I first met University of Oregon president Richard Lariviere during my junior year, a few days after he started at UO – he came to visit a freshman honors humanities class for which I was a teaching assistant, and the professor invited him to speak to the class about the ancient Greeks’ artistic approaches to depicting war, which I imagine is the sort of thing most humanities majors desperately wish would happen to them as they make your latte.
President Lariviere chose to discuss a lesser-known Greek epic poem, the bulk of which is dedicated to the intricate and detailed description of a really gory war between two opposing human armies – as he explained, they threw this sort of gratuitous violence into a lot of epic poems back in the day to keep everybody interested; it was the Classical equivalent of a car turning into a robot and blowing up Chicago.
What Lariviere focused on, though, was the last part of the poem, in which the two gods on opposing sides of the struggle surveyed the carnage their armies had wrought against one another and had a frank discussion about the ideological conflict that had led to all this, and ultimately came to realize the futility of war.
By the time he was done describing this poem, President Lariviere was in tears. The professor, also in tears, came to the front of the room and threw an arm around him, thanking him for the lesson.
Kind of an awkward moment for everybody else in the room.
My second, and final, encounter with President Lariviere came a year later, when he was the guest conductor for the Oregon Marching Band during our pregame show. The band administration had had the idea for guest conductors at the beginning of the year – a cue we’d taken from various Big Ten marching bands – and the implementation was fairly simple: Whatever guest the University wanted to honor would stand on the main ladder and wave his hands around in time with the music, while a drum major would stand on a slightly lower ladder just out of sight of the cameras and crowd and do the actual conducting to keep the band in time.
As we spelled out ‘OREGON’ and played the fight song, I glanced up from the real conductor to President Lariviere to see him gleefully waving his arms in a rough approximation of the beat, eyes sparkling, wearing a grin so huge you could probably see it from space. In spite of the rain and cold and general humiliation of being in a marching band, it made me happier to see him up there, even if it didn’t do much for my tempo.
Speaking as somebody who really hasn’t enjoyed a lot of the jobs he’s had, I have a lot of respect for a person who obviously loves doing what he does for a living, and I got that vibe from President Lariviere. He was an eccentric, passionate, intelligent man who treated his job as an actual means to improve the University and not just collect a healthy paycheck and appear at some fundraisers, and yeah since I love him so much maybe I just will marry him, assholes.
President Lariviere was fired today, courtesy of a unanimous vote from the Oregon State Board of Higher Education. The University of Oregon currently has record high enrollment and is leading the Oregon University System in freshman retention and six year graduation rates, but Lariviere was ousted for not being “a team player” – namely because he increased faculty salaries when the state board told him not to, sought to divorce the University from the board, and against the board’s wishes lobbied for a bond proposal to create a massive endowment for the University to keep tuition under control for the next 30 years.
Essentially he was the Dirty Harry of Pacific Northwestern public university administration – the captain was always breathing down his neck for his unorthodox approach to justice, and now, having gone too far, he’s got to turn in his gun and his badge. The difference is that Dirty Harry was a significant liability and PR disaster for the San Francisco Police Department and also sort of a fascist while President Lariviere was fighting to make public education in Oregon better and more affordable.
The faculty raises were financed not with state funds but with surplus tuition funds, and he issued them in order to stem the flow of good professors away from the University of Oregon to other schools that offered more money. His plans to make the University of Oregon more independent from the state board were reflective of the fact that State of Oregon currently funds less than six percent of the University of Oregon’s budget.
Imagine you bought a $1000 car, using $940 that you earned yourself and $60 that your parents gave you, but then your parents expected you to ask their permission every time you took the car out for a drive, and flatly refused your requests to put spinners on the hubcaps and install hydraulics – even though by all accounts those additions would make your car way better – on the grounds that because you’d used an insignificant amount of their money they were entitled to oversee everything you did with your car. Would you put up with that?
The board’s argument against Lariviere’s attempts to improve the University of Oregon seems to be that his actions would give the U of O an unfair advantage over the other seven schools in the system when it came to attracting students:
"Unlike every other university president in the state," Kitzhaber wrote Saturday, "he disregarded my specific direction on holding tight and delaying discussion about retention and equity pay increases until the next biennium to allow for a consistent, system-wide policy on salaries." (OregonLive.com)
Reading this, I became Ron Swanson – if only for a moment.
If the University of Oregon is currently more successful than Oregon’s other six colleges, that’s their fucking problem, not ours. For whatever reason – be it some superior academic programs, excellent marketing, or the greatest football team in the history of the universe – the University of Oregon has risen above the pack. That’s no reason to have our wings (so to speak) clipped; it’s an incentive for all the other schools to start getting better so they can be competitive with us.
Undertake ambitious fundraising schemes in order to improve facilities and hire more faculty, rebrand your school with a new focus on some outstanding department in order to draw students with similar interests. Be innovative and think outside the box – you’re a goddamn college, aren’t you? That’s what you’re teaching people to do! And by all means, the University of Oregon ought to help the other schools become competitive, perhaps through loaning of resources and professors - because the ultimate goal here is education - but telling us to quit being better just because we are isn't simply unfair; it's aggressively, in-your-face un-American.
I believe that the economy needs oversight and stringent regulation from a number of governing bodies in order to prevent the kind of shit that kicked off a global economic meltdown – absence of regulation there serves to benefit very few people and hurt virtually everyone. But the situation the University of Oregon finds itself in is very different from that. If we’re given the berth to achieve everything we possibly can, there’s two potential outcomes – the other universities rise to the occasion and Oregonians have access to seven outstanding schools, or they don’t, and Oregonians have access to one outstanding school.
With the firing of President Lariviere, the board of higher education seems dead set on ensuring that Oregonians have access to no outstanding schools. Looking on the bright side, the University of Oregon does have an outstanding football team – even if the opposing fans at games in the UC system chant ‘SAFETY SCHOOL!’ when we take the field.
Truman Capps stands firmly with the hat.