Anatomy of a disconnect: The Lariviere firing

Carla Axtman

It's become part of the lexicon in Oregon (especially among those seeking to jam a wedge among the state's electorate) to flog the notion of an urban and rural divide. But until very recently, I had no idea that there was a divide between ardent supporters of the University of Oregon and the rest of the state.

The firing of University of Oregon President Richard Lariviere has been a matter of great consternation among the U of O faithful.

Regular Oregonian contributor (and frequent Blue Oregon commenter, Jack Roberts):

When John Kitzhaber graduated from South Eugene High School in 1965, his goal was to attend Dartmouth College, where his father once taught. Unfortunately, his C average as a self-described unmotivated student didn't qualify him for the school of his choice. Instead, he had to attend the University of Oregon, where he worked hard to garner the grades that later allowed him to transfer to Dartmouth, from which he graduated in 1969.

Fast-forward to today, when the University of Oregon is bursting at the seams with half again as many undergraduate students as in Kitzhaber's day and where the academic standards are such that students with Kitzhaber's grades are no longer eligible for admission. Despite decades of public disinvestment in higher education, UO is becoming a university that students are striving to transfer to rather than from.

We still have a way to go to fully realize that goal, and it appears the road just got bumpier with the State Board of Higher Education's vote to fire Richard Lariviere as UO president. Although the decision (with Gov. Kitzhaber's personal blessing) was originally announced the Monday before Thanksgiving, a formal vote took place at an emergency meeting hastily called this past Monday after someone apparently advised Kitzhaber that he couldn't simply declare his moral objection to Oregon's open meetings law and suspend it for the remainder of his term.

While Roberts is a bit in the weeds, these opening paragraphs are clear: he's pissed about this firing and believes it to be unjust. In a nutshell, Lariviere is a visionary who was lifting the university out of the mire of mediocrity.

Other parts of the state, standing back and watching this unfold, appear to be dubious about the outrage.

Dick Hughes, The Statesman Journal:

To anyone outside academia, it's ludicrous that professors should have been consulted about a personnel matter such as the ousting of their president. That's not how the world works.

To anyone who follows the news (Tip: one of many reasons to subscribe to your local newspaper), it's been obvious that Lariviere and his bosses were traveling divergent tracks. When that happens, inevitably the bosses win, even if they're wrong. I know; that's a sad commentary on society. But it's realistic.

However ... I don't think the state board was wrong to let Lariviere go. It had good reasons to back Chancellor George Pernsteiner's recommendation to terminate Lariviere on 30 days' notice.

Can you imagine an executive in any walk of life getting away with blowing off his bosses (the chancellor and state board), ignoring agreements on spending, and routinely skipping meetings with the bosses and his fellow administrators (the six other public college presidents)?

That's numskull behavior. But it was Lariviere behavior, which shows how someone can be a genius in some areas and lack common sense in others.

Hughes is essentially echoing my own thoughts on the matter, with one omission: I can't understand why the discussion isn't revolving around improving the entire university system, rather than the fate of just one. This epiphany stems from an exchange I had on Twitter with Anna Griffin (Oregonian columnist on hiatus). It feels an awful lot to me like the conversation has been about Phil Knight's pet project, rather than what's best for the university system at large.

To be fair, those closely tied to the situation may have relevant information that hasn't yet been widely discussed or brought to light which could change the conversation substantially. But at the very least, it appears that Lariviere was unable to properly navigate a significant part of his job: dealing with his bosses.

Nigel Jaquiss, Willamette Week:

So where did Lariviere, who replaced former president Dave Frohnmayer in July 2009, go wrong?

His first big misstep occurred within a year of his arrival in Eugene. Lariviere began in 2010 to promote “The New Partnership,” which envisioned the state selling $800 million in bonds and fundraising an equal amount.

The proposal was as risky as it was bold. Skeptics also viewed it as an attempt to further separate Oregon from the state’s six other public universities. Rather than seeking support from his boss, Chancellor George Pernsteiner, and the higher-ed board, he pushed forward on his own.

In October 2010, the board spoke with Lariviere and asked him to table “The New Partnership” until after the 2011 legislative session, when Gov. John Kitzhaber would pursue substantial education reform.

