This is an opinion piece, not an editorial endorsement. The views expressed here do not represent the views of all of Portland State Vanguard.
On May 16, 2022, Portland State’s Board of Trustees voted to establish a Presidential Search Advisory Committee tasked with recommending a replacement for current PSU President Stephen Percy, who announced around the same time his intention to step down from the role. Now, in Feb. 2023, we have two finalists: Kathy Johnson, Ph.D., executive vice chancellor at the Indiana University and Purdue University of Indianapolis (IUPUI); and Ann Cudd, Ph.D., provost and senior vice chancellor at the University of Pittsburgh.
Both are compelling candidates and both would be exceptional administrators. However, the Presidential Search Advisory Committee can only choose one candidate. In the end, I believe Dr. Cudd to be the correct choice: given her experience, her educational philosophy and her commitment to community engagement, I urge the committee and the Board of Trustees to select her to be PSU’s next president.
What does the President do?
It may be helpful to begin by defining what exactly the University President does. According to the bylaws of the Board of Trustees of PSU, the Board “delegates the conduct of administration and management to the President… entrusts development and implementation of the curriculum, pedagogy and research through the President to the Faculty,” and occasionally charges the president with “leading a strategic planning process” regarding the university’s “strategic direction.” The president also has a symbolic role as the public face of the university, and as the spokesperson for its faculty, employees and students. This includes, for example, communicating with the state legislature about increased state funding for the university.
That’s a pretty broad directive, and it underscores the importance of the president’s role in the university’s administration. The president oversees all of the important day-to-day operations of the university, either directly or indirectly through appointed executive officers like vice presidents. They’re also responsible for “interpreting and implementing the policies of the University and the Board,” a clause with far-reaching implications in the case of major policy shifts like tuition increases, budget cuts or program reductions.
In the coming years, PSU is facing a confluence of crises, the largest of which is a precipitous drop in enrollment that shows no signs of stopping. “Portland State for the last 10 years has had diminishing enrollment every year,” President Percy told Vanguard in Nov. 2022.
How exactly the university faces these problems is largely the purview of the president. Consider Percy’s fall 2022 financial update, where he charted a course for PSU’s response to budget shortfalls—this included instituting a university-wide hiring pause, reorganizing student services and eliminating vacant positions, to name a few. These are decisions that affect everyone, and they are made largely at the discretion of the president.
These are the stakes. The president does not decide the course of the university’s future alone—many decisions are made in concert with the Board of Trustees and Faculty Senate, as well as the Student Fee Committee and other working groups. But the president does wield the power of the bully pulpit. They have the ability to set the terms of debate on such essential questions as how to prioritize scarce resources, which programs to support or which to reduce and how to implement new policies.
Because of the vast authority granted to the president—both substantive and symbolic—it is vital that we judge the two candidates on the merits of their pedagogical and budgetary philosophies. We need a president who will put their weight behind the preservation of important programs, especially those in the liberal arts and humanities, which have been threatened by declining enrollment nationwide. Liberal studies, to quote the Stoic philosopher Seneca, are “the study of wisdom.” They provide the basis of all other studies and give us the tools to examine ourselves. PSU’s motto is Doctrina Urbi Serviat—Let Knowledge Serve the City. Liberal studies are what allow us to answer the question: which knowledge?
Kathy Johnson, Ph.D.
Dr. Johnson wrote in the Leadership Orientation section of her cover letter to the Board that her educational philosophy is guided by her training as a psychologist, “particularly through theories related to student development, program evaluation, cognitive science, the measurement and analysis of learning outcomes, and an appreciation for evidence-based practice.” She also emphasized her commitment to equity and inclusion, including IUPUI’s shift to test-optional undergraduate admissions prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Under the Academic and Research Experience section, Dr. Johnson wrote that she has had “a broad range of experiences in designing (and reviewing) academic programs,” and “in developing processes and systems that help to assure quality as well as evidence-based continuous improvement.” A major theme throughout her application is her track record of securing research funding, particularly in STEM disciplines.
These are all formidable accomplishments, and I have no doubt in Dr. Johnson’s commitment to lead PSU “toward its vision of expanding opportunity, urban engagement, and the promotion of academic and research excellence,” as she puts it.
However, I have some concerns about what this application leaves out—specifically, any mention of the liberal arts, which the letter appears to eschew in favor of professional programs and STEM research. This is understandable, given Dr. Johnson’s professional background, but at a time when academic programs may be faced with budget cuts, it feels a bit portentous to see such short shrift paid to programs in the arts and humanities.
