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PSU gets a lesson in tough labor talks

Budget shortfall reduced, but faculty strike still looms


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Mary King, PSU chapter president of the American Association of University Professors, talks strategy with fellow labor negotiators during a break in a Monday mediation session. Portland State University should be basking in glory after earning U.S. News & World Report accolades as one of the top 10 “up and coming” national universities two years in a row.

But looming budget cuts have soured relations between PSU administrators and faculty and spread angst among students and staff.

“We are all unsettled this year,” says Leslie McBride, presiding officer of the PSU Faculty Senate. “The president has said Portland State has got to make some big changes.”

President Wim Wiewel announced in November that PSU faced a $15 million budget shortfall. Administrators then asked department heads to submit budget-cut lists equaling 8 percent of their spending, a signal that entire programs would be eliminated.

The faculty are “up in arms,” says Mary King, an economics professor who leads the 1,250-strong PSU chapter of the American Association of University Professors. “They are as close to a strike as I might have seen in my academic career.”

Scott Gallagher, PSU communications director, says labor relations are contentious because the university faces a budget deficit.

After months of futile negotiations on a new faculty union contract, both sides narrowed their differences over salary during a Monday mediation session, King says. The union planned to keep up the heat on the university before the next mediation session Jan. 27, including campus protests and an ad in the Vanguard student newspaper criticizing the administration.

Since November, the union and Faculty Senate members have publicly questioned the need for large academic cuts, and demanded more access to the university’s budgeting documents. Some faculty proposed what amounted to a no-confidence vote in Wiewel’s leadership before the Faculty Senate, though that was substantially watered down by the time it was passed last week.

After the faculty raised a stink, Wiewel announced Dec. 5 that he managed to cut the shortfall in half, to $7.5 million. Wiewel ordered a two-year pay freeze for administrators making more than $100,000, raises of 2 percent or less for administrative staff earning less than $100,000, and eliminating university subsidies for football. Tuition revenue also was higher than anticipated. As a result, administrators recently asked managers to come up with 6 percent cut lists instead of 8 percent.

Administrators still want to make strategic cuts to programs rather than see continual bleeding via annual across-the-board cuts, says Monica Rimai, PSU vice president for finance and administration. She expects cuts to academic programs should be in the neighborhood of $5.4 million, or about 3.4 percent of total spending.

Ducks get out ahead

The faculty union was dismayed when PSU initially offered 1 percent raises this year and next in collective bargaining, shortly after the University of Oregon awarded its faculty a 12 percent raise over two years, King says. The AAUP initially sought 5.5 percent annual raises.

PSU administrators won’t discuss the labor negotiations in public, Gallagher says, and will leave that to the bargaining table. But Rimai notes that the university shortfall projections were predicated on 3 percent annual faculty raises, so closing the shortfall would require less than that.

In Monday’s mediation session, King says, the union dropped its salary demand to 3.1 percent each of the two years of the contract. PSU raised its proposal to 1.5 percent a year, she says, though with a merit pay scheme she views as a poison pill.

The union also was alarmed by PSU administrators’ proposal to remove contract language guaranteeing the union’s role in approving faculty tenure, promotion and post-tenure evaluation policies set by the Faculty Senate.

“Our contract has for decades now protected that language by requiring the administration to negotiate with us any changes they want,” King says. Tenure gives the faculty academic freedom and job protection, unless there are budget cuts. The whittling away of tenure, King says, “is on everyone’s mind.”

In addition, she says, the administration is seeking to make it easier to eliminate faculty working on one-year contracts, by providing shorter notice.

Students ally with faculty

Rayleen McMillan, university affairs director for the Associated Students of Portland State University, sits in on labor negotiations, and concurred with King’s depiction of the administration’s initial bargaining proposals.

Students support the union’s effort to get more multiyear contracts and job protections for nontenured faculty, McMillan says. When nontenured faculty are let go, that severs student relationships with those professors, she says. Good working conditions for faculty equates to good learning conditions for students, she says.

McMillan also sides with union contentions that PSU has been putting too much money into administration instead of the classroom.

In the last decade, King says, the number of university administrators with president, provost, or dean in their titles jumped from 31 to 51. Their salaries have jumped markedly while faculty salaries have stagnated or fallen.

