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Flunk a Duck

U of O President Richard Lariviere may be brilliant—but he failed Politics 101.

For a brainy Sanskrit scholar with decades of high-level administrative experience in state university systems, recently fired University of Oregon President Richard Lariviere displayed a stunning failure of two basic skills: He apparently could neither read nor count. 

Hundreds of U of O faculty and alumni showed up to support Lariviere at a State Board of Higher Education meeting Nov. 28 in Portland. But ardent Ducks such as board member Allyn Ford, whose family is one of the university's biggest financial supporters, and Senate Education Committee Chair Mark Hass (D-Beaverton) knew Lariviere had to go. 

"I'm a Duck," Hass says. "Yet I'm completely supportive of this move."

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."

In the review, Lariviere and then-board president Paul Kelly, formerly Nike's general counsel, sat nose-to-nose, their faces reddening as their voices escalated. Kelly insisted Lariviere had repeatedly violated the board's trust while Lariviere argued the board was unqualified to oversee a seven-campus system.

"They kept going back and forth and it kept getting louder," Donegan says. "It was extraordinary, like nothing I'd ever seen before."

After that meeting, Donegan says, even some of Lariviere's supporters called the president's behavior "unconscionable." Donegan, who says he was Lariviere's strongest backer at the time, wanted "to give him another shot."

The Board extended Lariviere's contract July 11. Even a cursory glance at the new contract suggests Lariviere's firing resulted from his failure to read and follow it. 

"The President agrees…to do the following," the contract states. "Refrain from opposing any legislative proposal adopted by the Board and/or advanced by the governor.” 

In short: He needed to be part of the team. 

But at a meeting in July, Kitzhaber's representative asked all seven OUS college presidents to restrict pay hikes. Lariviere reportedly offered no objection.

Then, in September, board members learned from news reports that not only had Lariviere boosted salaries above the ceiling for 1,300 U of O faculty members, but that he had already agreed to do so before the July meeting. 

Donegan felt betrayed. 

"I said, 'Do you know what chaos this is causing on other campuses? This is causing a complete lack of confidence with the governor, the Legislature and other campuses,'" Donegan recalls telling Lariviere.

Lariviere's contract also requires him to engage in "active participation in Board, Board committee, and OUS discussions on governance…[and] financing models."

Despite that instruction, Lariviere blew off key meetings, including a Nov. 17 presentation from a national consultant OUS had hired to help achieve the devolution of central authority Lariviere wanted.

"It was the biggest meeting of the year," Donegan says. "He didn't give any excuse and when I talked to him later, he had scant knowledge of what we'd discussed."

Ultimately, Lariviere showed he could not count—or at least not the right numbers. 

He failed to tally the votes he needed to keep his job. Not just board members, but also the governor and, close behind, key lawmakers. 

He alienated Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem) and other legislative leaders with his lobbying tactics. He lost former Gov. Ted Kulongoski when he ignored orders to furlough university workers and, most important, burned Kitzhaber with pay raises.

Two other key relationships left Lariviere vulnerable. First, the man most responsible for his hiring, a former OUS board member John Von Schlegell, a private equity executive, resigned shortly after Lariviere came on board.

Second, Lariviere cast blame on his predecessor, Frohnmayer, for the botched handling of former athletic director Mike Bellotti's contract. 

Lariviere may have been right, but Frohnmayer, U of O president for 15 years, remains enormously influential.

So Lariviere's political miscalculations meant that when he needed protection, he had few political allies.

"I strongly believe that the proposals advanced by the University of Oregon—for a strong, independent institutional governing board and for a new approach to stabilizing our funding—provide our best chance of securing an affordable, high-quality university education for Oregonians," Lariviere said in a Monday statement. 

In the end, Donegan says, the OUS did not reject Lariviere's message; rather, it rejected the messenger. 

"If people are nervous that this board and chancellor are trying to protect the status quo, that's just missing the point," Donegan says.

He points to reform bills that passed this year and will yield more independence for all Oregon campuses.

Hass, who helped engineer those reforms, agrees.

“Giving the university more autonomy is much bigger than the coming and going of a new president,” Hass says.