Did UO President Richard Lariviere Get Fired For Doing His Job?

This afternoon, if all goes according to plan, University of Oregon President Richard Lariviere will be told by the state Board of Higher Education that his contract will not be renewed. All, according to his legions of supporters, because he did his job.

Since his arrival on the Eugene campus early in 2009, Lariviere has been a relentless advocate for Oregon's flagship university. He pushed for an ambitious funding scheme. He rammed through substantial raises for faculty. He continually advocated that his University not be tethered to the rules and obligations of the office of the Chancellor, the office that oversees the seven public universities in Oregon. As an institution that receives less than one tenth of its funding from the state, Lariviere and his fans argued, the U of O should no longer need to act as if it was a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Oregon University System. (It's worth noting that less than half of Lariviere's half-a-million dollar a year salary comes from the state; the majority comes from the UO Foundation.)

Those who seek to oust Lariviere, of course, see him differently.

The man who told Lariviere last week that they would not renew his contract is Matt Donegan,  Gov. John Kitzhaber's appointee as president of the State Board of Higher Education. The co-founder of Forest Capital Partners, which manages more than 2 million acres of timber land, Donegan accepted the post believing it would be a part-time volunteer commitment. It has turned out to be much more.

Donegan insists that the issue between the board and Lariviere was not one of substance, pointing out that many of the themes Lariviere struck were consistent with what his predecessor at the University of Oregon, Dave Frohnmayer, had begun. Instead, it was a question of style. Lariviere, according to Donegan, acted as if he felt no obligation to the State Board of Higher Ed (for example, he wouldn't go to board meetings and in the one-year contract extension he signed this summer, language was inserted to require Lariviere to attend them). At a July meeting with college presidents, for another example, Governor Kitzhaber's spokesperson asked that all college presidents cap any salary and benefit hikes at a specific percentage. Lariviere reportedly said nothing. In September, Donegan and the Board learned second hand that Lariviere had not only boosted salaries beyond the ceiling for 1,300 U of O faculty members, but that he had already agreed to do so at the time of the July meeting.  

It amounted to a "type of insubordination that would never be tolerated in the private sector," Donegan said. "It was extraordinarily disruptive," he adds.

Donegan became the point person to deal with Lariviere because the UO president's boss, Oregon University System Chancellor George Pernsteiner, could no longer communicate with him.

By mid-2011, the relationship between Lariviere and Pernsteiner "had frayed to the point where they couldn't even have a conversation," Donegan told WW during a Saturday interview. "I saw as my job to communicate with Lariviere on Pernsteiner and the board's behalf."

Donegan is candid about the absurdity of having the chancellor of the university not on speaking terms with the President of the system's highest-profile university. "It's a very broken organization," Donegan concedes. "I've never seen an organization with such convoluted reporting lines."

The puzzling question is why the state Board of Higher Ed chose Lariviere to begin with. Pernsteiner was centrally involved in the decision to land Lariviere. When he announced the hiring in 2009, he said Lariviere was "an excellent leader who will be a worthy successor to President [Dave] Frohnmayer." Lariviere's reputation at the University of Kansas where he was the provost and at a prior stint at the University of Texas, where he served in many capacities, was as a brilliant academic and administrator who didn't always play well with others, particularly those who "supervised" him. According to a story on the web site of the daily newspaper in Lawrence Kansas, "Lariviere made the best presentation to the board of any KU representative and better than representatives from the other regents universities. However ... he was arrogant and looked down his nose at the regents."

And in what may be the most telling example of Lariviere's willingness to poke at tradition, he made enemies with a unilateral decision to save some money by silencing the steam whistle, a 100-year tradition on the Kansas campus. That decision was overruled.

In an interview on Sunday, Pernsteiner said that he was aware of Lariviere's reputation and that he had spoken to the President of the University of Kansas about it. "We had heard things about Dr. Lariviere and it was recommended that if he were hired, that the state board appoint a 'mentor' for him," Persteiner says. Pernsteiner said that such a person was appointed but would not disclose the person's name.

Lariviere may still have the last laugh. This year, Kitzahber signed two sweeping education reform bills. One of them creates an Oregon Education Investment Board, which will oversee all the state's spending on education, from kindergarten to graduate school. While the details have yet to be fleshed out, many observers believe that this "super board" will eventually mean the end, or at least the weakening, of the chancellor's office.

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