In 2021 Oregon’s institutions of higher ed saw major leadership shifts and headline-grabbing controversies. What’s going on?
It’s been a long, turbulent year in Oregon higher education.
In March Oregon State University president F. King Alexander resigned amid allegations he and others had mishandled sexual-misconduct complaints at Louisiana State University, his previous employer. In October 2020, Western Oregon University president Rex Fuller announced he would retire at the end of the school year; in April 2021, Southern Oregon University president Linda Schott announced she would retire at the end of the calendar year.
Alexander’s resignation followed a “no confidence” vote from the faculty senate. OSU’s faculty wasn’t alone in losing confidence in its leadership: Faculty at the Oregon Institute of Technology also issued a no-confidence vote in April, then struck for nine days ending in May.
Linfield University’s faculty senate also expressed a lack of confidence in their president this spring over the administration’s handling of sexual-misconduct allegations. Days later, the professor who blew the whistle, and also alleged administrators made anti-Semitic remarks and dismissed concerns about racist graffiti, discovered he was out of a job. Now he’s suing.
I asked professors and administrators — and those who’ve observed Oregon academia closely for years — the following questions: What’s happening? Why is it happening now? And finally, is the recent churn in higher-ed leadership indicative of an Oregon problem or a national problem?
The answer to the last question, at least, is simple: yes. Yes, some of Oregon’s problems are unique to Oregon. Yes, higher education in the United States is in trouble.
A closer look at the details might help answer another question: What’s next?
1. Campus culture reflects the culture as a whole. Tensions are high in both.
Daniel Pollack-Pelzner was in the middle of a Zoom meeting in April when his computer crashed. On logging back in, he was unable to access his email accounts. He tried to send a message to his work email account from his personal account, and it bounced with a message saying he was no longer employed by the university. A formal termination letter came the next day via FedEx.
Daniel Pollack-Pelzner photo by Jason E. Kaplan
Pollack-Pelzner, who grew up in Oregon and attended Harvard and Yale universities, had been teaching at Linfield since 2010, when the school was still called Linfield College. He and his wife — who he met in fifth grade during a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — had been looking to return to Oregon for “free grandparent babysitting.” And Linfield, which U.S. News & World Report listed as the top college in the West for several consecutive years at the beginning of the century, looked like a perfect fit. He accepted a job teaching Shakespeare and British literature.
But as Pollack-Pelzner and others tell it, a dysfunctional culture lurked underneath. In 2019 he became the faculty representative on the school’s board of trustees. While in class, Pollack-Pelzner says he encouraged students to let him know if they had any concerns he should bring to the board.
“The No. 1 concern that students were sharing was that they didn’t think Linfield took sexual harassment seriously,” Pollack-Pelzner says. “I promised these students that I would do whatever I could in my capacity as a trustee to do something.”
Two colleagues also approached him with specific reports of sexual harassment — one involving a faculty member, one involving students. Later, an alumna sued the school saying trustee David Jubb assaulted her, and Pollack-Pelzner learned the board was aware of prior incidents involving Jubb.
Jubb later resigned from the board, and has since been indicted on multiple counts of sexual abuse.
Pollack-Pelzner urged the board to shift the format for social events to ones that didn’t involve off-campus socializing with alcohol. That didn’t happen, and according to a lawsuit Pollack-Pelzner filed in July, board chair David Baca responded to the concerns by accusing him of having a “secret agenda” and attempting a “power grab.”
Pollack-Pelzner is Jewish, and his lawsuit describes those comments as playing into age-old anti-Semitic stereotypes — which were also part of a pattern of anti-Semitic remarks from the administration that didn’t start or end there. He filed a complaint with human relations, then posted a series of tweets about anti-Semitism at the school in March.
It’s worth noting, in discussions of Linfield and diversity: Miles K. Davis, who was hired in 2018, is the school’s first Black president. Pollack-Pelzner’s lawsuit says when racist and anti-Semitic graffiti began to appear on campus in early 2020, an email from Davis “said that he and Black students at Linfield did not understand why a few professors were so concerned with the graffiti on campus.” Pollack-Pelzner also says two of the four trustees who were accused of sexual misconduct were white and two were Black. (Davis was one of them.)
“They only hired outside investigators against the Black men and said publicly that they trusted the white men,” he says.
Linfield’s arts and sciences faculty voted no confidence in Baca and Davis in April. Pollack-Pelzner was fired days later.
After he was fired in April, Linfield issued a statement saying it had taken “the extraordinary step” of terminating a professor “for serious breaches of the individual’s duty to the institution.”
Pollack-Pelzner’s suit asks for $3.5 million in damages.
In August an administrative-law judge ruled that Pollack-Pelzner — whose unemployment claim had been denied previously — was in fact “acting out of loyalty to the institution” when he spoke up about problems at the school.
Students and faculty have created a campaign called Save Our Linfield protesting Pollack-Pelzner’s firing and other problems at the school.
Melody Rose — who was appointed chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education last year but who has served in a variety of leadership positions in Oregon higher ed (most recently as president of Marylhurst University) — notes that college campuses “have always been hotbeds of political and social activism.” But campuses now are different in important ways, she says, with students coming from more diverse backgrounds than ever before.
