties and ruled that one of the two presidential candidates was ineligible to run. That left the Elections Board in a quandary: students were voting an inaccurate ballot.

When I talked to current ASPSU President Eric Noll about what had become an election emergency, he urged me to have faith in student government’s ability to come up with a workable approach. The Judicial Board then voted to reset the election and allow students to vote on new slate of candidates. Despite a short timeframe, the result was an informed electorate, a real contest and two qualified victors.

At PSU, the student president is a key voice and representative of this big, diverse campus. I have worked closely with ASPSU leadership over the years, but this past year has been the most successful. I welcome the opportunity to strengthen this partnership with Dana and David. Good luck to both of you.