Socialist Students Take Root At Portland State

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The Socialist Students at Portland State University still have some qualms with former Portland State President Wim Wiewel and the Board of Trustees (BoT). Since 2013, students part of the PSU Student Union have repeatedly tried to confront Wiewel about issues like food insecurity and high tuition rates on campus they see as caused by an administration and governing board acting on self interest instead of student need.

While this summer the presidency at PSU was passed to former New York Institute of Technology interim, President Rahman Shoureshi, some remain unconvinced that much will change on campus without direct student involvement. “I’m pessimistic about President Shoureshi really being any different beyond just the words that he uses to describe what he is doing,” Zack Pursley of Socialist Students said.

As reported in the Portland Tribune in November, higher education funding at a state level in Oregon has decreased spending almost 70 percent between 1970-2011, according to the American Council on Education. That’s part of the reason for “extreme expression” identified on Oregon college campuses by the Tribune.

Brent Finkbeiner, President of Associated Students of PSU (ASPSU) the student body government, says he and Vice President Donald Thompson have yet to meet the new Socialist Student group. “Some of their platforms inherently align with some of the goals that Donald and I have this year. We want to focus on affordability and accessibility and accountability… how we actualize those things becomes very tricky, very nuanced,” Finkbeiner said.

The Socialist Students group at Portland State is part of a national initiative sparked in August 2016 by student members of the Socialist Alternative Party. There are almost 50 branches of the Socialist Students at high schools, community colleges, and universities throughout the country. The iteration at PSU kicked into gear earlier this year. There are around eleven members, according to student organizer Olivia Pace. The group is collaborating with the Portland State University Student Union (PSUSU) for a new campaign, Democratize PSU.

In the past, PSUSU has created campaigns around campus issues, ranging from faculty salary to rising tuition costs. These campaigns have manifested into campus-wide walkouts, rallies in the Park Blocks, BoT meeting occupations, and marches to the president’s office. This summer, PSUSU was the center of a brief article, the “Campus Disrupt” series of the New York Times for their recruitment techniques, including the disruption of President Wiewel’s convocation speech in 2015.

In 2013, the PSU Vanguard reported that the group had garnered over 500 members upon being established. One of the group’s first major actions was in collaboration with the PSU American Association of University Professors and involved campus-wide walk-out on behalf of professors during union contract negotiation with PSU, and saw attendance reportedly around 1,000 PSU community members.

Democratize PSU differs from previous PSUSU and student-run campus campaigns in that it is meant to umbrella the need to address several issues under one central demand backed by socialist ideas: establishing a student elected, student majority BoT. It seeks to address campus issues using socialist politics and revolutionizing the current BoT system, which has its board members appointed through a process involving the influence of the PSU President.

“It’s much different to win these gains through asking the board or the administration or the president and then them just handing them to us; it looks much different when you win gains like these through collective resistance that aims at stripping undemocratically elected people in power of that power and handing it to the students,” said Pace.

The gains include the reduction of administrator salaries, more affordable campus housing, freezing the ever-rising tuition, disarming the recently deputized campus police, increasing food security, and getting a campus-wide $15 minimum wage for workers—an increase that would be funded by re-apportionment of administrator salaries. “It feels really daunting to have all of these things in front of you, and to have this kind of obfuscated power structure,” Pace said.

Pace is referring to the BoT, which consists of 15 volunteer members including President Shoureshi, who is a non-voting member. Six of these members, including the student and faculty representatives, have direct ties with PSU as professors, students, and graduates. Nine of them attended an Oregon university or private school in the state. They convene as a whole four times a year and complete most of their work around issues of campus safety, finance and administration, and student and academic affairs in separate committee meetings.

The BoT seats notable Oregon business-people like Pete Nickerson, former manager of Nike China; president of Columbia Investments, Ltd., Peter Stott; and Thomas J. Imeson, the current Vice President for Public Affairs for NW Natural Gas. Northwest Natural Gas has donated over $30,000 in grants to the PSU Foundation—a board that pays over half of the President’s salary and provides scholarships—in the past two years.

Finkbeiner feels the BoT has been responsive to student government this year so far. “I’ve said directly to [many Board members] that students feel because of your background that you are disconnected from us. And for some individuals, maybe that’s the case. For many of the individuals I’ve met personally, that is not the case… I would say that one of the big things I would like us to do when we’re questioning the powers at be is to separate the people and the process,” Finkbeiner said.

Since the creation of the BoT in 2013, the board has increased tuition multiple times, deputized the campus police, and appointed President Shoureshi.

Shoureshi is an Iranian immigrant who told the Portland Tribune his experience being at college student in America during the Iran Hostage Crisis from 1979-1981 and fearing deportation makes him a supporter of maintaining a “sanctuary campus” at PSU. His salary is larger than Wiewel’s, at $599,988, representing an over $59,000 increase. He’s coming to PSU following a roughly 5 percent tuition increase, and budget cuts across the board.

Thursday, November 16, Socialist Students and PSUSU presented their demand to the student body by putting on a rally in the South Park Blocks. The group marched inside the Smith Memorial Student Union cafeteria and Parkway North with a print-out of their central demand, and plenty of space for student signatures expressing support. Eventually, this will be presented to President Shoureshi in person according to Pace.

The event garnered a handful of signatures, as many students in SMSU continued on doing their homework as the group spoke of campus issues over a megaphone. So far there are no faculty members involved with Socialist Students.

While the group has big ideas for campus change, they prefer to leave the mechanics of these changes for later. “These are things that we can hash out in the future…If we give students the power to be actually involved in those in a place where our administration has to listen to us, I think we can be engaged in that decision making process,” Pursley said, “We want students to be the ones hashing out those specifics.”

This article originally appeared in the print edition of our December 2017, issue.

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