“The way I would see it is that ‘Me Too’ has finally come to higher ed and has finally come to Oregon,” Pollack-Pelzner says. “At OSU you had a board willing to hire a president even though he had brushed sexual-misconduct allegations under the rug. Maybe in a previous generation people would have looked the other way. Maybe in a previous generation students and alumni and faculty wouldn’t have felt they could speak up.”
Representatives from Linfield declined to comment on pending litigation, and Davis was not available for an interview, but Linfield’s provost and vice president for academic affairs, Susan Agre-Kippenhan, agreed to a broader discussion about recent changes at the school. She says students have “much more awareness” about sexual harassment and assault, and have “high expectations” for their safety on campus.
Susan Agre-Kippenhan photo by Jason E. Kaplan
“I think those are all really to the good. I think that’s really critical,” Agre-Kippenhan says, noting that the school offers bystander training and sexual-assault awareness programs, and that it made the decision that every faculty member is a mandatory reporter.
Many of those interviewed for this story noted that COVID has exacerbated tensions on campus — as have political conflicts in the culture at large.
“I think the politics are a little more divided in rural areas — between Republican and Democrat and the perspectives that come with that,” says Jay Kenton, who stepped into his role as interim president of Western Oregon University in June and whose resume includes leadership roles at Eastern Oregon University, the Oregon Institute of Technology, the Oregon University System and Portland State University. “I think the former president has had a pretty profound effect on this country.”
Western is applying to become a “Hispanic-serving institution” — a school where at least 25% of students identify as Hispanic. Schools get additional grant funding if they have that designation; in return they offer programming tailored to Hispanic or Latinx students.
But Kenton is concerned students of color don’t feel safe on campus — or in Monmouth. Black Lives Matter protests on campus have been met with counterprotests, and “we have people driving through campus with Confederate flags on trucks.”
Agre-Kippenhan says Linfield is also an emerging Hispanic-serving institution, and that was one of the reasons the school changed its accreditation status from Linfield College to Linfield University last year: “The word ‘college’ doesn’t translate very well to Spanish. ‘Colegio’ is the word for high school.”
Agre-Kippenhan says future classes of students “are going to look very different”: more racially diverse, more likely to be first-generation students, “what we call the new majority.”
“You’re starting to have a very interesting mix of students,” Agre-Kippenhan says. “Hopefully they’re going to learn from one another.”
2. Higher ed in Oregon has been struggling for a long time.
In 1990 Oregon voters passed Ballot Measure 5, which limits property taxes on real estate, shifting the funding mechanism for education from property tax to income tax.
That made the system for funding education much more volatile.
Kenton notes that it also put universities in the position of competing directly with K-12 schools for funding.
“It’s hard to argue against compulsory education for our children. So it’s made a big difference in the funding landscape,” Kenton says. “Tuition’s gone up almost every year.”
In 2011 the structure of higher education in the state saw the beginning of another noteworthy change: The Legislature passed Senate Bill 242, which created the Higher Education Coordinating Commission (HECC). Two years later, lawmakers passed two more bills: SB 270, which created boards of trustees for each school, and HB 3120, which vested the HECC with budgetary authority for higher education. At the same time, the state disbanded the Oregon University System and its governing body, the State Board of Higher Education.
Some observers describe it as a minor and long-overdue administrative change; some say it was a tectonic shift.
Ben Cannon, who has served as executive director of the HECC since its inception and prior to that was then-Gov. John Kitzhaber’s education policy director, acknowledges that the shift to a decentralized model was the result of a “push, especially from the University of Oregon, for greater certainty that the U of O-directed philanthropy would not be siphoned off to other institutions.”
“I just don’t think it’s functional. I think there needs to be more oversight,” says Don McDonnell, who directs the radiologic program at Oregon Institute of Technology.
McDonnell, who has taught at OIT since 2007, was the president of OIT’s faculty senate until this spring, and presided over the senate when they issued a no-confidence vote in president Nagi Naganathan, who was hired at the school in 2017.
The current boards of trustees are appointed by the governor’s office, as were members of the Board of Higher Education under the old system. So in theory, the new system is similar to the old one — just decentralized. But McDonnell and others argue that, in practice, the new board has been less responsive to concerns from faculty and less accountable to the public.
Brie Landis, who is studying civil engineering at OIT, says the board of trustees meets once a quarter, but much of the meeting time is in executive session.
“There’s a lot of decision-making behind closed doors. And I feel like students feel very out of the equation,” Landis says.
Landis got involved with a group called Students in Support of Faculty in the lead-up to this year’s strike. They had noticed signs of burnout among faculty — including the fact that many left their jobs.
“In my department, we’ve lost three professors in just my time at OIT, and this was my fourth year,” they say. “Retention was an issue, and instead of hiring on new people, the existing professors just took on more load.”
Current faculty senate president Christopher Syrnyk notes that OIT was the last university in Oregon to have its faculty organize and the first to have its faculty strike. The nine-day strike took place in late April and early May, following the no-confidence vote as well as the release of a nine-page report on problems at the school, many of which boil down to overspending on administration and underspending on instruction.
