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The Battle for Eugene

November 28, 2011

The Oregon Board of Higher Education will hold an emergency meeting this afternoon to discuss one topic: "employment of the University of Oregon president." But by virtually all accounts, the board has already decided to oust President Richard W. Lariviere for his perceived failure to work with system leaders -- much to the consternation of many of the university's professors and deans and possibly in violation, some assert, of the state's open meetings law.

Late Tuesday, a Portland-based weekly newspaper, Willamette Week, reported that Lariviere had been told by members of the Oregon University System board that his contract would not be renewed when it expires in June, because board members -- after a series of conflicts with the president -- had lost confidence in his ability to work with leaders of the state system. On Wednesday, Lariviere published a letter to the campus in which he confirmed that that's what he had been told, and that he would not resign, forcing the board to fire him if it wanted him gone immediately.

The board appeared to affirm Lariviere's ouster Wednesday with a statement in which its president, Matt Donegal, said that the panel wanted to ensure "an effective transition in leadership for the benefit of the University of Oregon and the Oregon University System.”

That was just the beginning. Over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, constituents from across the university expressed their dismay at the board's action. One of the university's most visible and active alumni, Phil Knight, co-founder of Nike, blasted the board's "astonishingly bad decision" and characterized the move as "yet another application of Oregon's Assisted Suicide law. For the chancellor and the State Board of Higher Education, a '"team player' is someone who falls in line with their acceptance of mediocrity, and the one who strives for excellence does not fit in."

A group of deans signed a letter saying that Lariviere had earned their confidence "not because we have agreed with all of his ideas, but because he is intelligent, creative and bold in the pursuit of excellence." And faculty and staff leaders -- both in the university-wide Senate and as part of a union movement seeking to win collective bargaining rights -- condemned the board's move as revealing "appalling disregard" for the university's employees and predicted that Lariviere's departure would "shatter morale" and send would-be employees and students elsewhere.

A petition calling for Lariviere's reinstatement had attracted about 5,700 signatures as of Sunday evening. And several dozen faculty members filed a complaint with a state ethics panel alleging that the higher education board had violated Oregon's open meetings law by secretly polling board members about whether to extend Lariviere's contract.

The president's supporters plan to attend today's meeting of the Oregon system board in full force, and insist that they have a legitimate case to argue that the board violated its open meetings law by prearranging Lariviere's ouster. They plan an all-day teach-in on the topic Tuesday, and Wednesday will feature a rare meeting of the entire faculty at which state leaders are expected to appear.

The outpouring of support for Lariviere is striking in that the campus has not been fully behind the president at times during his two-plus years in office; faculty members, particularly, have expressed frustration with his failure to get athletics spending under control. The president, known for his trademark fedora, is seen as smart and passionate, but also as arrogant and sometimes dismissive of others' views.

Faculty leaders said the fact that they were rallying to defend Lariviere despite their conflicts with him showed just how seriously they took the situation. "Richard's ideas, which are bold, have at times created conflict here on this campus," said Nathan Tublitz, a biology professor and past chair of the University Senate. The outpouring of support "is occurring in spite of that friction, which makes it all the more remarkable. This is not about an individual; it's about the bigger issue of allowing this great institution to achieve the goals it was designed to reach, and not letting a bureaucracy that is entrenched in mediocrity win."

Institutional vs. State Interests

Officials at the state system, of course, challenge the notion that the battle of wills is about whether mediocrity will prevail over excellence. “The University of Oregon is one of the nation’s preeminent universities and a treasured asset of the State of Oregon,” Allyn Ford, chair of the system board's governance and policy committee, said in a statement last Wednesday. “The Oregon State Board of Higher Education is committed to seeing the university thrive and succeed.”

In an interview with The Oregonian last week, Matthew Donegan, the board chair, cited several instances in which Lariviere had made decisions that conflicted with the board's desires, failed to inform system leaders about major decisions he was making, or both. The most visible point of conflict was over Lariviere's push for an alternative way of funding the university that would have given it much greater autonomy from the state system -- similar to the fight that led to the departure of the University of Wisconsin at Madison's chancellor, Carolyn A. (Biddy) Martin, in June.

Donegan also described as "just intolerable" that the board learned from reporters last spring about Lariviere's decision to award $5 million in raises to administrators and faculty members, despite a campaign by the state board to contain costs at universities in the Oregon system. (Earlier, Lariviere had also angered Oregon leaders by working around a statewide plan to impose furloughs as a cost-saving measure.) In June, the board extended the president's contract for just one year, signaling its displeasure.



The faculty understand real well that if this is allowed to succeed, our president will be replaced by somebody who will be beholden to the state board and will not step out of line."
 

Gov. John Kitzhaber cited many of the same reasons in a statement he issued to reporters Saturday, backing the state board's actions. He said the president's decision to award raises to employees "not only undermined the board, it undermined my own directive and the credibility of my administration with the other campuses that complied with the agreement.... His actions show little regard for the needs of the rest of the university system, other campuses, and the state."

He added: "In my opinion, should the Board of Higher Education decide to terminate Dr. Lariviere's contract on this basis, it would be fully justified from an executive management standpoint. Any private sector CEO, faced with a division manager who was totally dedicated to his or her specific department but willfully and repeatedly undermined the needs and goals of the overall company would, I expect, fire the manager – and probably after the first instance of such behavior; not the second."

"Trust is essential for an organization to function," Donegan told The Oregonian. He said it was not impossible for the flagship university to have an innovative leader looking out for its interests who could also work within the confines of the state system's need. "I don't accept the premise that it's either/or," he told the newspaper.

But that's exactly what many people at Oregon fear, said Tublitz. There is a long history, predating Lariviere, of presidents of the University of Oregon clashing with leaders of the state higher education system, and Lariviere is just the latest Oregon president to "understand that if the university is to maintain its status as a member of the [Association of American Universities], and maintain its flagship status within the state, we need to have much more flexibility in terms of how we deal with the world," said Tublitz.

Lariviere's ideas have sometimes put him at odds with the faculty, Tublitz acknowledged, but "he has put the university on an upward trajectory, and given the university and its employees and faculty and deans hope that the university will become an even stronger place. The faculty understand real well that if this is allowed to succeed, our president will be replaced by somebody who will be beholden to the state board and will not step out of line."

 

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