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University of Oregon blows its innovation chance

The University of Oregon boasts that its Lillis Business Complex is one of the most environmentally sustainable business school facilities nationally. Credit: Visitor 7/Wikimedia Commons

“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.

Lariviere did his legislative lobbying through the University of Oregon Foundation, a private nonprofit for donors, and the Board of Higher Education had its opposing lobby team as well. Laviere’s end-run on the Board and its Oregon University System chancellor, George Pernsteiner, made enemies where friends were needed. But the governor, I was told, did not split with Lariviere at this point; he asked Lariviere to pull his lobby team off the New Partnership and help pass the governor’s reform proposals, which was done.

Lariviere returned to his plan after the legislative session, however, writing an Op-ed piece for The Wall Street Journal (here but behind a pay wall) that raised hackles on the state board. Lariviere’s contract was extended for only one year — with a proviso that, in essence, he “play nicely” with other state education leaders and the governor.

Later in the month, Kitzhaber asked all university presidents to restrict pay hikes because of the state’s financial situation, only to learn in that Lariviere had shifted funds within his budget to increase pay for over 1,100 faculty members. Politics 101: never, ever, blindside your boss. The pay action was the second time Lariviere had caught his boss unawares: then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski had issued orders dealing with furloughs for state workers in 2010, only to learn later that Lariviere had ignored the order.

Along the way, the Sanskrit scholar, in a period of only 28 months, had alienated all the allies a politically savvy academic administrator must have: his governing board, the governor of the state, and key legislative leaders. He was left with strong campus support from faculty, students, and many key alumni and donors, including Nike founder Phil Knight, who has poured millions into Oregon athletics and campus facilities. Longtime Oregonian editorial columnist David Sarasohn noted the passion of Lariviere’s supporters, concerned that efforts for serious reform might fade.

Conflicts between the University of Oregon and the centralized Board of Higher Education date almost to the 1929 creation of the system. In 1932, initiative petitions that had at least indirect ties to Oregon State alumni asked voters to consolidate state schools, moving University of Oregon’s main programs to Corvallis under Oregon State, and transferring its law school to the private Willamette University in Eugene. As the vote neared, Oregon State President Jasper Kerr was appointed chancellor of the state system, a direct affront to the Eugene campus. The consolidation initiative failed badly, carrying only in Benton County, home of OSU, and opposed by a 37-1 margin in Lane County, the University of Oregon’s home. Bitterness over the fight lingered for years; during one early dispute with the state board, a young U of O law dean named Wayne Morse made a passionate speech that galvanized the support he would later use to reach the U. S. Senate.

Emotions on campus remain very strong in the wake of the Lariviere dismissal; he had a strong contingent of supporters at his final state board meeting. But the Eugene Register-Guard, which had devoted itself to the 1932 battle almost to the point of ignoring world events, failed to rally to the president’s cause.

“The state board, chancellor and governor have decided to rid themselves of a UO president who was not a team player and who fearlessly challenged the system. But there are many who believe that’s exactly what the university — and state — need,” the Register-Guard editorialized, after noting the several instance in which Lariviere had alienated others. “It wasn’t so much Lariviere’s out-of-the box ideas that aggravated and alienated the board and Chancellor George Pernsteiner as much as it was the UO president’s go-it-alone pursuit of those ideas,” editors concluded.

Looking at the development from a long distance, with the help of friends who were much closer to the action, several lessons may be drawn for those who would advance a major project or reform in times of contraction:

  • Lariviere moved too swiftly; if he had come from within the Oregon system and understood its history and rivalries, he might have used better tactics and built an effective alliance before hitting the front page with his bold ideas. The tactic of bringing an unprecedented reorganization plan of this magnitude before a legislature he had never lobbied previously is mind-boggling.
  • Always, always, always keep the boss or bosses in the loop. Both the chancellor and governor ultimately felt betrayed by what one insider called Lariviere’s “sneaking things through” rather than keeping them informed. The U of O had strong backers on the board and in the Legislature and the governor is a graduate; all wound up feeling betrayed.
  • Don’t confuse big-time athletics with big-time academics. Thanks to Phil Knight, the University of Oregon has spiffy sports facilities and professional-level teams in nifty uniforms. That doesn’t make it a front-rank university, although it is a very good public university; the hubris of “we’re number one” cannot carry an end run on other public institutions in the state.

The academic ground is shifting in Oregon, and the idea that the University of Oregon is a “flagship university,” as its promoters (and the Register-Guard) frequently proclaim, is like a red flag to nearby Oregon State University, which is quietly but effectively becoming one of the top research universities in the West. Oregon State, once decried as a “cow college” and the home of “sawdust foresters,” has simply transformed in recent years. As federal grants, heavily in the sciences, take up the slack from reduced state funds, OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences is becoming a major player nationally, and even the College of Forestry has shifted away from its production emphasis to sustainability and a broader look at natural resources. Both “flagship” campuses offer fine educations, but it would be difficult indeed to rank one above the other, at least off the playing field.

Good intentions and dedication won’t overcome sloppy planning and failure to build political alliances. Few doubt Lariviere’s motives or sincerity but those seldom carry the day in a legislative challenge.

Lariviere leaves his post on Dec. 28; he has tenure as a Sanskrit professor with pay equal to that of the highest-paid professor on campus (a normal contract for a president). He says he will carry out that role, although my search of the U-O catalog doesn’t show a class in his specialty. Perhaps Politics 101?

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