President Wim Wiewel met with Student Media representatives on Friday, April 21 to discuss recent events on campus. Editorial staff from the Vanguard and the Pacific Sentinel had the opportunity to ask him questions ahead of the Associated Students of Portland State elections and the Viking Pavilion groundbreaking. Also present were members of Wiewel’s communications team, including Director of Communications Scott Gallagher.
Vanguard: What is your opinion on why student engagement with ASPSU has been historically low and what can they be doing better?
Wim Wiewel: It’s been low since time immemorial, so there can’t be any explanation that talks about anything specific this year or last year or any year before. So you have to go back to, in part, the nature of PSU’s student body and not spending that much time on campus as a whole. [There is] not a lot of proactive communication on the side of [ASPSU] to make people realize what matters. Perhaps, I would say, a feeling that there seems to be (and this has been true almost every year that I have seen it, at least) a lot of time spent on feuds and fighting, rather than constructive engagement to create change in whatever direction that might have been depending on what this particular student government was. But again, I would say that no matter what you think about it at any one point the fact that the Student Fee Committee allocates $14 million a year and sets the fee every year alone would be enough reason for me to say I would vote if I were a student.
I am always surprised that there isn’t more [outreach]. We have three slates running this time, which I was definitely happy with because that seems like it would bring out more people. I didn’t see any candidates tabling. I just couldn’t believe that on a beautiful, sunny day while the elections were going on there weren’t any of the candidates out there. I didn’t see a single one.
VG: Do you know any of the people, or have you had any personal interaction with those that are running?
WW: I haven’t had any one-on-one meetings with any of them that I can recall, but I’ve seen them at various meetings.
VG: What has your relationship been like with the current administration in ASPSU?
WW: Very nonexistent, at least when you talk about the president and the vice president. I’ve gone to the student senate meetings and they have been very good and productive. In previous years, I have had meetings once every four to six weeks with the president, and I offered that again this past year. To my memory, we’ve only had one or two meetings. That’s really because they were not interested in meeting. It is a mistake on the student government’s side, but I think it is not good for the institution as a whole. So I would hope that whoever gets elected can resume the practice of having regular meetings so that we can talk about the issues that are on students’ minds.
Pacific Sentinel: Why, when [the PSU Student Union members] come to talk to you, do you lock them out of the [Market Center] Building? I think it has happened three times—a fourth, if you count the time you locked them out of the lobby.
WW: We have offered several times to have meetings with them and they have repeatedly turned down our requests. This is a building where a lot of work is going on and we want to have people be able to continue to do their work.
PS: Do you feel like they’re going to shut the building down?
WW: I don’t know what they’re going to do. I know that they have not been willing to engage in any kind of a constructive dialogue and that the meetings where they have shown up they have shut down those meetings rather than engage in any sort of constructive dialogue.
PS: I just noticed that there were other people trying to get into the building who I guess you would say had legitimate business but they were stopped from coming into the building, too. Do you think that’s reasonable to keep other people from conducting their business?
WW: I have not heard of anybody who had business in the building unable to do their business.
PS: With the tuition raise, there’s criticism that it is the result of a $6 million shortfall. We were wondering why that was not taken into account in the budget several years earlier, and why it’s coming up this year?
WW: The budget for the next year is always determined in the course of late fall and the winter of the preceding year. We also make multi-year projections, but those obviously are subject to what happens with state appropriations and enrollment, as well as our settlements with the various labor groups, because those obviously drive our expenditures primarily. In that sense, we never know entirely until those things are done what the expenditure budget for next year will look like.
We’re now in the seventh or eighth year of an economic expansion, so everybody’s pretty sure that there will be a recession sometime in the next two or three years. We had the reserves going into the last recession; that’s why we were able to make it through without having to lay off more people than did. We had to do cutbacks, we had to raise tuition, all of those. It’s always a balance. This is basically a discussion that we have every year.
VG: For students that are really concerned about tuition increases, if they can’t address it on a university level, what steps do you think students should take to address tuition beyond talking to the administration and the Board of Trustees?
WW: That’s one of the reasons why coming out to vote for your student government is important, because obviously one of the very big levers is what happens in Salem. After tuition itself, the state legislature is the biggest source of funding. Frankly, the only reason tuition had to be raised by only 3.7 percent was because there was a fairly large increase in the state funding. Unfortunately the state funding has become such a small percentage of our total budget that even a pretty large increase on that still isn’t that much money. Depending on what happens to the state budget, that in the next legislative session we will again be able to increase the state allocation. Right now, that is hard to predict. Demonstrating in Salem, arguing with the legislators, making your point known, that’s really where the biggest flexibility is, is in the legislature.
The other one, of course, is the citizens’ committee that has proposed a ballot measure, which, if successful, would both provide scholarship funds for individual students as well as help us hire advisers, faculty and staff, so it allows us to maintain and grow quality without having to increase tuition to do that.
VG: You had mentioned that the tuition increase makes it clear that we need more outside funding. So outside of state funding and this ballot measure, what other specific alternative sources can we look to?