This absence, coupled with the letter’s discussion of program efficiencies and “performance-based (or outcomes based) funding,” leaves me with an uneasy feeling regarding Dr. Johnson’s budgetary and administrative priorities.
Ann Cudd, Ph.D.
Dr. Cudd, in her cover letter to the Board, placed heavy emphasis on her experience with community-focused programs at Boston University and University of Pittsburgh, such as Metrobridge and Pittsburgh’s Community Engagement Centers. She also highlighted her experience as an educator, citing her “unusually broad, interdisciplinary approach to research and teaching” from her time as a philosophy professor.
An encouraging sign in Dr. Cudd’s application is her stress on community engagement. “I am deeply committed to the student-centered, teaching mission of universities,” she wrote. This shows in her record of meeting with university stakeholders and community members. “I meet regularly with the University Senate President,” she noted, as well as “student leaders” and “various affiliation groups, such as our Black, LGBTQ+, and AAPI student groups.”
These values carried over into the open forum Dr. Cudd participated in on Feb. 9. She indicated that “there is a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of building trust between the administration and the community,” and that “she is open to various perspectives and will continue to hold open forums to meet and discuss issues in person,” per Vanguard’s reporting of the event.
Dr. Cudd’s stances on PSU’s budgetary future drew praise from Melissa Appleyard, Associate Dean of Graduate Programs in PSU’s School of Business, who told Vanguard that “[Dr. Cudd] didn’t shy away from the difficulties that we’re having now budget-wise… I think as the incoming president, we need someone who has a really extensive network in higher ed as well as ties to the federal government and federal funding sources to survive and grow and thrive as a university.” Dr. Cudd’s focus on growth rather than cutting costs is a signal of optimism that PSU desperately needs right now.
Dr. Cudd also wrote in her application that she has had “multiple meetings with lawmakers in Harrisburg and Washington, DC to lobby for student aid and explain the importance of higher education to our economy and civil society.” This is a promising sign not only for her ability to effectively negotiate with lawmakers, but also for her willingness to advocate for the mission of higher education itself—something that we cannot take for granted in a climate dominated by utilitarian considerations of dollars and cents.
Readers may note that the university president is granted broad authority to interpret and implement university policies. It is in this regard that Dr. Cudd’s record is most commendable.
As a professor of philosophy, Dr. Cudd has published a wide range of academic articles across her career, many of which deal with hot-button issues like sexual harassment, campus speech and drug policy.
In a 1994 article titled “When Sexual Harassment is Protected Speech: Hostile Environment Sexual Harassment Policy in the University,” Dr. Cudd argues that sexual harassment law “fails to meet the constitutionally-supported goals of equal opportunity and freedom from discrimination,” and that as such, “colleges and universities have a special responsibility to support the expression of those who would end discrimination and to criticize and remove support from those who would continue it.” This would be a welcome sentiment at a university that has often remained painfully silent in the face of discriminatory speech.
In a 2019 article titled “Harassment, Bias, and the Evolving Politics of Free Speech on Campus,” Dr. Cudd wrote that “we in the university community should see the problem of free speech on campus as one of developing the kind of intellectual community we want and need to make society better in the ways in which higher education is uniquely suited… Administrators and faculty must always keep important principles and aspects of the mission of education in view. When begun by students, however, university faculty and administrators can and should support progressive change in other ways that challenge the entrenched understandings of academic freedom and tradition in order to bring about social transformation and serve the evolving social missions of universities.”
Finally, in her stunningly courageous article “Taking Drugs Seriously: Liberal Paternalism and the Rationality of Preferences,” published in 1990 at the height of the War on Drugs and American hysteria over drug use, Dr. Cudd argues that—with the exception of anabolic steroids—a liberal society has no legitimate rationale for outlawing the use of drugs: “laws prohibiting the use of drugs restrict people’s rights to do what they may rationally prefer when they do not thereby harm others.”
Whether or not you believe Dr. Cudd’s views to be correct—I, for the most part, do—it is impossible to deny that she has engaged deeply with the issues. She has not shied away from even the most controversial topics, approaching them instead directly and in good faith.
Dr. Cudd’s leadership philosophy—grounded in the liberal arts tradition—and her educational and administrative record give me the confidence to make this recommendation. For all these reasons, I believe that Dr. Cudd is the clear choice for PSU President.