Fundraising Embarrassment at Portland State University

This guest post is by Michael J. Clark, Associate Professor of English and Director, Center for Public Humanities at Portland State University.

The recent fundraising contretemps at Portland State University has embarrassed the institution, along with its many committed administrators, donors, faculty, and staff. While the failures in the oversight process by university fundraising executives have been chronicled by local media with almost lightning swiftness, the story evinces a much deeper and alarming national pattern in higher education: the pursuit of external funds at all costs and under any circumstances, with little or no faculty involvement in the process. If ever there were a situation that called for a renewal of robust faculty governance, this is it.


The events at Portland State could serve as a case study for fundraising scams: In early August of this year, a donor that asked to remain anonymous promised $100 million in unrestricted funds to the university, potentially one of the largest donations in Oregon history. Anticipating the proverbial “check in the mail,” preliminary memoranda were authored that imagined ways to use the gift. Fundraising executives at the school rushed to seal the deal, engaging in what proved to be a private and cursory donor vetting process. Only very late, it appears, was Portland State President Wim Wievel brought into the discussion, although he too played things close to the vest. University officials scheduled a press conference to announce the gift, inviting Governor Kate Brown and Mayor Charlie Hales, among others, to join in the celebration.

Just a few days prior to the announcement, red flags went up. Mark Rosenbaum, a member of the university’s board of trustees, became suspicious; further investigation revealed that the donor, John Fitzpatrick, had engaged in undelivered high stakes offers to other local institutions in the past. When the promised $100 million did not arrive, President Wiewel rushed back from a hiking vacation in Alaska. In an interview on local television, Fitzpatrick insisted that the gift would soon arrive, at which point he upped the ante: in an astonishing display of chutzpah, he offered $500 million more, and spoke of a “one billion dollar capital engine” for the school in the years to come. The university’s press conference was abruptly canceled. By week’s end the two top executives at the PSU development and foundation office announced their resignation.

Media coverage of the event has focused on the shortcomings in background review by university fundraising executives, along with a good dose of amazement at their apparent gullibility. There has also been bemusement at Fitzpatrick’s serial history of false philanthropic acts (again, this wasn’t the first time for him). The Oregonian, Portland’s flagship newspaper, seemed to express a good deal of schadenfreude about it all: the story was their Sunday lead, and the paper seemed to delight in the university’s bad luck – or bad bet, depending on your point of view. Their reporting also revealed the substantial salaries of the university’s top two fundraising administrators: $280,000 and $180,000. Granted, their jobs are demanding, but that would amount to about five tenure track lines in the department of philosophy – where rationality is still a virtue.


Local concerns aside, there is a foreboding tone to this tale, and a cautionary one as well. University officials have not fully explained just how the gift evolved so swiftly from private discussion (among whom, one still wonders) to grand press conference, nor how so grandiose a scheme should have gone on so far. University administrators insist they did nothing wrong. But “wrong” in such cases is a loaded term: Does that mean actionable? Unethical? Unwise? Naïve? Or simply unfortunate? Was the disconnect between the president and development executives a signal of a rift between them? A communications breakdown? An attempt by one branch to trump another by grabbing an imaginary brass ring? One could almost imagine that we were in an episode of Mad Men, where landing a client is the ne plus ultra of human achievement.

Under the circumstances, many think it behooves the administration to offer a full explanation to faculty members; faculty, after all, are the core of the institution — or at least they once were. President Wiewel issued a final statement ensuring that PSU never announced that it was “receiving a gift,” and did not “allocate any money that might have come from the gift,” and ends by asking that we “turn our attention back to preparing for the fall term.” Fair enough. But questions about how this situation spiraled so far out of control remain unanswered. Perhaps more disturbing, one senses that the administration does not feel any need to explain things to faculty. Given that the University Foundation and Development offices are quasi-private entities, unlike the university itself, a full explanation may never materialize.

The “fiasco” (I borrow the term from The Oregonian) also shows the unhealthy effects of growing divisions between faculty and administrators. Portland State’s administrative arm has followed national trends, growing by 47% in the past decade. (In an interview with the Portland State University Vanguard, Mary King, PSU professor of economics and head negotiator for the AAUP, said, “From 2001 to 2011, PSU’s administrative payroll for positions at the dean’s level and above increased 47 percent—even after adjusting for inflation. Nothing else grew like that around here, and we’ve continued to add positions.” Portland State University Vanguard, February 9, 2015.) At the same time, class sizes have increased, and contingent faculty now make up roughly 40% of our teaching staff (PSU-AAUP Report, 2012). Faculty are inundated with demands for compliance and assessment reports, efficiency studies, and more. Administrative scrutiny over classroom activity, which feels like fruitless meddling for most faculty, is now a given. Faculty feel more disenchanted and alienated than ever – and then we witness an event like this one.

