Illustration by Zahira Zuvuya

Stephen Percy doesn’t know what’s going on

University policy is less coherent than ever

On May 15, outgoing Portland State President Stephen Percy held a press conference with members of Student Media—myself included—on topics that have impacted students and his administration in the closing days of his term such as the re-arming of campus police, anti-trans protests on campus and ChatGPT.


Above all, the conference clarified one thing: Percy has little idea of what’s happening on his campus, and not much interest in finding out.


According to Portland State Vanguard reporting, Campus Public Safety Office (CPSO) Chief Willie Halliburton informed Percy that he made the decision to have campus police return to patrolling with arms on Feb. 14, informing him again on March 9 that this decision would continue for the foreseeable future. The first public announcement of the re-armament came from Percy’s office on April 11—nearly two months after he was first informed of the change—in a campus-wide email that obfuscated the issue more than clarified it.


Given the chance to explain this decision-making process, Percy’s answers were less than satisfactory. When asked about the large time gap between when officers re-armed and when the campus community was informed, Percy said that he wanted to consult with the University Public Safety Oversight Committee (UPSOC) and others before making an announcement.


“I asked UPSOC, to make sure that the UPSOC people were consulted, and then I asked for our communications people to spend some time crafting a plan so we could explain to people exactly what we were doing and why we were doing it,” Percy said.


Doing his due diligence to make sure that the decision was properly communicated is admirable—but that’s not exactly what happened here. “I definitely wanted to have a communication plan that took a week or two, I think, to get that formulation figured out,” Percy said.


Unfortunately, it didn’t take a week or two. Being generous, it was 30 days between when CPSO decided to re-arm full time and when Percy informed students, and almost two months after they initially re-armed in February. Ultimately, Percy did not have an answer for this discrepancy. “I don’t remember all the exact details,” he said.


When asked about the lack of opportunity for public comment on the CPSO decision, especially from students, Percy gave symbolic reassurances but little material substance. “We need to do a better job of communication to people,” he said, citing UPSOC involvement in future policy decisions. 


“I’m not sure every issue a president has to be one where you can take a long time to have a lot of deliberation, when you feel this [re-arming CPSO] is an action you really need to take for the safety of people,” Percy explained. “This is a case where I think… the situation is so serious that the president has to make a decision on his or her best judgment at the time, given the knowledge they have and the input from the brightest people, rather than making a referendum on safety.”


As a student and member of the PSU community, I have to ask: which is it? Regarding CPSO re-armament, was there a thorough deliberative process involving multiple university departments, or was it a quick decision? Does Percy take student opinion into account when making these decisions, or is this not a “referendum” situation, as he put it?


In light of these facts, Percy’s commitment to transparency appears flimsy at best. “My colleagues here, one of the things we’ve heard a lot about in the last year is transparency, transparency, transparency—I get it,” Percy said. “As president, I’ve tried to be as transparent as I can be. I think I’ve sent more messages out to the campus community.”


Transparency isn’t just about sending mass emails to students, though, especially not if those emails are delayed and opaque to begin with. It’s about letting students into the decision-making process to begin with—decisions that affect them personally—and giving students, faculty and other community members real, substantive power to make decisions in their own best interests.


UPSOC, as much as Percy has touted it as a win for transparency, is still little more than a symbolic advisory board. Their official charter charges them to “review and assess, according to such priorities as it may determine, all Campus Public Safety-related policies and procedures and make recommendations for any suggested improvements.” These recommendations, as far as it appears in this charter, are not binding.


Furthermore, their charter states that “CPSO will provide UPSOC with proposed new policies and revisions to existing policies no fewer than 45 days before their implementation.” It’s not clear if that happened in the case of CPSO re-armament, though UPSOC was ultimately informed. Given the haphazard nature and quick timeline of the policy change, it doesn’t appear that UPSOC was informed 45 days beforehand.


In fact, Percy’s response to Halliburton’s initial notification makes it seem as though UPSOC doesn’t even have that much power. “[CPSO] told me about [rearming], that they were ready to go with that full time, and then I said, ‘I want to definitely consult with UPSOC,’” Percy said. What kind of system is set up here, that the president has the choice to want to consult with the campus safety advisory committee? It would be unfair to infer too much from this, to be sure, but it is worth noting that this is a remarkably glib way to talk about one’s required duties.


That brings us back to the main problem with this process: namely, that UPSOC, like the Associated Students of Portland State University (ASPSU), has no real power other than the ability to make recommendations to the president and Board of Trustees. In the end, the president holds the levers of power at PSU, and it’s their choice whether or not to take community opinion into account.


Percy’s disconnection from the campus community doesn’t end with CPSO, however. Take, for example, the official university response to anti-trans provocateurs visiting campus in April. The Queer Resource Center (QRC), a PSU Community Center, posted an advisory on their Instagram page requesting that students ignore the protesters, and “not give them what they want.”


Percy, in contrast, sent a campus-wide email on the same day stating that “[at] Portland State, we are committed to being a safe space for all members of the LGBTQIA+ community to learn and thrive.” The email did not specifically mention the provocateurs, or give an indication that something was happening on campus at all.


Percy didn’t appear to know much about what was going on, which has seemed to become a running theme. “I was told that someone might come and they didn’t know what day or time,” he said about the protesters. “I mean, we didn’t know the time.” Percy said he was unaware of the QRC post. “We have people that are trying to plan ahead for these kinds of events,” he said, later specifying, “people in student affairs.”


ChatGPT and other AI tools are an issue of major concern for universities moving forward, and PSU policy on the issue is a matter of some importance for students and faculty. As with other policy issues, however, Percy had some trouble finding clarity on his position.


“What do you guys think about it?” Percy asked. “What are you hearing? Is it a topic students are interested in, concerned about, or…?” Regarding his office’s position, Percy simply said that “the provost has convened a committee, because it’s sort of in the academic realm.”


What’s going on here? Does Percy have a case of senioritis? The lack of transparency from the university administration is intensely frustrating, and the excuse of “I can’t recall” simply doesn’t cut it on issues of this level of importance. If Percy can’t even come up with consistent explanations for university policy at a press conference that he had ample time to prepare for, what should we expect the rest of the time? One can only hope that incoming President Ann Cudd will take a different approach to the office.