WW: There are two other things, maybe three, that I would mention. One is philanthropy. We just announced yesterday that the PSU Foundation hired a new president, William Boldt, who comes to us from the University of Nevada–Las Vegas. He’s done a tremendous job increasing fundraising, doubling or tripling it in a series of years. It takes a lot of philanthropy to make up for both the tuition and the state funding.
The other one is to continue to increase the number of out-of-state students [enrolling]. The good thing about PSU is that we can increase out-of-state students without lowering our in-state students. Given the way that we admit students—we don’t have a fixed number of spots—having more nonresidents doesn’t have any effect on our enrollment of in-state students but it does generate more funding that helps us support the entire operation of the university.
VG: Do you think there are any opportunities right now that we’re missing for increased revenue?
WW: There are some, but I honestly don’t see it making a huge difference. Of course, we’ve been pushing hard to increase research funding. In my view, research is a public good—it’s good for society, it’s good for our students, it attracts great faculty—but on the whole it does not generate a lot of surplus money that you can now use for something else.
Having more partnerships with more public or private employers, where employers pay the costs directly or indirectly for students can obviously be beneficial. For a while we had that program with Intel, where we trained their employees for their plant in Ho Chi Minh City. That was great for them and it was great for our engineering college. It went on for four or five years, and then it ended when they had all the people that they needed. Finding more opportunities like that on a large scale is a good thing.
Additionally, we do professional development programs. Our business school runs an executive education program. It makes some money, so it helps support the business school some but none of it is really huge amounts of funds.
PS: The most recent Board of Trustee meeting and the one prior to that were shut down by [PSUSU]. The [board] later convened in a different location and audio streamed it. The Oregonian recently published an editorial questioning the legality of that, citing that Oregon state law requires video and audio streaming. Are there plans in the future to video stream [board] meetings should something like that happen again?
WW: On any issue you can get a lawyer saying one thing or another. According to our general council, the Oregonian is just plain wrong on that. I don’t think that we have any problem doing video streaming.
Scott Gallagher: That was the first time we have done that. Other universities have also started it as well. It’s a relatively young, independent board. So we tried it out, and we’re going to keep improving.
VG: Is that something that had been set up as a contingency beforehand in case the meeting had been shut down?
VG: So did you check those laws ahead of time?
WW: Of course.
VG: Despite the fact that there were years of long processes leading up to the arming and deputizing of the Campus Public Safety Office, there has been more attention being garnered for Disarm PSU. If they got enough people or made enough noise, is there a possibility and what would it take for that process to be reopened? Or are they shouting at nothing? Is there a place for their voice despite the fact that the process essentially is closed at this point?
WW: As I’ve said, we asked several times for PSUSU to come to a meeting, to let us know when and how. They were not willing to do that. Nevertheless, we are now planning on a special board meeting in May to hear student voices—it won’t be just PSUSU. It will be the entire board. We’re still trying to figure out the date based on availability and the format. The purpose of that meeting will be to have a full meeting with no agenda items that we have to get through. The only agenda item will be a dialogue with students. We hope to have that dialogue, but it can be about whatever issues that people who come choose to talk about.
Is the issue of having a sworn police force [as campus policy] likely to be revisited? Not during my lifetime but nobody can see the future. I don’t see it happening. We made the decision after a lot of thought. We were one of four out of 100 large universities in the country that didn’t have a sworn police force. That hasn’t changed and certainly nothing has changed in the outside world to make me think that a sworn police force is less desirable now than it was two years ago when the board made the decision. So no, I don’t see any revisiting of that.
VG: Has there been a gun fired on campus that you know of since they’ve been armed?
WW: Not that I know of, no. But a big part of it is about having a sworn police force. That sworn police have been able to do a lot of things, such as making arrests [and] pursuing bad guys off campus, that they couldn’t do before. In that sense, it has definitely made the difference. It’s got nothing to do with actually having to draw the gun. The most important thing about a gun is not having to draw it, but it probably helps for the bad guy to know that it’s there.
VG: This current ASPSU administration is pretty politicized, and the current candidates that are coming in as well between the slates have some pretty strong opinions about things that would make it maybe hard for them to represent the entire student body. [If ASPSU does not represent the student body], what alternatives are there for [those unrepresented by ASPSU] to have their voices heard? How would you engage with other students if [ASPSU] does not want to engage?
WW: The whole executive committee and I work with students in a variety of ways. Provost [Sona K.] Andrews just posted her new vlog talking about the meetings that she and [Vice President John] Fraire and [Vice President Carmen] Suarez have with students of color regularly. VP Fraire and I have had several meetings with a variety of student groups. Our board has been meeting with everything from the SFC, ASPSU governance and student senate, athletes [and] residence advisers. So there are many ways that all of us hear from students in a whole variety of settings.
I’ve always told ASPSU that while they are the legitimate elected student government I will always make it a point to listen to multiple student voices. Regardless of whether I agree with any particular student government or disagree with them, I always need to hear the range of voices.
VG: We haven’t heard very much from the president’s office with regard to the more recent tragedies that the football team has gone through. Is there anything that you would like to say or address to students with regard to Kyle [Smith] or Troy [Bacon], or the situation with the team currently?
