"The politics of the university are so intense because the stakes are so low," is a frequent quote attributed to Columbia University political scientist Wallace Sayre. Anyone who has dozed through a committee meeting on curricular projects or office assignments can relate.
But politics can be big-time at the university level, as in the case of Richard Lariviere, professor of Sanskrit and president of the University of Oregon for less than three years until his firing Nov. 28 by the State Board of Higher Education.
Lariviere’s had the bold idea of using financing from an innovative bonding scheme to separate his school from a unified state system that had lasted for 82 years and boost the University of Oregon into top-tier status (along the lines of the University of Washington) among peer universities nationally. The unhappy ending for Lariviere's plan has left his campus reeling and everyone involved wondering what happens next. At higher education institutions and other major organizations in Washington and Oregon, leaders facing the challenge of coming up with big ideas at a time of budget shortfalls may find in the tale of Richard Lariviere cautionary signals ignored at a high risk.
Lariviere is a big-idea guy who rose from the obscurity of an ancient Indian language to become provost at the University of Kansas and in July 2009 president of the Eugene university that likes to call itself Oregon’s “Flagship University.”
That title grates on the rival 40 miles down the Willamette River, Oregon State University, and Lariviere’s demise came in part — but not entirely — as a result of an ambitious and aggressive plan to make the U of O even more special than “flagship,” by cutting it away from the central state board and providing it with bonding authority.
In a time of fiscal austerity, the unusual financing mechanism was probably dead on arrival at the Oregon legislature in January 2011. But the idea of a separate governing board for the university had at least a half-life until Lariviere proved to be a great mind but fuzzy on politics. Willamette Week’s Dec. 1 headline proclaimed, “U of O President Richard Lariviere may be brilliant—but he failed Politics 101.”
Conversations with Oregon friends who were involved or close to the saga that left Lariviere headed back to the classroom disagree on some key elements of timing but there is little dispute that the headline is accurate. The ramifications of the biggest internal battle in Oregon higher education since 1932, when an initiative campaign to put the University of Oregon under jurisdiction of arch-rival Oregon State failed by a 6-to-1 margin, remain to be seen once tempers have cooled.
That the battle was intense is without question. "This was a kind of bare-knuckled thing," Dave Barrows, who lobbied for the U of O Foundation, told The Oregonian. "This was not a minuet where we were dancing around. We took it outside the bar into the parking lot." Barrows referred to the 2011 Legislature, where Lariviere’s ambitious plans were in conflict with Gov. John Kitzhaber’s plans for a revamped system of higher education that was heavily backed by the state board that governs public colleges and universities.
Lariviere came to Eugene in 2009 to succeed David Frohnmayer, a former law professor, legislator, and Oregon Attorney General, who had presided over the university for 15 years. Totally new to the state and its governing system, Lariviere only 10 months later unveiled a proposal that the state issue $800 million in bonds while continuing to support the university at its 2010 level; the university would raise private funds to match the bonds and create a $1.6 billion endowment, which would allow it to replace state appropriations. The university would separate from the state system and have its own board.
The “New Partnership” drew national attention for its boldness, but the timing was atrocious. Oregon was hemorrhaging money and John Kitzhaber, newly installed for a second career as Oregon governor (he was governor from 1994 to 2002), wanted a totally different system of governance for the state’s higher-education system. Oregon created a unified board in 1929 despite serious misgivings from both Oregon and Oregon State supporters and Kitzhaber wanted some reforms, but without cutting U-O loose with a lot of separate cash.
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