When the Oregon Board of Higher Education holds its monthly meeting at Portland State University this Friday, expect a previously quiet insurgency among PSU professors to blow sky-high.
What has about a thousand full-time teaching and research faculty ramped up is not getting a pay raise in over two years—and a higher-ed board decision in September that leaves them falling farther behind the pay of their counterparts at the University of Oregon and Oregon State University.
The most recent union contract expired Sept. 30. Neither side is commenting on its proposals for salary and other items, citing negotiating ground rules that bar discussing offers outside of bargaining. And a strike isn't likely any time soon, union leaders say.
But faculty members are trying to come up with other forms of persuasion.
Last week, a visit to PSU by an accrediting institution turned into a hearing on faculty grievances. On Wednesdays, professors have taken to wearing union T-shirts and buttons.
Some professors are asking students to sign statements of support; about 400 have signed. In the English department, three graduate students wrote a more strongly worded letter signed by 80 colleagues saying inadequate faculty pay is compromising the quality of education—lowering morale, increasing turnover and making top-tier academics hard to recruit.
PSU faculty salaries are in the lowest 10 percent of comparable public universities nationwide, says American Association of University Professors chapter coordinator Julia Getchell.
According to the AAUP's most recent national survey, salaries of full professors at public universities average just under $98,000 a year.
At PSU, full professors average $76,700. That's $2,500 less than the average at Oregon State University ($79,200) and $6,900 less than at the University of Oregon ($83,600), both in cheaper campus towns.
PSU's average is $21,400 less than at the University of Washington ($98,100) in more expensive Seattle. But the UW comparison comes while Portland leaders like to talk about PSU one day becoming the city university that UW is for Seattle in terms of prestige and research dollars.
And full professors are the top of the academic pecking order. About 55 percent of PSU faculty represented by AAUP make less than $50,000 a year.
Former union president Gary Brodowicz, a professor in PSU's College of Urban and Public Affairs, says he's served on faculty search committees where applicants just laughed when they heard the salaries offered.
Vice provost Mike Driscoll, who represents the administration in labor negotiations, acknowledges that PSU faculty salaries are "below median."
But PSU is in a tight spot financially, he says: A 10 percent-plus increase in health-care and pension costs have more than consumed a 7.9 percent increase in legislative appropriations.
Some professors blame the PSU administration, which spares no expense acquiring new buildings, they say, but cries poverty when it comes to salaries.
Then, too, PSU profs lament, the school has long been the redheaded stepchild of the Oregon university system as a young institution with fewer influential alumni.
And now, Getchell says, it's the victim of an unfair funding mechanism.
State higher-ed funding is tied to enrollment figures. But the higher-ed board decided in September to fund the state's seven universities on the basis of 2002-03 enrollment instead of more recent numbers. That discriminates against PSU, Getchell says, because it's growing faster than the other state universities.
PSU, with about 25,000 students enrolled, is growing at 2 to 6 percent a year. Annual growth at UO and OSU has regularly fallen below 2 percent for several years at both schools.
Expect that point and others to be raised Friday at the higher-ed board meeting.