The PSU administration comes down on the left

John Monroe and Hanna Eid report from Oregon on a new attempt by administrators to stifle the left on campus--and explain what will be needed for activists to respond.

Students come out to show support for the faculty before a strike vote in 2014 (PSU-AAUP)Students come out to show support for the faculty before a strike vote in 2014 (PSU-AAUP)

THE PORTLAND State University (PSU) administration has again escalated its repression against left-wing organizers on campus.

On October 16, during a counterprotest against a heinous anti-choice display, PSU officials told members of the PSU International Socialist Organization that they weren't allowed to use a table or megaphone to counter the towering right-wing structure that featured fabricated pictures that were supposed to be aborted fetuses, along with photos of swastikas, Stars of David and lynched bodies.

The Portland State ISO was told that tabling across the walkway from the anti-choice bigots was forbidden due to a rule that has reduced campus groups to five total tablings during each 10-week term. This rule isn't new, but it hasn't been enforced until this year. The area where the PSU ISO was told not to table is a spot that has been utilized by our branch many times due to its opportune placement between the library and student union.

While the administration defended right-wing activists who were traumatizing and intimidating students, it immediately moved against students and community members who were organizing to stand up for their rights and the safety of the campus space.

Up until recently, the main trend has been to increase bureaucratic restrictions around posting fliers, setting up tables and reserving rooms. This has dovetailed with the administration's push to use more of the campus for private events held by non-student groups--while student groups get pushed out of prime meeting rooms and are forced to gather on the peripheries of campus.

But now, the administration is directly intervening at student tablings--while at the same time, administration staff and armed campus security were seen openly fraternizing with the anti-choice bigots.

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THE PSU administration has been attacking democracy on campus from multiple fronts.

At the center has been its successful drive to arm the police and more deeply entrench them in all the institutions of the university. The PSU Board of Trustees, the unelected body that oversees the university, armed the Campus Public Safety Office despite protest from students, faculty and community members.

The administration has also attempted to thwart efforts by students to participate in international solidarity work.

In October 2016, the PSU student government voted 20-2 in favor of a resolution calling for the university to adopt BDS demands to divest from corporations that profit from the Israeli occupation. The university president at the time, Wim Wiewel, worked with the Jewish Federation of Portland to craft a statement against the divestment resolution, and the Jewish Federation fought against BDS at the state level.

A member of Jewish Voices for Peace, through a public records request, obtained e-mails between Wiewel and a director of the federation. In these e-mails, Wiewel expressed disdain for the BDS movement, claiming he had been "lucky" that the campaign hadn't taken root on campus yet, and asked for resources on how to combat it.

In one e-mail, Wiewel questioned the student government president's "authority to post what she did as a representative of student government" regarding an e-mail sent out by then-student body President Dana Ghazi.

Wiewel also used the totally discredited by still effective tactic of smearing BDS as anti-Semitic in a letter addressed to the student body.

The political clampdown is part of a larger trend of implementing austerity measures on campus.

Recently, student protests were able to get a planned tuition hike reduced after an increase in state funding, but the administration is still implementing $9 million in cuts in this school year's budget. This led to layoffs among adjunct professors, while students are still going to have to pay more tuition in a city with rising rent and food costs.

Student workers have also been mistreated. The PSU Board of Trustees has refused to discuss raising the campus minimum wage to $15 an hour, despite a student referendum supporting the wage increase.

Last spring, 30 student workers who made fundraising calls for the PSU Foundation were unceremoniously sacked a week before the term ended when the university decided to get rid of the call center. They were fired during finals week by an organization nominally dedicated to higher education.

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THIS KIND of callous behavior by the PSU administration and other organizations like the PSU Foundation stems from their priorities of running the university like a business. By raising tuition, forcing more work on professors and keeping staff wages low, campus administrators pull in large salaries for themselves and prioritize funding for the research and development that big capitalist interests want to see.

Meanwhile, all over the country, administrators are defending the "rights" of the far right to spew its hate, threatening the safety of students, faculty, staff and community members.

At the core, these "guardians of higher education" share the elitist idea that the masses of people need to be told how to think and act. As Nancy Welch put it in an International Socialist Review article:

Capital and the university bureaucracy are showing themselves to be committed to the project of training a generation of students and teachers not inclined to raise such questions [around social justice and equity]. They are committed to using everything in their arsenal to tamp down on any reprise of the last great round of struggle as they continue rolling back the reforms earlier generations won.

At the end of the day, whatever the ideological and strategic differences between the far right and neoliberal administrators, both are concerned about seeing a repeat of the progressive movements of the 1960s and '70s.

But students, faculty and staff have also taken action around the country to stand up to the far right, often in open defiance of the same administrators who are quick to defend the free speech of the Steve Bannons and Ann Coulters. Despite the clampdown, university communities refuse to be cowed by the reactionaries.

Students burdened by debt, faculty living term to term, and staff paid less than a living wage must continue to link up with struggles against racist murder and scapegoating, sexual violence and union busting in order to win a better life on campuses. The struggle for democracy, safety and accessibility on campuses is part of movements for social justice and a better world.

D Mazuz and Nikki Williams contributed to this article.