Watching the special Board of Trustees meeting on May 27 over a computer screen, watching grainy video and professionals forget to unmute themselves, it was one of plenty things at Portland State to change in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Board was determined to keep one thing the same, however: PSU’s president.
With a unanimous vote by the BOT, Stephen Percy will become PSU’s 10th president.
“In the last year, Dr. Percy has shown strong leadership,” stated committee chair Greg Hinckley and vice chair Margaret Kirkpatrick in a BOT announcement, “His work guiding PSU’s transition to a virtual campus in such a short time period is the latest example of his effectiveness and dedication leading this campus. Dr. Percy has done an admirable job in leading the university during a difficult time in its history, and he has demonstrated he has a keen understanding of our students and community.”
After the Executive and Audit Committee of the BOT announced its recommendation of Percy to the full board on May 11, an online survey was put out to the greater campus community. According to Hinkley and Kirkpatrick’s announcement, about 90% of approximately 400 respondents supported appointing Percy to the president position. Percy also received support from the Faculty Senate, the PSU foundation, Associated Students of PSU (ASPSU) and the four employee unions.
After the resolution was passed, Percy was given the chance to address the Board in the remaining minutes of the meeting.
“I just want to say it’s been an honor to serve as the interim president of [PSU] over the past year,” Percy said. “We must identify and take strategic actions, consistent with our mission and values to strengthen PSU in this area of great change in higher education. I should really appreciate your support, and pledge my full energy and spirit to work with the board of trustees to advance PSU. I’m so optimistic about the future, and I want to thank [the BOT].”
Direct appointments such as Percy’s are uncommon, but not undoable. Typically, the search for a new president would be much lengthier, including the creation of a presidential search committee that consists of representatives from the PSU community and at least one other public university president—except in the case of an interim or acting president, in which a search committee is not required. The BOT announced in Fall 2019 it would defer starting its search to Spring 2020. Then, the pandemic happened.
According to its bylaws, the BOT—along with the governor or a stand-in appointed by the governor—always has the authority to appoint the president, and may do so directly. Hinkley cited the COVID-19 pandemic and the difficulties it caused for meetings and travel as the main reason why the Board chose the direct appointment.
“We realized that a traditional search, including external candidates, would probably be close to impossible, or if it was possible, would take two or more years to conclude,” Hinkley said. “In this environment, we needed somebody in charge with the title of president.”
Percy was first named as acting president on May 10, 2019, following the resignation of former PSU president Rahmat Shoureshi. He was officially appointed to the position at the following BOT meeting on May 13 by a unanimous vote. Prior to accepting the position, Percy was dean of the College of Urban and Public Affairs.
A committee later was formed to search for an interim president. At a special June 20 meeting, Percy was unanimously appointed to the position, and would remain as interim president until a permanent president could be found.
“I’ve had a lot of leadership experience, but the presidential level is different,” Percy said. “As we got into it, and as we worked through some challenges and moved forward, I found I enjoyed it. I thought we’d built a strong leadership team, I began to have more ideas about what I think my contributions to the university would be and the value I bring to it…I didn’t start out for sure that I would be interested.”
While the BOT approved the resolution, Percy will not officially transition to the role of president until the completion of an employment agreement. While the contract isn’t finished and will continue to be negotiated, certain guidelines have already been released by the BOT; His compensation won’t exceed the median of similar institutions, or provide allowances for housing and travel. The contract will also define goals for the president, and establish metrics to measure his progress towards them.
The agreement is expected to stipulate that the appointment, since it was done directly by the board with a less involved process, lasts for three years, a limit that isn’t typically applied to university presidents.
“It was quite important to have a term more limited than normal to look and see how it’s going, and then make a decision where they go after that, and I’m very comfortable with that in this situation,” Percy said.
Percy’s first email announcement since becoming president addressed the deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, calling for justice and insisting that justice and equity would be a core part of PSU.
“We must deepen our work to make our community one where justice and equity are central to who we are,” Percy stated. “We must work towards equity and justice at Portland State, in Portland, in Oregon, in America, and across the world. It will take intentional and collective action to dismantle systemic structures of oppression. Today, and always, black lives matter.”
PSU faces a number of difficult situations in the coming months, including decreasing enrollment and adapting to the coronavirus pandemic, both of which are adding additional strain on the university’s revenue and budget. In his upcoming position as president, Percy will be at the head of handling these issues.
“We need creative and bold new approaches and new types of solutions to deal with the challenges we’re facing today,” Percy said. “This is a time of opportunity that we must embrace. This is a challenging time—we’ve all been through it, but also, disruptions unleash creativity and energy and innovative spirit we haven’t seen for a long time. We must take advantage of that.”