Gallagher says the rise in administrative staffing is partly due to past understaffing in critical areas.

Sona Andrews, hired one and a half years ago as PSU provost and vice president of academic affairs, says she has eliminated three administrative positions under her authority since she arrived.

President Wiewel blames the university’s shortfall on declining state funding over the years, combined with spiking health and pension benefits costs. In addition, student tuition provides the lion’s share these days of PSU’s money, but enrollment has been flat the past three years.

PSU patched recent shortfalls with one-time funding, such as federal stimulus funds, but now vows to balance its budget on an ongoing basis, in hopes of stemming annual budget cuts.

Oregon now provides less state funding to its universities than all but a handful of states. And it tends to have among the highest-priced pension and health insurance costs.

Comparisons between PSU and UO are unfair, says Di Saunders, Oregon University System spokeswoman. UO has a much-larger share of out-of-state students, she notes, and it charges them roughly triple the rate of in-state tuition while PSU charges them roughly double.

PSU has more overall students, but many of them study part time. In the last fiscal year, UO collected $344 million in tuition and fees, double the $174 million PSU collected, Saunders says.

King and the union are now questioning how sustainable PSU can be, given the out-of-control rise in student tuition and debt load, and the university’s increasing reliance on lower-paid faculty.

“Twenty years ago, most of our classes were taught by full-time faculty, with Ph.D.s and long-term appointments,” King says. “Students and colleagues could count on them being there and faculty members could participate meaningfully in the ongoing creation and development of programs. Now more than half of our class hours are taught by people with one-year contracts or part-timers hired for a course at a time, or students.”

Provost Andrews says PSU is poised to take advantage of its rising national reputation, as evidenced by U.S. News & World Report. It can now attract more out-of-state and foreign students, she says, as well as more adults anxious to finish degrees they started years earlier.

Why PSU budget is in trouble:

During the past five years:

• State funding has fallen $15 million/year

• Employee health insurance and pension costs rose $13.3 million/year

• Salaries and wages would rise $33.6 million/year (if PSU grants 3 percent annual faculty raises)

• Tuition and fees are up $47.4 million/year — not enough to make up the difference

• PSU enrollment, now 28,766, is slightly lower than two years ago

Sources of faculty angst:

In the last decade, after adjusting for inflation:

• Provost and vice provost salaries grew 43 to 46 percent

• Vice president, associate vice president and assistant vice president salaries grew 19 percent to 29 percent

• Tenured full professor salaries rose 6 percent

• Fixed-term instructor salaries fell 7 percent

From 1989 to 2008, for every 100 PSU students:

• Administrative positions grew 5.7 percent a year

• Tenure-line faculty positions fell 1.2 percent a year

In last decade:

• Student body grew 98 percent

• Tenure-line faculty grew 46 percent

• Fixed-term faculty (on short-term contracts) grew 420 percent

• Part-time faculty grew 468 percent.

How PSU compares to OSU and UO:

• PSU enrollment has been flat the past three years, while growing at OSU and UO

• PSU serves more Oregonians; out-of-state students pay more tuition, especially at UO

Out-of state students, fall 2012:

• PSU: 14.8%

• OSU: 26.3%

• UO: 39.5%

Out of-state tuition and fees, 2012-13:

• PSU: $22,863

• OSU: $22,322

• UO: $28,660

Average faculty salaries, 2011-12

• PSU: $74,700

• OSU: $82,000

• UO: $87,800

Sponsored faculty research, 2011-12

• PSU: $69.5 million

• OSU: $205 million

• UO: $118.6 million

State funding of the university system is shriveling

• 1999-01: state provided $754.9 million.

• 2011-13: state provided $668.3 million

• 1987-89: 15.3% of state general fund went to university system

• 2011-13: It was down to 4.8% percent of general fund

• 1989-90: state paid for 62 percent of university system; tuition and fees covered 29%.

• 2011-12: state paid for 19 percent; tuition and fees covered 72%.

Higher-ed spending per student, including community colleges, 2010-11:

• U.S. $6,290

• Oregon: $4,359 (44th highest among the states)

Sources: Center for Labor Research and Studies, Florida International University; Mary King, PSU economics professor;

PSU administration; Oregon University System 2012 Fact Book