Oregon University System board president Matt Donegan says Lariviere agreed. But soon Donegan learned the U of O foundation had hired a team of lobbyists to promote the New Partnership. Lariviere himself wrote an opinion piece about it for The Wall Street Journal.

“When The Wall Street Journal piece [appeared], it was like a bombshell,” Donegan says.

This June, Lariviere barely survived a performance review. Donegan says a number of board members were prepared to fire Lariviere for “repeated breaches of trust.”

Even if you believe that Lariviere is a visionary genius who has the power to transform the U of O into an ivy league caliber institution, his behavior as described is unacceptable. And the greater questions surrounding how to improve the entire system ought to be addressed too. Oregon cannot and should not be a One University State.

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    What I can't understand is why the passage of SB 242 this past session has gone relatively unaddressed in this larger discussion of Lariviere and the fate of OUS in Oregon. (

    This bill was a core priority for the Governor and numerous legislators and makes pretty sweeping changes to OUS including taking it out of agency status and treating as an institution of higher education. There's additional freedom in financial management, governance, and in many other regards in the bill.

    LIke the bill or not, it's a pretty key piece of the puzzle that no one seems to be talking about. Lariviere agreed to forego further lobbying for his plan for UO during the session largely to help ensure SB 242 passed.

    I guess my point is this: we did make sweeping changes this year. Any consideration about taking OUS out of "mediocrity" needs to start with an understanding of what 242 does and doesn't do.

    Oh yeah, and for what it's worth, Carla, I agree with the conclusions you draw in this post.

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    "To be fair, those closely tied to the situation may have relevant information that hasn't yet been widely discussed or brought to light which could change the conversation substantially."

    Juicy details? Do tell...

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    One issue with Nigel Jaquiss' article:

    In October 2010, John Kitzhaber was neither Governor nor Governor-elect. It's rather iffy that the Board would have already been making decisions under the assumption that he'd be Governor.

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    Referencing Occam's Razor, this looks like a high level bureaucrat who has become so personally convinced of his indispensability that he feels he need no longer work within the chain of command because his superiors couldn't possibly be his superiors.

    Happens all the time. Sometimes they do indeed have enough power to short circuit established channels and sometimes they don't. This guy seems to have misread the tea leaves.

    Bummer for him.

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    The Oregonian finally got around to telling the OUS story in yesterday's paper, following WW by almost a week.

    What I have not seen anywhere is much discussion as to how the other state universities feel. While they may not want to comment a good reporter should be able to get comments from a few of the dozens of key officials in the other schools.

    The other missing story is what Lariviere was like in his prior positions. One has to believe that he had trouble with authority prior to this or was it just the Phil Knight crew telling him he didn't have to play by the rules here in Oregon.

    Lastly, his plan to use $800 million in state bonding authority was never going to go anywhere since we don't have any spare bonding authority. It wasn't just his desire to grab an unfair share, there wasn't that much to share.

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    Your posting unintentionally reveals an insularity about U of O that sometimes permeates political discussion in this state.

    It's not a divide between U of O supporters and "the rest of the state" in my view. Can you think of an issue that put me and Jack Bogdanski on the same page? Read the national coverage in Chronicle of Higher Ed, Inside Higher Ed, etc. It is BRUTAL. This looks very bad in the national education press, and while you may think these opinions matter, these are the opinion leaders in my field.

    Like many posters, you set up false dichotomies, as if the choice is between a vibrant state system or a "One University State." That's just silly, for two reasons. First, a state with a national quality research one institution (U of O is not nor will it EVERY be "Ivy quality", that's another piece of rhetorical fluff) helps the whole state's economy and the state's whole university system. Second, most strong state systems function with one or two world class R1 institutions and second tier institutions. The two goals are not incompatible.

    It may be that Lariviere is getting canned for trying to politically outmaneuver the Board and the Gov on educational reform.

    But to transform this into some sort of meme about a Board and Gov who are concerned about ALL of Oregon and a President who was concerned about just U of O is both wrong and damaging, in my view.

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    A couple of other examples for people to consider.

    The UNC system, widely recognized as one of the best managed in the country, has a 32 member board of Governors, elected by the legislature to staggered 4 year terms. Each individual campus has a separate 12 member Board of Trustees, which hires and fires Chancellors for individual institutions. 8 members of the Trustees are appointed by the Board of Governors and 4 by the state's current Governor (also staggered terms).