The administration responded with a lengthy statement calling the report a “chaotic and embarrassing public display” of the faculty’s grievances.
“I would strongly advise my colleagues not to negotiate a labor contract during a pandemic. It was a long contract negotiation, a lot of fatigue on the part of many,” Naganathan says. He says he’s had “friendly conversations” with many individuals since the strike ended.
Rose says the nationwide trend in state-funded higher education has been toward more centralized models.
“What Oregon chose to do in 2013 and 2014 really went against the grain nationally; to move in the direction of decentralization is uncommon in these times,” says Rose, who served as chancellor of the Oregon University System between 2012 and 2014.
But Cannon says the current, decentralized model is similar to those in Tennessee and Washington state. And he notes that the HECC model is different in some important ways — notably that the OUS only oversaw public four-year schools, but the HECC’s model includes community colleges.
Cannon also says he’s aware of the concerns about transparency and responsiveness but thinks the model is an improvement over the old one, pointing out that while the State Board of Education held public meetings, they were always held in Portland.
“I assume it’s much easier for a concerned citizen of Ashland to show up and be heard at a meeting of the Southern Oregon University board of trustees. I do believe that, in that sort of little-‘d’ democratic way, we have created sort of greater access to decision-makers,” Cannon says.
Wim Wiewel, former president of PSU, says former U of O president Richard Lariviere — who headed the school between 2009 and 2011 and spent much of his tenure pushing for a more decentralized model — “was seen as a little bit too aggressive perhaps about that.”
Wim Wiewel photo by Jason E. Kaplan
But Wiewel describes the shift as “absolutely the right thing to do.”
“I know it was absolutely essential for Portland State, because historically — really going back to the founding of Portland State in 1947, you know — that institution has gotten the short end of the stick in the funding formulas that the Oregon University System used. So that’s why, for me, it was crystal clear that it needed to be changed. And I think there is nothing to suggest that that was not a good idea,” Wiewel says.
Wiewel retired from PSU in 2017, then became president of Lewis & Clark College. In May he announced he would retire again. (His immediate successor, Rahmat Shoureshi, stepped down in 2019 following reporting of ethics violations while in office. Stephen Percy has served as president of the school since Shoureshi’s resignation, stepping into the role on an interim basis in 2019; he was permanently appointed to the role in 2020.)
Wiewel says going from overseeing a large public university to a small private college has reinforced his sense that decentralized governance was a good idea.
“I’m seeing now at the private college, you know, we don’t have anybody, any institution like [the HECC or OUS] between us and our clients, our students,” Wiewel says. “We have our own board.”
3. Oregon’s problems are America’s problems.
While public institutions of higher education in Oregon face particular problems, they’re not limited to Oregon — or to public education.
“The economic model, the financial model of higher ed does not work, and that’s part of it,” says longtime Linfield donor Ronni Lacroute, who resigned from the board of trustees after Pollack-Pelzner was fired. “The tuition-dependent, endowment-dependent model — this is not working anymore.”
Lacroute had previously endowed a Shakespeare studies chair to keep English professor Pollack-Pelzner at the school. When he was fired after raising concerns about safety and inclusivity at Linfield, she resigned from the board of trustees.
Observers of higher ed have long warned that lower birth rates since the 2008-09 recession are going to create financial problems for higher ed in the near future. And they note that COVID-19 has already depressed enrollment numbers at traditional colleges and universities.
“People talk about the demographic cliff, which is happening nationwide in the year 2026, where the number of 18-year-olds really declines quite rapidly, but that’s primarily in the Northeast and the Midwest. In the West, there is still [population] growth; the growth just becomes a little bit less,” says Wiewel.
Rose, who served as president of Marylhurst University before its abrupt closure in 2018, says the business model for small liberal-arts schools is increasingly difficult to manage.
“It used to be possible in our country to have a viable business model with fewer than 1,000 students, and for a whole variety of reasons having to do with higher-education cost drivers, that is almost impossible today, unless you have an enormous endowment or alternative revenue streams to student tuition,” Rose says.
In some corners, at least, there’s reason for hope. As the legislative session wrapped, Oregon’s four-year schools and community colleges learned they’ll be getting the full amount of funding they asked for.
And some institutions are taking steps to learn from recent mistakes.
Becky Johnson, who was appointed interim president of OSU after Alexander’s resignation, says Alexander was recruited by a search firm and interviewed by a small group of people — but the search for a permanent replacement will be different this time around.
“We want to make sure we wait until all the students and faculty come back to campus so that everybody will be participating, and we will be doing an open, transparent process this time,” Johnson says.
Rose says higher ed needs to evolve to meet the needs of a diversifying population.
“The demographic of your quote-unquote typical university students has changed and will continue to evolve to look increasingly like America,” Rose says. “That is a profound thing, and brings a much greater richness to our campuses. And it will, you know — I hope and trust — transform and elevate those communities beyond the walls of the university. So I think we do have a responsibility to examine our practices, and to be clear about who our students actually are.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story inaccurately described Stephen Percy as the interim president of PSU. Oregon Business regrets the error.
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