FONT & AUDIO
PSU's new president is a Middle Eastern immigrant, a scientist, an academic. In short, he's the anti-Trump.
On a walking tour last Friday morning with Portland State University's new president, Rahmat Shoureshi, it was easy to forget the culture war going on in America.
But in between the smiles and the handshakes, there were shadows of it here and there.
Notifications from news apps kept ringing that President Donald Trump had threatened to pull out of the nuclear deal with Iran, Shoureshi's home country.
In Shoureshi's visit with Dean of Student Life Michele Toppe, she mentioned Micah Fletcher, the PSU student who just returned to school after being seriously wounded in May. Fletcher was reportedly defending two black teenage girls from an Islamophobic attack on a MAX train. He had told news media the day before that he still doesn't feel safe, even at home in bed.
Toppe, who is also vice president of student affairs, says it's not just Fletcher: She is hearing a lot of fear and anxiety from students about their personal safety on public transit and in the world at large.
"That is keeping me up at night," Toppe tells Shoureshi. "I don't know if there's a 'to do' with that one, but …" she trails off.
Shoureshi nods attentively. He is a short, soft-spoken man with smiling eyes and a thoughtful demeanor.
His presidency is emblematic of a shift in The Whitest City in America's culture. Portland has been progressive for a long time, but in Trump's America, new battle lines have been drawn and identities — including race — are key factors.
In many ways, Shoureshi represents the antithesis of Trumpism — a Middle Eastern immigrant, scientist, academic and globalist who leads an urban, environmentalist, liberal university.
When confronted with this notion, he says he doesn't like to talk politics much and would rather stay neutral.
In that way, too, he is the anti-Trump.
From international student to university president
People are open and eager to meet this new president — who began leading PSU on Aug. 14, after briefly heading the New York Institute of Technology and a long career in academia. Shoureshi replaced Wim Wiewel, a Dutch immigrant who led the university for nine years and now heads Lewis & Clark College.
One woman, a theater major who asked only to be called Taylor, said Shoureshi was a breath of fresh air. She echoed what many others said — that Shoureshi seems to genuinely engage with students.
Brent Finkbeiner, president of the Associated Students of Portland State University, agreed.
"His mindset is 'how do the students want their money spent,' " Finkbeiner said. "Our goals are very aligned."
Shoureshi says his background helps him relate to many different people. After immigrating from Iran 41 years ago — just before the country's Islamic revolution — Shoureshi and his wife raised two children in Denver.
An MIT graduate and later an engineer, he holds nine U.S. patents, and taught at the Colorado School of Mining and Purdue University.
"Having been an international student that came to the United States, I understand the difficulties, the challenges, the anxieties that students go through," he says.
He attributes his social skills — uncharacteristic for such an analytical profession — to falling in love with theater in the eighth grade.
Last Friday, as Shoureshi met some of the thousands of people he now leads, no one mentioned or seemed to notice that he is a person of color, until asked by a nosy reporter.
Then, they agreed it was important to note that he is an example of PSU walking the talk when it comes to diversity and inclusion, particularly in leadership roles.
Shoureshi is part of a wave of new local education leaders who are not white. Last year, Portland Community College chose Japanese-American Mark Mitsui as its president. This summer, Guadalupe Guerrero, a Latino, was tapped to lead Portland Public Schools.
For years and for many lower-profile people of color, Portland has not been a welcoming place. PSU itself heavily promoted the release of a report last year on how immigrants and refugees to Portland have dramatically different abilities to earn income, based entirely on their skin color.
Even through the decades of anti-Middle Eastern sentiment in the United States — including the Trump Administration's recent travel ban on citizens of several Muslim-majority nations, including Iran — Shoureshi said that he has never experienced racism or personal disrespect in America.
Asked if he may have been insulated from it by being in higher education, Shoureshi agreed.
"Yes, I assume that's partly the case that I don't see it or experience it," he says. He doesn't anticipate a change here in his new home. "A state like Oregon — people really have a deep appreciation for individuals. The fact that everybody around this campus really champions diversity and inclusion — it's extraordinary."
The corner office
The view from the eighth floor of the PSU Market Center building is gorgeous.
From the west hills, one can see weather coming in from the Pacific. To the east, there's Mount Hood, the Willamette River and a growing and changing city.
Shoureshi's modestly decorated office has a view of all of it.
His main job is to be the visionary and spokesman of the university.
Rachel Martinez, an executive assistant inherited from Wiewel, is keeping the new president very busy meeting many of the university's staff, students, stakeholders, donors, partners and legislators as quickly as possible.
"I promised that we really aren't trying to kill him," Martinez joked. As the public face of the university, the presidency is very stressful, she says. "It's 24-seven; nights, weekends, in the grocery store."
Shoureshi says his main goals are seeing more collaboration between the university and business sectors. He points to the examples of University of California at Berkeley and Stanford University helping to nurture Silicon Valley; University of Texas at Austin giving birth to their electronics industry; and North Carolina State University's role in The Research Triangle, home to branches of IBM, Cisco and many other major employers.
His goal is to do a similar thing for Portland.
Shoureshi calls PSU the "best-kept secret" that he doesn't want to be kept anymore.
The university serves an unusual demographic. Of its nearly 30,000 students, a quarter are parents and about half study part-time.
It also serves a large international student population. Many foreign scholars are from China, India and Japan. A large contingent — and some significant donors to the university — are from Saudi Arabia.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are bitter rivals in the Islamic world, reflecting the split betweeen Shiites and Sunnis.
But Shoureshi is not worried. He explains that those are governments, not people. Saudi Arabia welcomes thousands of Iranian Muslims each year for their pilgrimage to Mecca.
"When you look at it from 30,000 feet, it may sound a lot more adversarial," he said. Portland State University students don't seem to make the distinction either: Students from that part of the world meet together in the Arab-Persian Student Organization.
Space: the final frontier
The fourth floor of Smith Memorial Student Union on Southwest Broadway is where many of the student common areas are located. Tucked in a corner and sharing a wall with the back of a ballroom is the Veterans Resource Center.
Kevin Pelatt, office manager of the center, told Shoureshi that one of their biggest needs is a better space. The awkward L-shaped room gets cramped quickly and sudden or loud noises from the stage next door can be triggers for veterans with PTSD.
Shoureshi, immediately entering problem-solving mode, asked how important windows are to a new space. Pelatt rejected the notion of a windowless room, saying vets need to know where they are, what is around them and to see a bright and vibrant world outside.
The next time the president saw a big window, he thought of the Veterans Resource Center.
What sort of space could they offer the center? he asked Toppe, the dean of student life. She was showing him a newly replaced window looking out on the Park Blocks. A tree had crashed through the student life office's conference room during last winter's storms.
Toppe has heard this complaint before from the veterans and avoided an answer, saying that space is always a problem. Shoureshi joked with her but added that he will continue to press the veterans' cause.
Then the president and his entourage headed down to the second floor.
Portland State University's multicultural resource center is huge, brightly colored and recently remodeled. With 58,000 visitors per year, it serves a much larger population these days than the Veterans Resource Center.
Portland State University was founded in 1946, primarily to educate returning servicemen and women on the G.I. Bill after World War II, at what was known as Vanport College. It moved to its current location in downtown Portland in 1952.
Cynthia Gomez, director of the cultural resource centers, said the multicultural resource center space used to be the faculty lounge. Old pictures from the space show corduroy-clad white men smoking pipes, she said, and university officials laughed about the Mad Men-era scene.
"The irony is not lost on me," Gomez said of the change from a white male-dominated space to a space predominately for nonwhite people. "It's pretty great."