Dr. Richard Lariviere As Unintentional Interim President of the U of Oregon
Bill Long 11/29/11
The not-unexpected decision of the Oregon Board of Higher Education to terminate the contract of popular U of O President Richard Lariviere has set off a wave of recrimination and bitter feeling both at the University of Oregon as well as among its most ardent public supporters (Note, I originally penned the word "argent" instead of "ardent." Come to think of it, maybe my typo wasn't so wrong...). The home of the Chairman of the State Board was vandalized; the Board itself was hooted at when it made its decision; many distinguished people have publicly threatened to leave the university. Lariviere's contract, which was set to expire at the end of June, was actually terminated as of Dec. 28, 2011; that means the Board really wants him out right now.
The purpose of this essay is not to assess the mistakes made along the way by either side; it is rather to point out that had the Board of Higher Education recognized some simple principles regarding hiring a new President after the tenure of an extremely popular long-serving predecessor, they might have avoided the mess that now is front-page news across the country.
The Reality of Unintentional Interims
Large institutions, whose public face is usually vested in one person, run great risks in times of transitions. If the previous leader/pastor/administrator/president was very successful, or if s/he was quite harmful, the institution is liable to make quick, unnecessary and deleterious decisions about future leadership. Though the facts are quite different in each case, four examples from higher education leadership illustrate my point:
Case 1: Brown University. Vartan Gregorian was a character larger than life and, apart from Howard Swearer, probably the most dynamic and revered President of Brown since the 1940s. His tenure lasted from 1989-98, when he returned to NYC. Gordon Gee, a tremendously successful President throughout the country both before and since, came to Brown and within two years left Brown, with bad feeling all around. He now is the highly successful President at Ohio State, and his only fault was his public mispeaking last year about the difficult football schedule faced by Big Ten Schools (unlike smaller conferences, in which Boise State and TCU played, whose opponents were often schools like "Little Sisters of the Poor").
Case 2: Reed College, Portland. Paul Bragdon was the modern "savior" of Reed College during his 17 year tenure (1971-88); the penurious financial condition, low morale and high conflict in the college before his time gradually gave way to optimism, greater funding and a sense of a renewed Reed. James Powell replaced the popular Bragdon in 1988 and, within three years, was packing for Philadelphia.
Case 3: Portland State University. Joseph Blumel, a popular PSU professor, became the longest-serving President of that university in 1974. His vision for the campus, coupled with broad community support led to a sense that PSU could one day equal U of O and OSU. When he left in 1986, he was replaced by Southern Oregon President Natale Sicuro. When I heard Sicuro speak at the Portland City Club shortly after his arrival, I said to myself, "This guy won't last long"--due in large part to the extravagantly unrealistic claims he was making for the future of PSU. He was out by 1988 and heading to RI.
Case 4: University of Oregon. David Frohnmayer, a son of the state of Oregon, was one of the most beloved and successful Presidents of the U of O in its history. His fifteen year tenure at the helm of the U of O saw major gains in multiple areas, including a profitable relationship with Phil Knight of Oregon, who put the Knight name on every large building (seemingly) on the U of O campus. Lariviere had the misfortune of following Fronhmayer immediately after his departure. Lariviere was out in a little after two years. The only future plans he has mentioned are that he might want to teach Sanskrit at the U of O. Not exactly the high-enrollment part of campus...
Lessons from Unintentional Interims
All these "replacement" men intended to stay a good deal longer than they did. But the structural realities of large institutions after a popular (in this case) and long-serving leader prevented this from happening. Of course, we can point to "failings" in each instance but, in my mind, these shortcomings, if they were indeed shortcomings, were more the product of failures of the governing board to think through how properly to do a search in this instance than anything else. The principles and realities after a long serving person that need to be honored are these:
1. Loyalties to precedessors are fierce and often disallow things to go forward. This means that the Board itself might be so attached to the predecessor, in ways they don't realize, that they are unable really to accept a new person.
2. Because of the popularity of the predecessor, the Board's sense of good judgment is occluded when picking a successor. That is, they think above all, "we must keep the momentum," without really asking the question of what is good for the institution.
3. They don't, therefore, carefully evaluate what the institution is apart from the popular leader. The institution is much more than any one person, but the long-serving President can cast his shadow, or extend his influence, over every aspect of the university life, so much so that no one can really think clearly about the future of the department or area without thinking first of how the (old) President would deal with the future.
In cases like this, then, the best thing for an institution to do is to "take a break." It needs an interim president of at least one year and probably two years just to let the institution "slow down" or "return to normal" or otherwise learn to live without the "great man" who had meant so much to its recent history. The decision to move to an interim president can be perceived from the outside as a weak decision, because so much has to be done; money needs to be raised; alumni entertained, placated or cultivated; etc.
Often if it doesn't choose an interim president intentionally, the Board will get an "unintentional" interim. When this happens, the university not only has to deal with the headaches of the discomfort between Board and President, worry about potential lawsuits, and try to mollify constituencies, but it will have to do the search process all over again. So, Boards, next time you have a very popular and long-serving leader leave or even a long-term leader who ultimately wasn't good for the institution, take a pause, give the institution a break, let it learn to live without the past leader, and then move on. An intentional interim is often the wisest way to go. It certainly would have been the case at the University of Oregon.