Exciting things are happening at Portland State University. If you've driven through downtown anytime in the past five years, you've seen buildings springing up as the university colonizes the area south of Market Street. PSU has come a long way from its modest early days when, fresh from its Vanport exodus, it moved into the abandoned Lincoln High School (now Lincoln Hall).
While enrollment at the University of Oregon and Oregon State University has edged up slowly, PSU's has exploded, making it the largest Oregon university. City and state leaders, looking north to Seattle, have big hopes that PSU may one day become a major engine for economic growth, and administrators estimate the university's economic impact at more than a billion dollars annually. In 2006, the school completed a $114 million capital campaign and is now in the middle of building a six-story, $71 million student recreation center. By every measure, PSU is striving to join the big leagues.
So why, then, is PSU so cheap with its most valuable asset, its faculty?
Last summer, the Oregon Legislature approved an 18 percent increase in PSU's budget, but the university has so far failed to offer the faculty a reasonable salary adjustment. After nearly a year of negotiation that led to a period of mediation, on April 17 the faculty union finally decided to declare an impasse, paving the way to a potential strike. We have good reason to be angry:
- PSU faculty are paid just 77 percent of the national average, putting them in the bottom 10 percent of the nation.
- Due mainly to high workloads and poor salary, more than 300 faculty members have left PSU since 2003.
- PSU faculty earn 9 percent and 7 percent less than their colleagues at UO and OSU, despite the higher cost of living in Portland.
- PSU gets by with fewer full-time professors (50 percent) than OSU (80 percent) or UO (73 percent), which saves the university money over and above its already paltry outlay for regular faculty.
- Since 1991, student enrollment has increased by 70 percent, while Portland's cost of living has increased by 54 percent.
A university can have a beautiful campus, sparkling new buildings and a great football team, but if it wants to be considered among the finest schools in the country, it must have exceptional professors. These are the professionals who do groundbreaking research, keep the best and brightest students in the state, and join with private and public partners to enrich a city.
No one wants the faculty to strike -- not the students, the administration, the new incoming president or members of the union. The faculty have requested of a 7 percent salary increase in each of the two years of the current biennium. That wouldn't bring us anywhere near the national average, but it would be fair and reasonable. It's simply not possible to become a world-class university by offering third-rate salaries and benefits to professors.
PSU needs to do the right thing and offer its faculty a decent contract.
Jeff Alworth is a unit representative for the American Association of University Professors and a member of Portland State University's research faculty.