The Sicuro File: A Personal Perspective on the Struggle over Portland State University's Most Controversial President

Article excerpt

DURING THANKSGIVING weekend of 1987, Portland State University (PSU) President Natale Sicuro appeared on camera during halftime as the university hosted the opening round of the nationally televised Division II National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) football playoffs. Viewers may not have heard of Portland State, Sicuro announced with a flourish, but they soon would. A former college football athlete and Ohio high school coach with a Ph.D. in educational psychology, PSU's fifth president had administered Kent State University's Continuing Education Program and served as President of Southern Oregon State College before arriving in Portland the previous year. PSU's new leader announced his intention to overcome faculty "inferiority complexes" regarding rival state institutions while vowing to gain national exposure with a "Plan for the '90s" and an upgraded intercollegiate athletics program. (1)

This essay offers a personal recounting of Sicuro's tumultuous tenure and "the great governance issue of Portland State's history," as institutional historian Gordon B. Dodds has described it. (2) By tracing a curious path from allegations of minor improprieties among favored student government leaders to widespread contention over the management style and behavior of a controversial academic leader, it traces my tangential but deeply engaged role in the dramatic power struggle erupting at Oregon's largest urban university in the late 1980s. In doing so, it highlights significant issues affecting modern university life, from race relations, the role of competitive sports, student rights, faculty autonomy, and business influence to corporate trends in the academy itself.

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PORTLAND STATE insiders privately claimed that Oregon higher education Chancellor William E. Davis had pushed Sicuro's candidacy upon a reluctant search committee. Faculty mistrust of state officials stemmed from a legacy in which the institution often seemed relegated to the role of "poor stepchild" of the University of Oregon and Oregon State University in a governance structure affording ultimate power to the appointees of the State Board of Higher Education. "Throughout its history," noted Dodds, Portland State "always had been assailed by adversity from one quarter or another." (3)

The school's problematic status dated to 1946, when the state authorized its predecessor, the Vanport Extension Center, to serve World War II veterans on the site of an abandoned shipyard workers' housing project. Wiped out in the devastating Columbia River flood of 1948, the facility ultimately relocated to the former Lincoln High School building on Portland's downtown Park Blocks. It was not until 1955, however, that state officials overlooked opposition from private and public higher education rivals, renamed the center Portland State College, and authorized its expansion to a four-year program. (4)

Designated as a "downtown city" institution, the school mainly served commuters with families and jobs. Nevertheless, as enrollment continued to grow in a thriving metropolitan environment, the legislature sanctioned creation of professional and graduate programs in education, social work, engineering, business, and urban affairs. In 1969, the college received university status, permitting the creation of additional graduate programs. Just as Portland State appeared to achieve legitimacy, however, faculty and student protests over the Vietnam War alienated key local business and political supporters. To complicate matters, a sputtering regional economy and consequent public animosity toward state spending generated a period of financial constraints, leading to "retrenchment" between 1971 and 1974 and again in 1981. (5)

Throughout Portland State's history, faculty have played a key role in institutional affairs. During the 1950s, professors took the lead in devising the expanded liberal arts curriculum, ratified an academic constitution, and created a senate and advisory council elected by the entire faculty. …