The gap between administration and faculty at Portland State has produced bizarre results in other areas as well. Last year, a sexist message attributed to “an English faculty member” was posted on YikYak, a short-term message app (to see how the app works, click here). The YikYak message, clearly a thoughtless and ugly prank, and just as clearly not written by a faculty member, generated an auto-administrative response, and led to a one-hour presentation on anti-harassment rules by a university compliance officer. The meeting had the remarkably efficient end of wasting faculty time and insulting them at once. And it was unhelpful. We all thought the message was appalling. But the event illuminated the increasing role of administration in the most capillary recesses of faculty life. As Professor Catherine Liu of UC Irvine puts it in her essay, “Humanities and Artisanal Education,” a “siege mentality” has set in, “where internal critiques are viewed with panic”( “The Humanities and Artisanal Education: Technocrats and Artisans in the Contemporary University” College Literature: A Journal of Literary Studies, 42.2, Spring, 2015, 280-310, 208). Not a good scenario.

Faculty are intimately scrutinized while they are simultaneously being cut out of important governance roles. There are no faculty members on the Foundation’s board of directors; only one sits on the board of trustees. Rarely, if ever, are faculty asked to participate in strategic fundraising decisions – note that I did not say fundraising efforts, which we’re often asked to help out with (calling emeriti, sponsoring “get-togethers” with alumnae, and the like, with our superb in-the-trenches fundraising staff). What might have happened if a faculty official had been a member of the core fundraising team during the recent debacle? Would it have helped? Would a smart history professor sitting on the board have smelled a rat? Or one of those philosophers?

The burgeoning university administrative class has given rise to the “flexian” class, a term coined by George Mason University Professor Janine Wedel: entrepreneurial managers that move from corporate boardrooms to state bureaucracies and back to corporate life with seamless ease (Wedel, Janine. 2011. Shadow Elite: How the World’s New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government, and the Free Market (New York: Basic Books 2011)). A similar phenomenon obtains within university life, except that the new administrators move from school to school, with only marginal commitment to their host institution. This does not necessarily mean that such folk are mere carpetbaggers, but it does mean that failure has little or no impact on their long-term outlook, and loyalty to one institution is a quaint anachronism. There’s always a new university, and a new seventh floor window office overlooking the quad, down the road.

And like the ads on late night television, there’s still more! Why has the “flexian” administrative class has evolved? One possible answer is that the idea of a truly public university, maintained and operated by state and local funds to educate and serve the people of that state, is another relic. Oregon’s support for higher education has dropped precipitously since 1990 (Oregon reduced its state higher education investment by 61.5 percent, from $10.85 in fiscal 1980 (and $12.77 in fiscal 1970 to $4.18 in 2011. Extrapolating this trend since fiscal 1980, state investment will reach zero in 2036). Where once about 70% of the university’s operating budget was broadly guaranteed by state funding, we now receive only about 15%. At its current rate of decline, a report by the American Council on Education concludes that state funding will reach zero in Oregon by 2036. Universities have been forced to become quasi-commercial entities, differentiated from private institutions like the University of Phoenix (or like General Motors, sans bailout) only by the moniker “nonprofit.” The corporatization of the public American university has created a frenzied rush for external funding, and one wonders if this may well have contributed to the fundraising debacle at Portland State.


What can we learn from this? First, it’s no surprise that higher education across the country is in an accelerating transitional state. When a phone call from an anonymous donor generates a panting administrative response – all for imaginary lucre – we know we’re in trouble. It’s as if we need to spin the wheel to give ourselves a feeling of control, like the nameless protagonist in Ralph Ellison’s King of the Bingo Game. After all, we might win big. Second, we need to rethink the very notion of the public university. They’re not public anymore, and we ought to recognize that. Indeed, we might step back and ask what the idea of the public university is today. PSU was founded in 1946 to serve returning veterans, and it has done a remarkable job for the city and state in countless ways. But is the postwar university, in its current form, obsolete? Has the model run its course? I hope not, but we need to ask these questions.

We need to reimagine our spaces of higher learning. Might it help to think of the university as a public good, as a kind of public square where difficult and fertile ideas circulate, and where faculty work with the many dedicated members of our Foundation and university boards? If nothing else, the PSU story tells us that the rift between administration and faculty needs mending. We need to draw administrators not only from faculty ranks, but also from local faculty ranks – people with a shared history, a shared sense of mission, and who want to stay put.

In our classrooms we regularly say that life carries lessons – learning is of the world. The rough week at PSU is filled with important lessons: lessons about transparency, communication, shared governance, and much more. Maybe we can all “profit” from what happened last week in unexpected ways.

2 thoughts on “Fundraising Embarrassment at Portland State University

  1. There’s another thread worth pulling out here, which is the role of foundations on our campuses. It’s all well and good that there’s an office charged with spearheading fundraising, but it seems like your laws in Oregon are a lot like ours in Pennsylvania–the foundations live in the shadows, private entities that have outsized influence on our public institutions with virtually no oversight or answerability to anyone. So it’s not just the universities’/systems’ upper managers who have no attachment to the schools; the foundation people have only as much attachment as they want, and then when they muck everything up they can just disappear.

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