    The University of Washington is governed by a Board of Regents appointed by the Governor to a six year term. I can't find out quickly if terms are staggered.

    My point is that in both of these very strong systems, individual institutions have their own individual governing boards, and the appointment process is set up in such a way as to shelter the board from election year changes in the composition of the legislature or the governorship.

    Our system is completely exposed, and individual institutions have no governing board dedicated just to their institution.

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    Great post, Carla.

    The outrage is confusing to me too.

    We all need to work together push for investments in post-secondary education that will make our whole system stronger. SB 242 was a start, but we have years of concerted work to do, together.

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    I agree with the thrust of the Oregonian editorial “Higher Ed needs more than a new UO president” and its conclusion (here):

    "Our worry is that the Lariviere firing will be followed by nothing more than a deliberate search for a replacement and a leisurely discussion of local governing boards. Lariviere wasn't the answer to Oregon's higher education crisis. But he wasn't the real problem, either."

    The problems of higher ed generally and specific to Oregon are quite complex and uncertain.

    (1) Costs are generally out of control and direct public funding has been declining, both together causing rapid increases in tuition (and more out-of-state, higher-tuition-paying students), causing students to borrow more (with total student borrowing becoming a national problem). There is increasing doubt whether the current cost of a higher ed education for an individual is worth the investment (whether its returns in increased earnings are sufficient to cover its costs). So there are more and more discussions of a “bubble” in higher education.

    (2) There is a new, controversial, generally lower cost model of higher ed in online programs. Online higher ed has its limits and its problems, but, IMHO, will increasingly offer a lower cost, effective form of higher education for many students. It is, again IMHO, the most cost efficient means for Oregon to expand its college educated population.

    (3) The cost effectiveness of online education also further feeds the “bubble” in higher education discussion. Run-of-the-mill state universities, so the argument goes, will not be able to compete with online programs on cost or quality. More elite schools can compete because they offer more (or their brand can attract private paying students). So Oregon’s higher ed institutions either become more prestigious or risk falling prey to less expensive online programs. But note: Oregon does not have the financial resources to fund an elite university.

    (4) Pushing out the same old array of college graduates is not adequate for the 21st century. We need many more students with much higher proficiencies in foreign (especially Asian) languages, with much more time spent studying abroad, all combined with business, science and/or engineering skills.

    (5) None of the current education organizational structures in Oregon are confronting these issues adequately. Just increasing high ed’s funding in Oregon would not be enough (and is unlikely, anyway).

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      Honestly, if "cost efficiency" is the metric we're all going to go with, education at all levels is doomed.

      The model should be an excellent education--not how cheaply we can get through the requirements.

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        Carla, I'm not sure what you are saying here, or what you mean by "requirements."

        I'm using "cost effectiveness" and "cost efficiency" interchangeable here. Both mean that for whatever educational benefits (degrees, proficiencies, skills, etc) that those benefits are developed for the least costs.

        Online program can,for example, and IMHO, produce many educational benefits (whether classes, degrees, proficiencies, or skills) at a lower cost than traditional higher ed. For this reason, they are more cost efficient, and, for a state seeking to maximize such educational benefits, a better investment.

        We can have "an excellent education" that is "cost efficient."

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          I agree that we can have an excellent education that is cost efficient.

          But I don't think that we should focus on cost efficiency and cost effectiveness (appropriately synonymous or not) as the metric for how we educate students.

          In some cases, online education has its place. But it is no substitute for an in-person classroom in many cases.

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    I realize that a lot of people don't understand what the UO means to its alums or to the Eugene/Springfield community and there is probably no way we can explain it.

    It doesn't help that, due to the luck of the rotation, there is no UO representation among the faculty and student members of the Board of Higher Ed currently, and thanks to the willingness of Democratic governor's to take Lane County voters for granted, no member of the board from here, either.

    Interestingly enough, Rep. Val Hoyle--a Boston transplant, no less--gets it very well. That's because she has seen firsthand how Richard Lariviere has, in just two-and-a-half years, engaged the local community beyond what any UO President has done since Paul Olum (who was also sent packing by the Board of Higher Ed).

    This is not like firing the head of the Department of State Lands. Firing our president without any consideration for the impact on the university or the community will leave a deep wound for years to come.

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