How UO’s COVID Response Underscores the Necessity of Democratzing the Board of Trustees

Democratize UO’s Statement on the UO Administration’s Response to the Omicron Surge

The roots of the current governance structure at UO can be traced back to 2010 under then-new University President Robert Lariviere. At this time, all of the public universities in the state were governed by the Oregon University System. President Lariviere advocated for UO to have an independent board (1).

Around this time, top UO donor and the former CEO and founder of Nike, Phil Knight, stated in an interview that Larivere’s proposals for an independent board represented UO “tak[ing] a step towards becoming a more private university” (2).

In 2012, Columbia Sportswear CEO Tim Boyle helped form a PAC called “Oregonians for Higher Education” that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from Knight and other wealthy contributors with the goal of creating an autonomous board for UO (3,4).

In 2013, after the PAC lobbied the Oregon Legislature, Gov. John Kitzhaber signed Senate Bill 270 into law, creating a means for establishing autonomous Boards of Trustees at Oregon’s public universities (5).

The new legislation outlined that the new Board of Trustees at UO would be made up of members appointed by the governor and approved by the legislature, with tokenized representation of one student, one faculty member, and one staff member outside of the at-large membership. In practice, the president of the university and the board make their recommendations for each new member to the governor which are then rubber-stamped with little attention or fanfare.

This whole undemocratic and unaccountable process has enabled the Board of Trustees and the President of UO to get away with many unpopular decisions. In this era of crisis, the consequences of that dynamic have become more alarming than ever before.

Without a clear means of being able to hold the BOT or President Schill’s feet to the fire, they are emboldened to prioritize UO’s bottomline over public health and safety.

From the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, UO has emphasized the maximization of their profits over doing what is necessary to protect students, faculty, staff, and the wider Eugene community.

At the end of Winter Term 2020, the Board of Trustees met indoors and maskless in order to approve a new “Guaranteed Tuition” model, designed to conceal perpetual yearly tuition increases by having each graduating class pay its own set rate for tuition, and the purchase of a $12 million jumbotron for Autzen Stadium (6).

At this same meeting, Board Chairman Chuck Lillis shoved one of our student activists who was blocking an entrance in protest (7).

In Fall 2020, the university dragged its feet on announcing that classes would continue to be remote until August when most students had already signed leases to live in Eugene for the year. At the same time, UO locked incoming freshmen into housing contracts, denying them refunds if they opted to later move out mid-way through the year if conditions worsened.

Throughout the 2020/2021 school year, the @covid.campus Instagram page diligently compiled anonymous testimony from the campus community about how they felt unsafe and documented UO’s woefully inadequate response to this crisis (8).

There were stories of RA’s being harassed for doing their jobs, dining hall workers being overworked, and institutional indifference towards Greek life’s irresponsible partying. This vital source of information exposed the administration’s fundamental incompetence in their handling of COVID.

In the 2021/2022 school year, we have seen the same patterns of behavior from UO admin persist. The university has fully committed to in-person classes with required vaccinations starting this fall.

But, now they face a shortage of student workers due to low wages and a new variant that may very well undermine the return to “normalcy” that they’re desperately clinging to. As we enter the new year and a new term, it is due time for UO to reassess its current strategy.

Even before the discovery of the Omicron variant, there were shortcomings in the university’s reopening strategy. There were no efforts to reduce class sizes, proper ventilation was not prioritized, professors were allowed to give lectures maskless, there was no requirement for all classes to have a remote option, prior flexibility in changing grading options was rescinded, and on-campus mental health services and the Accessible Education Center (AEC) have become overwhelmed due to increased demand.

Now, as we begin a new term with the worst surge we’ve seen so far, UO is again dragging its feet and abdicating responsibility. The university has not been offering free N95/KN95 masks, classes must reach the arbitrary threshold of 20% of students being absent due to COVID before switching to remote, and there seem to be no plans to offer vaccination clinics for boosters. UO’s current approach is incredibly reckless and unnecessarily puts the whole campus community in danger.

The Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation (GTFF) has been bravely raising the alarm about the unsafe conditions that their members, and the community as a whole, face. Since the first week of Winter Term began, they have been publicly calling on UO to temporarily make classes remote and to offer free, proper PPE.

Additionally, the union has called on its members to file Unfair Labor Practice charges against the university and to refuse to work in an unsafe environment. Democratize UO stands in solidarity with the GTFF and fully supports their demands.

How has UO responded to the GTFF? By sending out a vague, toothless email from a Provost and seeking out union-busting legal counsel.

This response shows how arrogant and stubborn the university’s administration is. When faced with pushback from one of the few mechanisms the campus community has to stand up to them, the administration gets defensive instead of meeting the moment. The University of Oregon’s administration has shown time and time again that they are not fit to lead.

Now, their failures have the potential for extremely dire consequences on-campus and in the city of Eugene as a whole. More than ever, it is clear that the Board of Trustees as it exists now cannot properly respond to crises. They are far more concerned about maintaining profits than ensuring the health and safety of students, faculty, staff, and community members. The board will never change its selfish and destructive ways without being forced to. We desperately need a democratically elected Board of Trustees. Everyone at UO deserves to elect representatives to the board from their own communities of students and workers.

Having an equal number of students, faculty, staff, and community members on the Board of Trustees who govern our university instead of corporate millionaires and billionaires will lead us towards true progress on campus. By electing the trustees, we would be able to hold them accountable and put pressure on them to meet our needs. This is what our university deserves.

DEMOCRATIZE UO DEMANDS:

• A Temporary Return to Remote Instruction for At Least Two Weeks
• Require N95/KN95 Masks for All Students, Faculty, and Staff and Provide Them for Free
• Offer Booster Vaccination Clinics for the UO Community
• Raise the Pay of Student Workers to a Living Wage
• Return to the Flexible Grading Option Policies
• Increase Funding for the UO Counseling Center and Accessible Education Center
• Democratize the Board of Trustees

Sources:

  1. https://www.eugeneweekly.com/2015/07/09/the-end-of-the-oregon-university-system/
  2. http://blog.oregonlive.com/behindducksbeat/2010/12/phil_knight_on_oregon_ducks_as.html
  3. https://www.wweek.com/portland/blog-28595-new-political-action-committee-will-focus-on-higher-ed.html
  4. https://www.wweek.com/portland/blog-28827-cash-continues-to-pour-into-higher-ed-pac.html
  5. https://olis.oregonlegislature.gov/liz/2013R1/Downloads/MeasureDocument/SB270/Enrolled
  6. https://www.dailyemerald.com/news/breaking-board-of-trustees-unanimously-approves-guaranteed-tuition/article_7114d372-688a-11ea-a706-2b963449adb9.html
  7. https://www.instagram.com/p/CH321VWhrg0/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link
  8. https://www.instagram.com/covid.campus/
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