MONMOUTH — Nicole Niskanen never thought she would study science in college.
“I used to really struggle with science and had no patience for it,” she said.
Yet her mother pushed her, teaching her a valuable lesson.
“Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean you quit on it,” Niskanen said.
Now Niskanen will graduate from Western Oregon University in June with a degree in earth science. No one will likely follow in her footsteps. Western President Rex Fuller announced proposals last month to discontinue the university’s earth science program.
In addition to eliminating majors in earth science, Fuller proposes eliminating majors in anthropology, philosophy and geography as well as the master’s degree programs in music and information systems.
His proposed budget also eliminates Asian studies as a concentration for history majors and eliminates minors and certificates in homeland security and preparedness for criminal justice students while also curtailing library instruction.
Such reductions and eliminations mean corresponding cuts in the number of non-tenure track professors. It total, Fuller announced last month, 46 faculty and staff members would either be laid off or have their hours cut.
His proposals inflamed students and professors. The Western Oregon University Federation of Teachers issued a vote of no confidence against Fuller after the proposed layoffs and other budget cuts were announced last month.
Tensions escalated when the university’s board of trustees met Nov. 18 and approved the 2021 budget with the cuts recommended by Fuller.
Niskanen said the trustees refused to listen to what she and other students had to say about the cuts. And they had lot to say, she added.
She is the first person from her low-income family to attend college.
Western provides students a chance to pursue their dreams, Niskanen said. She was offered a presidential scholarship to attend Oregon State, but she couldn’t accept it.
“I couldn’t afford OSU,” she said. “Western was my only option. One term at OSU was going to be more expensive than three terms at Western.”
University officials keep telling her not to worry. The program won’t be eliminated until after she graduates in June.
Hearing that infuriates her, Niskanen said. “I’m not fighting for me to graduate,” she said. “I’m fighting for people who are coming (to school) after me so they can have an opportunity to break the cycle of poverty and oppression.”
No one at the trustees’ meeting last week heard that.
Chair Betty Komp refused to allow students to testify at the meeting, Niskanen said.
“We deserve to have our voices heard on issues that directly pertain to our education,” she said. “They’re trying to shove our voices under the rug.”
Lisa Catto, the assistant director of marketing and communications at Western, said no one is being ignored or shut out. In a written statement on behalf of Western’s administration, she called the budget cuts the “program curtailment process.”
That process is explicitly laid out in the university’s contract with the union and remains in the comment period, Catto said.
“President Rex Fuller and all the trustees have received every student comment submitted and have or will read them all,” she said.
Final comments on plans to eliminate programs were due Monday. A task force will then draft a final plan to be approved by the end of the month.
Students are being heard, Catto said.
“Two students in the earth science program called President Fuller’s office, and he spoke with both students prior to the board meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 18,” Catto said.
Niskanen was one of the two students who spoke with Fuller.
“I was underwhelmed by what the president had to say in return,” she said.
She added that Fuller never addressed why students were only given a week to submit comments on the decision and were not allowed to speak at the trustees’ meeting — especially when a final decision on the cuts is due at the end of the month.
“I have yet to hear back from anyone in the upper administration who has acknowledged the points made by students that defend the values of the university, i.e. diversity and inclusion, as well as supporting first-generation students and accommodating disabled students,” Niskanen said.
“I find it hard to accept that these are the best and only possible actions the university will take to evolve with the changing financial market,” she added.
The trustees could have let students know they’re voices are valued, Niskanen said.
“Instead, we were referred to as toes on a foot with gangrene that needed to be cut off to save the rest of the foot,” she said.
Komp said there are no easy answers to the undeniable fiscal realities that confront the university.
“These are unprecedented and challenging times for our university and our community,” she said in a formal statement released Nov. 18. “Over the course of the past several years, this board has received numerous updates on the university’s fiscal condition. We have absorbed that information, approved budget plans and directed the president to right-size the institution to match its revenues and expenses.”
She described the process as “painful” and added it was exacerbated by the pandemic.
“We, as a board, must acknowledge and respect the toll budget cuts amid a pandemic take on our community,” Komp said.
She said that the board will not vote on the plan without reviewing people’s comment.
“Input is invaluable as the president moves to finalize the plan in accord with the collective bargaining agreement,” she said.
Students are certainly not being excluded, Komp added.
“Each and every story is personal, and it is important that the board understand this perspective,” she said. “Each trustee received every comment.”
In their vote of no confidence in Fuller, union members “cited failures of leadership, persistent management problems and damage to the campus climate” as their primary reasons.
More than 85% of the 240 members who responded to a union survey said they had no confidence in President Fuller’s leadership.
“This is the first time in institutional memory that a vote of no confidence has been conducted at WOU,” said the union’s Communication Director Scott Beaver.
The survey also included a question asking respondents whether the unions should conduct another survey exploring possible censure of other members of Fuller’s administration.
“The result of this censure question was that more than 90% of the 240 faculty and classified staff who responded wished the unions to conduct such a survey,” Beaver said.
The follow-up survey will be completed by the end of the month.
“The employees of Western Oregon University clearly and emphatically expressed their desire for the WOU board of trustees to take seriously their concerns about WOU’s leadership team,” said Beaver, who also expressed frustration at the trustees only accepting written testimony.
“It is important to slow this process down in order to more fully consider the financial impacts and the unintended negative consequences for our students as well as the mission which WOU endeavors to fulfill for Oregon,” Beaver said.“Authentic collaboration between the administration and campus community, including students, staff and faculty, would help diminish the likelihood of significant and negative unintended consequences.”
Beaver said Komp agreed to meet with union leaders at 10 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 24, to discuss the vote of no confidence. Union leaders want to hold a follow-up meeting with the entire board of trustees as well as a coalition of students, staff and faculty, he added.
“The coalition plans to provide the board of trustees with information that they may not otherwise be receiving, which is critical to their decision-making,” he said.
Beaver said Fuller’s proposed budget “would make deep cuts which we believe would jeopardize future WOU enrollment and student success. We do not deny the president his right to seek efficiencies, but we feel that these cuts go too far.”
Niskanen said the elimination of the earth science program leaves her confused and angry. The program, with only three professors, offers small classes. Some of her classes have only eight students in them, others have only four or five.
However, those in the program have a high employment rate. Dr. Steve Taylor helped Niskanen get a job at the city of Salem in the sustainability department.
“I have hands-on field experience because he helped me get this job,” she said.
All the professors are equally helpful, she added.
“They put their students before themselves and their research,” she said. “It is a student-focused department.”
Niskanen vowed to keep fighting.
“The students in the earth science department are not willing to let the program go,” she said.
“For many of us, this program has been more than just meeting deadlines, creating presentations, and spending countless hours studying in the lab. This program has been field experience, job experience, internship opportunities, team building and collaboration and a very intimate educational experience.”
Komp said everyone involved has her empathy.
“Hard decisions are necessary right now,” she said. “This takes nothing from the deeply personal stories and experiences of our community. It does not derail us from our mission and from our students.”