Portland State University is inching closer to getting a new leader.
Presidential finalists recently met with PSU’s Board of Trustees and the wider campus community. The board will meet Tuesday in a private, executive meeting with the goal of choosing the university’s new leader, though the university says the official announcement likely won’t come until a few weeks later.
The two finalists are both in leadership positions at large universities. Ann Cudd is provost, senior vice chancellor and a professor of philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh. Kathy Johnson is executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer at Indiana University—Purdue University Indianapolis, known as IUPUI. PSU had selected a third finalist, but the candidate dropped out before visiting campus and without their interest becoming public.
Cudd and Johnson are pushing for the job at PSU following the announcement of the retirement of current president, Stephen Percy. Percy will retire at the end of this academic year. He’s been at PSU since 2014 — first as a professor before becoming the university’s president. He took over as interim president in 2019. PSU’s previous president, Rahmat Shoureshi resigned amid questions about his spending habits and treatment of university staff. Percy became the university’s permanent president in 2020.
Whoever PSU’s board chooses to succeed Percy will face big challenges as the next leader of Oregon’s largest urban university.
Portland State has seen a roughly 16.5% drop in student headcount since 2018, according to data from Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission. It’s not a problem unique to the next leader of PSU, as colleges across the country are digging out from down enrollments tied to the pandemic. The president of Southern Oregon University rolled out plans earlier this month to make significant budget cuts as part of a long-term plan to stabilize that college’s finances after a recent pattern of down enrollment.
That’s something the university wants its new leader to address, according to the presidential search profile created by PSU’s outside search firm, with input from campus stakeholders.
According to the profile, the university expects the next president to “develop and implement a plan for the long-term financial health of the university in an era of declining enrollments” while still balancing other priorities like student affordability and compensation for staff and faculty.
That’s on the minds of PSU faculty, too.
Emily Ford is a librarian and the president of PSU-AAUP, the union representing roughly 1,200 university faculty and other academic professionals.
Ford said the way the university serves its students, many of whom are from underrepresented communities, is crucial to PSU’s future, and part of that is supporting not only those students but also the faculty and staff who directly work with them.
“The enrollment forecasts we’ve seen and the lack of progress we’ve seen in growing enrollment at the university level is very concerning to us,” Ford said. “We maintain that if you can invest in students, invest in the people that serve students directly on the ground — so, financial aid, advisors, admissions — instead of cutting positions and cutting people in those areas, that we can grow enrollment … What we need are good decisions at the higher level that support on-the-ground workers who can provide the necessary services for our students.”
Ford said there has been good involvement from faculty and other campus community members in the search for the next president. The presidential search advisory committee included a faculty member as well as members of PSU’s adjunct, staff and graduate employee unions.
Both of the candidates’ recent on-campus visits included meetings with faculty leaders, including members of the union and faculty senate.
Ford said that adherence to shared governance is something that the union hopes to carry forward with this new leader.
“From a union perspective, we are very excited for a new president to come to PSU. We think we desperately need a change in the direction of our leadership, and we’re also very excited to collaborate with whoever is our next president,” she said.
The faculty union leader didn’t weigh in on which of the two finalists her members might prefer.
Ford said the union hopes the new president will help to work toward a “bright future” for PSU, with a focus on students.
“We need to start making good choices that support students in a real way.”
Ford said both the faculty union and university leadership have encouraged the campus community to give the board feedback on the two finalists, and she believes the board will seriously consider that feedback.