With the exception of a copy-and-paste press release in the Oregonian, the appointment of eight new members to the Portland State University Foundation’s Board of Trustees elicited zero press coverage last month. One might expect such appointments at our state’s largest educational institution ought to warrant a modest amount of coverage, even if only to offer congratulatory fanfare. Yet this absence of media attention has seemingly overlooked some clearly questionable characters joining a roster of already dubious trustees.
PSU has spent copious time and money branding itself a progressive, ‘green’, sustainable institution. It even retooled its logo to help convey this sentiment. However, viewing the list of names on the Foundation board, especially those recently added, it’s hard not to take pause and evaluate the credibility of PSU’s ‘green’ branding.
Among the freshly appointed board members sits David H. Anderson, currently executive vice president of superfund site polluters NW Natural Gas and current board member of the Northwest Gas Association. Anderson previously spent 16 years at TXU Energy Corp. Liz Fuller is director of client services for Gard Communications, the public relations firm for Ambre Energy presently attempting to force coal exports through our region. Gard is also the contracted PR firm for PSU. Wally Van Valkenburg is chair of the Oregon Business Development Commission and board member at the Portland Business Alliance, organizations that both promote polluting resource extraction industries. Rupa Jack is a senior vice president with Morgan Stanley, the Wall Street bank caught illegally forcing hundreds of thousands of Americans out of their homes during the foreclosure crisis. Lindsay Stewart is a retired senior vice president and chief of staff at NIKE Inc., the shoemaker notorious for exploiting sweatshops and child labor. Stewart previously served as corporate counsel to Georgia-Pacific, one of largest U.S. logging and paper manufacturers, now a subsidiary of the infamous Koch brothers corporate empire.
With public knowledge of these individuals’ backgrounds and profit motives, a small group of concerned activists, including alums, dropped by the Foundation’s office to ask questions of the staff on hand. After a brief exchange with a receptionist, the board’s liaison was summoned. The ensuing conversation with her remained polite, non-confrontational, and though some questions were side-stepped, the answers she provided were a telling glimpse of the Board’s own self-conciousness. Video of the exchange can be seen below.
When asked about the nature of the Foundation’s operations, the liaison explained that the goal is to support “fundraising for the university”, admitting that as public funding becomes “almost nonexistent” that “there will be more and more private funding”. When asked if the Foundation “manages the money”, the liaison agreed “Yeah, we’re kinda’ like a bank, that’s how we operate.” When asked how the board appoints new members, the liaison replied, “We have a committee that does that…the different trustees will bring forward a name, we’ll screen them to see what’s their connection to PSU, what’s their philanthropy, and if they meet the needs that we have right now – like if we’re short on investment people, then we’ll recruit for investment, or recruit for development, or recruit for finance and audit.”
When the names and corporate roles that the new board members held were read aloud, the liaison crossed her arms and scowled, though she nodded her head repeatedly, agreeing with the rather damning list of trustee credentials. Presented with the division between these facts and PSU’s vision of sustainability, the liaison stated that an appropriate response would need to come from Foundation CEO and longtime “Republican stalwart” Fred Granum. She then urged the scheduling of such a meeting.
The liaison went on to seemingly contradict herself somewhat in explaining further, “In answer to your question, we are very aware of sustainability, and we’re trying to move – totally move and stay within that.” Curiously, she then added, “Just because you may work at McDonald’s, you may be a vegetarian. What does that mean? What does that mean? I have to make a living.'”
When countered with the fact that the board members in question weren’t just trying to make a living, but were collectively making millions of dollars, the liaison repeated that questions of this sort would only be answered by the CEO.
The conversation apparently having reached an impasse, the decision was made to schedule a meeting with Fred Granum. The liaison informed the small group that she would need the names and contact info of all present. The group politely declined, but left accurate contact info for one member of the group.
What’s truly troubling about PSU’s slide into a pit of private sector collusion is that this is not an isolated incident. Across the U.S. – across the globe – universities are increasingly binding themselves to terminal investments in capital industry. Private firms are eager to fill the board rooms of educational institutions. Our academies of higher learning are becoming less enchanted with enlightenment, and more motivated to corral cash, import sports revenue, and produce a new wave of trained cogs for an expanding corporate state, eager to perform, indebted to create capital for the wealthy executives who brokered their educational process.
If we plan to hold Portland State University to its vision of sustainability, if we expect them to reject planet-killing fossil fuel industries, we’re going to have to ramp up pressure on their boards. Beyond the Foundation, there exists a plan to create a new governing board who will pilot the direction of the university itself. When asked if there would be any overlap between the Foundation and this new board, the unwavering liaison replied, “Honestly, we don’t know.”
For a university that claims to ‘Let Knowledge Serve the City‘, such words should raise serious red flags of concern.
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