How not to change the system

University of Oregon faculty and students are up in arms over the State Board of Higher Education's decision not to renew UO President Richard Lariviere's contract. They shouldn't be surprised, and neither should Lariviere.

While he brought an independent vision and creativity to the state's largest university, Lariviere also brought an arrogant attitude toward Oregon's other universities and toward the system that still governs higher education in the state, for better or worse.

A petition now circulating on the UO campus demanding that Lariviere be kept on will have little effect. In the end, Lariviere works for the Board of Higher Education, not for the students and staff of the university.

No one disputes the sorry state of Oregon's higher education system after years of disinvestment by the Legislature. This state has failed its universities and their students, and change is desperately needed to turn things around.

The state's universities have such a plan — one that will benefit all seven of them — but Lariviere came up with his own plan just for the University of Oregon.

The other six campuses want the Legislature to allow them to operate outside the state general fund, with greater control over the tuition they collect from students and other income. As it stands now, the Legislature can "sweep" funds held in reserve by the campuses and spend it elsewhere in the state budget.

That deprives the universities of the ability to plan ahead and to offer students and their parents a guaranteed price for four years of college.

Lariviere's plan would have the state sell $800 million in bonds, which the UO would match with $800 million in private donations. That money would become an endowment that UO would use to operate, and the state would no longer contribute to its budget.

That's a sweet deal — for the University of Oregon. It's not an option for the smaller campuses that can't raise that kind of money privately.

Lariviere not only floated this proposal, he took it to the Legislature on his own. Needless to say, that didn't sit well with the state board members who hired him.

Lariviere further raised hackles when he gave $5 million in raises to UO professors and administrators after Gov. John Kitzhaber had called for austerity across all of state government. Lariviere had the authority to do that, and said the move was necessary to keep salaries in line with those in other states in order to retain quality employees. But his refusal to accept the constraints all other state officials were living with was bound to be seen as open defiance by those to whom he reports.

Lariviere's vision of UO as first among equals, entitled to treatment not afforded the rest of the state's universities, was bound to alienate his peers in higher education. If he had been more willing to work within the existing system in order to change it rather than acting as though the rules didn't apply to him or his university, he might be looking forward to more years at the helm of the University of Oregon.

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