Many consider Portland, Oregon to be a liberal, hipster paradise where anything organic is not far from reach and everyone loves each other. So naturally, Portland’s largest school, Portland State University (PSU), a setting where students roam free in an urban location, must fit the description. But recent events that have unfolded in the past week may show us a different side of the city and its university.
On Monday, September 21, Wim Wiewel, the president of PSU, spoke at a convocation for new students, including freshmen and transfers. Upon saying his welcome, one student stood up yelled, “mic check,” with several others standing up and echoing whatever she said. They seemed to be concerned with the recent decision to arm several campus security guards, with more to come. Once this student was finished, a few more stood up to announce a similar message. While a group chanted “Disarm PSU” off to the side of the room, Wiewel, with a mix of enthusiasm and frustration, applauded them for their activism but asked them to not interrupt the convocation. As he made this announcement, one more student stood up to get everyone’s attention with a final “mic check.” With her booming voice, she had the audience know about an incident in which an unarmed man named Sam Dubose was killed by campus security; she claimed that the president and board of trustees of the school ignored student and faculty pleas to not arm security guards precisely because of these types of incidents. After she was finished, the group, along with a good number of new students, marched outside where they stood and continued to loudly protest.
The group leading the protest was the Portland State University Student Union (PSUSU), which is not recognized by the school. Influenced by various radical leftist ideologies, PSUSU focuses on issues such as student/faculty power relations on campus, working with unions and other community organizations, student debt, and, more recently, militarization of campus security, who are trained by Portland Police. PSUSU consider themselves the only truly radical organization on campus willing to do what it takes to spread their message through protests, including walk-outs, die-ins, marches, and asking for recruits through pamphlets and tabling (which they are actually not supposed to do because they are unregistered).
Later in the week I was able to speak with one of the organizers of PSUSU named Alyssa, a junior, who has been involved with the group for about a year; she was also the last of the protesters to speak out at the convocation. They protested at the convocation because new students were less likely to be informed on the recent arming of campus security. Even though a lot of the students and faculty opposed this proposal, the ultimate decision was made by the Portland State Board of Trustees, who are appointed by the president of the university and confirmed by the Oregon legislature. According to Alyssa, most of the board members are wealthy developers pushing their own agendas. During her speech at the convocation, she even spoke directly to Wiewel, telling him that making money is his main priority (his salary reportedly $480,000-$600,000, including amenities), while students and faculty concerns are thrown under the bus, which is evident in their lack of decision-making authority.
Although this topic has been simmering beneath the surface on campuses nationwide for some time, ever since the Ferguson protests, police militarization has become a headline even for mainstream media outlets. Reports have been going around about the Defense Department giving cities, small and large, armored vehicles and other types of weaponry. In a move against this, California recently passed a law preventing their police departments from receiving these items; but as we well know, laws do not really mean anything when a lot of people (politicians included) simply find ways around them or blatantly break them.
Even though many readers may look up PSUSU and not agree with everything they stand for, their fight for the autonomy of students and faculty is an issue which many should get on board with. Liberty for students and faculty allows decisions to be made by the primary users of schools. Neither the president, the board of trustees, nor anyone with that amount of bureaucratic power and special interests at their side should have the right to call the shots for an institution which so greatly affects those underneath them, the school’s actual patrons. It’s especially repugnant for these campus bureaucrats to be calling the shots when they’re funded through the theft of taxpayer dollars.
College campuses have always been renown as places where free speech and organizing are unhindered; but this seems to be merely a cliche, even for a campus as purportedly open-minded as PSU.