Stunned UO Says Goodbye to Lariviere, Welcomes Berdahl Back

Photograph by Jack Liu

The UO community was shocked in late November when the State Board of Higher Education voted unanimously to terminate the contract of UO President Richard Lariviere at the end of December, thirty months after he became the University’s sixteenth president. The action came a week after board chairman Matt Donegan told Lariviere that his contract would not be renewed, causing many UO faculty members, alumni, and students to rally against that decision and in support of Lariviere.

Robert Berdahl, a former professor and dean at the University of Oregon; an administrative leader at the University of California, University of Illinois, and University of Texas; and a national leader in higher education has been named interim president by the state board.

Lariviere had clashed with Oregon University System chancellor George Pernsteiner and the board on issues that won him great support among University faculty and staff members and alumni. He was the leading advocate for the combination of proposals known as the New Partnership that would have created a local governing board for the UO and established a new and potentially more stable system of funding the University (see www.newpartnership.uoregon.edu). He allowed the UO’s union employees to make up wages lost to state-mandated furloughs by working overtime. And he approved pay raises for faculty members and administrators without board approval.

“This turn of events is a result of the ongoing difference of opinion over the future of the UO,” Lariviere said in a message to the campus community.

The University Senate Executive Committee called an emergency session on November 23 and initiated a petition to support Lariviere that garnered more than 6,000 signatures in less than a week. A letter to the state board from the senate said, “The spontaneous and widespread outcry of support for President Lariviere . . . demonstrates that he inspires deep and passionate commitment among those who carry out and support [the] UO’s teaching and research mission. . . . The state board’s plan to remove President Lariviere without first consulting the [U]niversity community demonstrates a profound lack of understanding about [the] UO’s educational mission.”

“I am humbled by your support, but your cause should not be my employment status,” Lariviere said in a November 27 e-mail to students and faculty and staff members. “Your cause must be how institutions like the University of Oregon can be strong in a state with weak public resources.”

Last spring, the UO gave pay raises to 80 percent of tenure-track faculty members, 20 percent of nontenure-track faculty members, and 33 percent of administrators to address issues of equity and retention. That may have been the final straw for board members, who in June 2011—before the raises were announced—had already demonstrated frustration with Lariviere by adding conditions to his contract limiting his advocacy and requiring more participation with the state board.

Governor John Kitzhaber, who supported the board’s action, said of the pay raises, “[Lariviere’s] decision not only undermined the board, it undermined my own directive and the credibility of my administration with the other campuses that complied with the agreement” not to raise salaries. At the board hearing when Lariviere’s contract was formally terminated, board chairman Donegan spoke of a “deeply dysfunctional dynamic” between Lariviere and the board. “This has been brewing for so long,” Donegan said. “It’s horrific, like you are seeing a train wreck.”

Lariviere received three extended standing ovations during a brief appearance at an emergency meeting of the statutory faculty on November 30 at Mac Court attended by more than 1,000 members of the University community—as well as Chancellor Persteiner and state board member Lynda Ciuffetti, who fielded angry questions and comments from audience members. That assembly passed motions condemning the firing of Lariviere and calling for UO involvement in the search for a new president, for an independent governing board for the University, and for the UO Senate or its executive committee to recommend someone to serve as interim president.

Lariviere, who is a tenured faculty member at the UO, plans to return to teaching next fall.

Berdahl Steps In

Within days of the board’s decision to terminate Lariviere’s contract, Robert Berdahl emerged as the only candidate supported by the University Senate to serve as interim president. He was appointed by a unanimous vote of the state board on December 9, despite the fact that he had written a strongly worded criticism of Lariviere’s dismissal in The Register-Guard nine days earlier. “The chancellor and board have recklessly ignored the wishes of donors, alumni, faculty, and students,” he wrote. “They have signaled the academic community throughout the nation that innovative, courageous leadership will neither be sought nor tolerated.”

In a message to campus after his appointment, Berdahl vowed, “I am . . . moved to carry forward the important agenda President Lariviere has outlined for the campus.”

Berdahl was a history professor at the UO from 1967 to 1986 and served as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences from 1981 to 1986. He then spent seven years as vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, four years as president of the University of Texas at Austin, and seven years as chancellor at the University of California at Berkeley. He became president of the Association of American Universities in May 2006 and served until his retirement in June 2011. Last fall, Lariviere, who had worked with Berdahl at the University of Texas, persuaded him to come out of retirement to take a part-time advisory position at the UO.

In a state of the university address in January, Berdahl, who has agreed to serve only until September 2012, outlined the three priorities of his presidency: First, to assist in the process of hiring “top-notch” faculty members, building on momentum begun under Lariviere to “seize the moment to hire the very best.” Second, doing all he can to ensure the hiring of a “strong, visionary leader” to be the next president. And third, to advance the project of gaining an independent governing board for the UO, which he said was essential to maintain morale, to attract the best faculty members, to make the most effective use of UO resources, and to recruit a strong new president.

A twenty-one person search committee for the new president was formed in early February. Headed by Allyn Ford, a member of the State Board of Higher Education and president of Roseburg Forest Products, it included three UO students and ten faculty or staff members.

As Oregon Quarterly went to press, Governor Kitzhaber and a committee of the state legislature were supporting a plan that could lead to consideration of local governing boards in the 2013 session.

By Guy Maynard ’84