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Last week the Mercury received a tip that about half of the student employees were being laid off at Portland State University’s Office of Information Technology (OIT). (Update: 4:50 pm Scott Gallagher PSU communications said the number of laid off students was 34 out of 175, 12 of whom he said have found other work).Under the cuts, student hours would be significantly sliced, from 2,200 hours per week to 1,100 hours per week. In turn, say the student workers, the cuts would affect vital IT services like computer lab hours for students. The lay offs follow the decision last June by the Oregon legislature to cut state support for the Oregon universities by 11 percent.

It would be nice to know exactly how the cuts are affecting students, but we may never know because Portland State administrators have ordered students to stop talking to media.

Following up on the layoffs lead, I contacted the OIT human resources department. The next morning, OIT manager Mark Walker emailed a curt note to OIT student workers:

Just making sure the obvious is stated. No one employed by OIT, including student workers, should be talking to anyone at from any media (e.g. Vanguard, Mercury, Willamette Week).

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Telling students not talk to the media violates PSU's community relations policies. On its community relations page, PSU clearly states its policy about students talking to the media: "Faculty and staff may be contacted by members of the media directly to comment on a topic, situation, or policy at the University." The stated policy does add the suggestion: "It's a good idea to contact the Office of University Communications prior to responding to reporters." Walker apparently interpreted this rather liberally.

Walker declined to comment for this post. But Scott Gallagher from PSU Communications says Walker was out of line in telling his students not to talk to the media. "He [Walker] works in OIT and he is not a communications expert. And he probably shouldn't have sent out a email like that without checking with us first."

Gallagher said it is not PSU’s policy to tell students not to talk directly to the media, although they prefer them talking to the communications department first. Walker isn't being reprimanded for his action, but Gallagher says, "He will be reminded not to send an email without checking with someone from communications first."

Gallagher confirmed the layoffs, but was unable to specify how many student jobs would be cut. (Update: 4:50 pm Gallagher said the number of laid off students was 34 out of 175, 12 of whom he said have found other work). The cuts are justified, says Gallagher, because many computer labs were underutilized.

But an OIT student worker, who asked the Mercury not mention his name for fear of retaliation, said the OIT cuts will hit the student body a lot harder than administrators let on. Having unstaffed labs will particularly affect low-income students who don't have computers at home, says the worker.

The layoffs were announced just before Christmas, and getting the message half way through the school year means students will have to look for work while attending classes. Some student workers who had their hours cut, he said, are applying for food stamps. "But we shouldn't have to apply for food stamps as student employees. Last year, tuition went up 9 percent where did the money go?"