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May 19th, 2010 Henry Stern, Mark Zusman | Q & A
 

Richard Lariviere

The UO president talks about a big bond issue, Phil Knight and how sports is like Lady Gaga.

     
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LARIVIERE: “We cannot sit back and say, ‘Would you please give us more money?’”
IMAGE: Leslie Montgomery

For a guy with a doctorate in Sanskrit, Richard Lariviere is pretty plain-spoken.

The 60-year-old president of the University of Oregon was in Portland last week touting a new funding and governance concept.

In plain English: The state would issue $800 million in 30-year bonds for the university, with the state providing about $64.5 million in average annual debt service for those bonds—roughly as much as the state now provides directly. The UO would invest the $800 million as well as raise money privately for its annual operations. And, under Lariviere’s plan, the university would gain greater autonomy over its spending decisions.

His pitch to the state Legislature is that taxpayers wouldn’t have to give UO any more money than they now do over the 30-year period.

On the job since replacing David Fronhmayer last July, Lariviere has been busy responding this year to the arrests of several football players from the Rose Bowl team and the $2.3 million buyout of athletic director Mike Bellotti, who never had a written contract. We asked Lariviere about all this when he visited our office May 14 for an hourlong interview.

Willamette Week: Is there any other public college or university funding itself with the bond concept you’re proposing?

Richard Lariviere: Not that we know of, although there’s a lot of interest in it. If you’ve got a better idea that’s as viable, I’m on board. What we don’t want is the status quo that says we ain’t doin’ nothin’.

Isn’t the timing suspect given the stock market collapse the last couple of years? In other words, your plan only works if you get yields we haven’t seen recently.

Most people don’t look at financial markets over 20-year windows. They look at them from yesterday or a year ago at the most. Those people who follow financial markets know this is the time to be proposing such a thing. Bonds will not be cheaper probably in our lifetime.

Do you have a ruling from the treasury office that the state has the debt capacity to do this?

No. This has been on the market for 48 hours now. It is an issue, there’s no question. But the math over the 30 years we’re talking about is a huge advantage for the people of Oregon.

Would you be willing to put it up for a public vote?

Yes.

Given the perception that a couple of huge donors already call the shots, is this really a time to seek more autonomy for things like real-estate acquisition?

We have no choice. We cannot sit back and say, “Would you please give us more money?” We’ve been doing that for 30 years and it hasn’t worked.

Would you acknowledge that your proposal is that much more difficult politically?

As a result of the [Mike] Bellotti matter? On the face of it, yes. But look at how we’ve handled it. The athletics program is a really good program. Absolutely healthy. It’s honest, it looks after the student athletes. Coaches have terrific values, it’s self-supporting. And they have had sloppy business practices—an immature, amateurish way of running this business. I understand why that happened because they got out of bed one morning and they were a $70 million-a-year business. And nobody had been paying attention to the fact that it wasn’t a mom-and-pop corner grocery store anymore. OK, we fixed it. Now what? What are we going to do about this university? Athletics is a sideshow. It’s the entertainment business. Its entire budget is 9 percent of our operating budget.

How often do you talk to Phil Knight?

I met with him when I first arrived, and Penny [Knight’s wife] and their daughter came over for a drink. I’ve met with him at his headquarters twice. I saw him at a track meet. And I’ve probably talked with him on the phone four or five times. And he came to my office once.

What did you talk about?

The first conversation was about whether or not Oregon as a culture had the capacity to achieve real excellence in any category.

What made you ask the question, and has your opinion changed in the last year?

I didn’t have an opinion at that point. I was still formulating it, but I think I’m more confident about what I think about it now. He’s been involved at the very top level of the business world. Had he been disparaging or really pessimistic about the prospects, that would have told me a lot. It would have been pretty disheartening. He was very realistic and hard-eyed, and that’s exactly what I wanted.

Has there been a case where you have disagreed with Knight that would assuage critics who say he has too much influence?

No. It’s not that I’m not capable of having those conversations, it’s just that we haven’t. I’m amused by the mythology around him…this notion that there’s a big red phone on my desk and when it blinks I have to pick it up and do whatever the voice says. That’s pretty laughable. If he suggested something that I disagreed with, I wouldn’t do it. And if he suggested something I thought was a really good idea, I would say, “This is Phil Knight’s idea and it’s a really good one and I think we’re gonna do it.” I don’t think there’s ever been anyone—I think quite wrongly, but nevertheless perceived as being—to such a degree in control. It’s not true. At least it isn’t for me. I can’t obviously speak for the past, but I doubt very much, given his remoteness from the day-to-day operations of the university, I find it very hard to entertain the notion that he’s been meddlesome.

What’s the proper role of athletics in public education?

Athletics is…. You’re buying into the—that’s the Lady Gaga syndrome.

How so?

It’s entertainment, and I’m very grateful that we have that vehicle to get our name and our mission out. But it’s entertainment. It’s not education. It’s not research. It’s not pedagogy. It’s entertainment. Now we get 500 kids educated every year as a result of that. And one could have all kinds of conversations about whether that’s an equitable compensation, but it is not why we’re here.

 
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