Time to Strike: Democratize the Board

In balancing the budget, administration did right by its community last spring. UO President Michael Schill worked with campus community members to find solutions to an upcoming budget deficit. Together, tapping into the vast knowledge and resources living and working on this campus, the community redeveloped plans for major capital construction projects, reducing projected costs while significantly emboldening their environmentally regenerative qualities. Together, UO stakeholders identified cornerstone academic extension programs and protected their value with exemptions to budget cuts, looking instead to the athletics department, which boasts a whopping 11.8% of the 1.16 billion in expenditures, to find areas able to withstand cuts. Finally, and most validating, admin itself proposed a 20% reduction to their own bloated salaries. President Schill left the table with an adjusted salary of $11,298 per week, down from his previous $32,276. Considering he, unlike the students, staff and faculty who make up the majority of this university, gets his basic needs like housing and transportation provided for through the University, Schill determined this adjustment to be not only reasonable, but representative of the value he places on the people who make this public university work.

—If only any of it were true. No no, instead, we have the Austerity Gods smiling down on UO administration this year. Despite months of time and resources student orgs and campus workers spent lobbying the state (successfully) for additional funding to address the deficit, administration balanced the budget on our overwhelmed and underpaid backs. Instead of getting a cut of what was rightfully ours, we got cut out. Admin raised the cost of in-state student tuition by 6.9%. Campus unions, both our classified staff workers who make up SEIU503 Local 085 and our GEs who make up the GTFF, have endured months of stalemate bargaining with University management over basic needs like health care coverage, cost of living adjustments, meal costs, and yearly raises. Further, admin cut academic extension programs that are vital to the public service component of this university. The Museum of Natural and Cultural History faced a 17% cut; the Oregon Bach Festival a 25% cut; the Jordan Schnitzer Art Museum a 15% cut; and, most troubling, the Labor Education and Research Center, an essential resource for the very unions who work on this campus and Oregon workers at large, were dealt a debilitating 45% cut in university funds.

In protest, hundreds of students, staff, faculty and supportive community members filled the board of trustees meeting last spring and attested to the mismanagement of university funds. Though the action strengthened solidarity between students and workers on campus, it did nothing to change the position of our Board of Trustees. And why would it? Our “Board of Trustees” are entrusted not to our community, but to the president himself and corporate donors. The president recommends appointees, the senate approves them, and the governor signs off on their approval. Our Board of Trustees is responsible for approving all significant decisions of this “public” university–including the hiring and firing of the University president who essentially put them in power. One would think a public university would boast a participatory election process from the public it serves. Nope–Stamp a governor’s signature on it and there we go: American democracy at its finest!

This form of “governance” is the product of an aggressive lobbying campaign by Political Action Committee (PAC) “Oregonians for Higher Education Excellence” between 2011 and 2015. The PAC, made up largely of in and out-of-state corporate business leaders, pushed into play a number of House and Senate Bills–most notable of which, Senate Bill 270–that together completely altered the governing structure of Oregon’s public universities. These bills transformed the previous Oregon University System (which I should note, was also not great) that oversaw all seven public universities in Oregon, to instead establish independent governing boards for each of the universities. They sold Oregonians on the idea because the state at the time was not providing sufficient funding for universities. This new form of governance would bring in more money from big donors, they said; it would allow the university to make decisions which benefit the individual campus communities it served, they said…

That’s what they said, yet here we are fighting for scraps. The end of the 2018/2019 school left the University of Oregon community hungry—literally in that we’re facing an uphill battle with increasing cost of living, and figuratively in terms of next steps.

Time spent trying to influence people in power, in general but particularly at this university, is time wasted. In terms of pressure, I suggest we apply it elsewhere: on one another, shoulder to shoulder, and launch a campaign to democratize the governing boards of public universities.

Public universities operate very much like city municipalities. Staff maintain campus facilities, “parks”, and open space. Decision makers oversee housing costs and quality. They determine who receives contracts for major capital investments, what those investments are, and who benefits from them. Hell, we have our own police department. Why not elect leaders much like we do city councilors? By “district” or “ward” may not be feasible, but say elections were run based on affiliation, where we make current students, alumni, staff, faculty, or surrounding community members eligible voters for those in their affinity group which would best represent them. Or, more tenably, we could look to Oregon’s K-12 school board system for inspiration. Oregon’s K-12 public schools are run by a school board. That board is not made up of appointees, but representatives elected through a direct vote by the district it is built to serve. Imagine a University of Oregon Board of Trustees elected by the people they are meant to serve.

Would we elect leaders who’d approve the devastating austerity cuts mentioned earlier? Would we have recommended the most recent appointee and ex investment banker, Elisa M. deCastro to the Board, whose “unique advantage” in dealing with budget deficits is that she looks at universities much like big businesses, according to her recent interview with The Daily Emerald.

Would we push to privatize our public good, or might we elect leaders looking instead to decomodify higher education for Oregonians?

We need to take big leaps forward and fast, with our eyes on the long game. Last year’s outrageous budget cuts cultivated a powerful coalition of students and workers on campus. Particularly if labor strikes ensue this year as expected, that coalition will only gain momentum. Let’s use the power we’re generating to shine light on the driving force behind our struggle, and work to change it.

According to President Schill and his ol’ pals from Oregonians for Higher Education Excellence, by now we ought to be basking in excellence over here at our “flagship research institution.” Can ya feel it custodians? Food service personnel, you? Can ya feel it resident hall assistants? I know that $20 a week stipend really does the trick. Are you, students, just flooded with feelings of excellence while drowning in student debt and struggling to pay for food, housing, and health care? That anxiety around keeping a roof over my head sure leaves me saturated with feelings of excellence.

Let us put forth our most-excellent selves and establish systems of excellently-democratic representation on campus. Together, we can build campus communities actually capable of achieving the dreamy scenario laid out in my introduction. Nothing about us, without us.

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