WW: Obviously it’s three very different cases. A student who died of tonsillectomy—a random, horrible, sad thing. And then the recent death, which the cause of death is unknown but there’s a police investigation about whether drugs were involved. Two very different cases—and then we had the recent case of the person impersonating the police officer.
On the one hand, I don’t want to make too much of it. Sometimes random bad things happen in sequence and, my God, is there a pattern? I’ve asked Fraire, possibly calling in outside expertise to review all of our procedures with regard to reaching out and helping students who are experiencing personal difficulties, whether associated with drug use or not. Clearly this student seemed to be having some challenges. I know that Coach [Bruce] Barnum did a lot; I just want to make sure [that we have the right policies in place]. No institution can possibly prevent every bad thing from happening, but you want to do what is reasonably possible.
I know that [the] team, and in general the student athletes, are a very strong, cohesive group with very strong leadership. I’m sure they will deal with it and overcome it. But my heart goes out of course to the families that are involved and to all of them who are close to them.
VG: I’m also curious about the viability of the 15 Now campaign, which keeps gaining support here. Do you know what kind of effect that would have on university finances, if that were to go through?
WW: First of all, I would say it’s pretty unlikely to go through. I think the bill that was signed will cost PSU an additional $2.5 million for the biennium. Were another ballot initiative in November [to pass], that number would go up. We do not as an institution take a stance on ballot initiatives, so we would deal with it and it would increase costs, as does this one.
VG: On the administrative level, have you heard any feedback on the recent protests regarding PSU Students for Trump and the students that are protesting them?
WW: I don’t know what you mean at the administrative level. I know what happened. In general, as a university president I am a strong supporter of free speech and the right of widely divergent groups to make their opinion known. I also think that civil discourse at a university calls for letting people say what they want to say, as long as it’s not explicit hate speech or inciting violence. So I hope that in the future whatever group, whatever their politics are, wants to hold meetings, that they will be able to hold that meeting. Every group would like to be able to do that.
VG: With regard to the explicit hate speech, what if a circumstance arose where said students were engaging in [hate or violent] speech in different capacities online. So the actual incidents in question at the university have a civility that doesn’t translate into things that are out of university jurisdiction, but can still have the same impact of intimidation or a sense of threat to other students?
WW: There comes a point where I’d say that I would have to consult with general council. Obviously there is a lot of jurisprudence on the case of what is and is not OK. The Supreme Court has been pretty broad about what is allowed. Just because somebody takes offense doesn’t mean the person didn’t have a right to say it. You can’t say, “It offends me, therefore it is hate speech.” It has to be, as I understand it by commonly accepted standards, going well beyond just the expression of an unpopular opinion or even, frankly, calling people names.
In that sense, our student conduct code is definitely more restrictive. In terms of what it considers to be leading to creating a hostile climate. That’s why regularly we get letters from freedom-of-speech associations in the country telling us that our conduct code is illegal and too restrictive. All universities get that. So it’s an issue that every campus faces and will face for a long time in the future, I’m sure, about where does your right to say what you want interfere with my right to go about my business?
VG: Are you aware of the May 10 walkout and do you have any thoughts on that or what kind of effect that may or may not have?
WW: So far the demonstrations that have been held by PSUSU have had very few people—50 people or something like that. I don’t know if this one is going to be different.
VG: Arguably very loud [people], though. So if they make enough noise, there may be [more impact].
WW: Well, in the Park Blocks you are allowed to use your own voice, you are not allowed to use amplification. You’re certainly not allowed to use it in buildings. So as long as they stick to campus rules, people are allowed to do it.
VG: [Will there be] any risk for discipline if enough people are leaving their classes in the way that they’re planning? Would there be some sort of large-form discipline on the students who decide to leave?
WW: Not showing up for class is not a matter of the student conduct code. You just missed the education that you’re paying for. The individual faculty may have systems in place related to attendance. But it’s not a student conduct code, it’s a matter of faculty rules about participation in class. Obviously there is any number of people who miss class for any number of reasons so it wouldn’t invoke any of that. Again, we are strong supporters of peoples’ right to express their opinion, whether they do it in an individual way or an organized way on the Park Blocks. They have a right to do that. That’s what university life is like and it’s fine.
VG: Do you think that the tactics that students are using—not necessarily PSU students but students who are advocating for certain changes on the university, the loudest voices—are they doing it in an effective way?
WW: The December 1 Students of Color Speak Out very quickly led to very significant changes. It’s because of it that we are creating two culturally specific spaces…[and why] we are creating two task forces relating to student success. Universities are very fluid institutions that listen and respond to important issues that are raised. I think we have shown that if requests or demands or suggestions are important and valuable, then absolutely we respond. On the issues that have been settled time and time again that are just the wrong decision, they will not be.
A demand for free tuition we are not going to meet because we would have to shut down or stop paying people, so that’s not going to happen. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got all 30,000 students demonstrating for it. It can’t be done; it’s impossible. So it depends on the reasonableness and the possibility of the ideas being raised. But universities are always changing.