Firing a President for all the wrong reasons

I kid you not! The president of the University of Oregon, Richard Lariviere, was recently fired because he wanted to use non-state funds to provide badly needed salary increases to retain and recruit faculty at his university. Robert Berdahl, a veteran of the US public university system (and the father-in-law of a dear friend of mine) was appointed last Friday as the interim president of U of O, but not before he had chastised, in a scathing public letter, the very same Board that has now asked him to replace Lariviere.

“If you want to be president of the University of Oregon,” he had said,” be prepared to knuckle under to the chancellor and the board and be wary of the promises of the governor.”  Merely a  week after he wrote the letter, he was appointed President of U of O. What gives?

The story is best described by no other than Robert Berdahl. “Lariviere was fired because he chose to provide badly needed salary increases to retain and recruit faculty at a university that has fallen woefully behind its peers, using non-state funds that other Oregon University System institutions were unable to raise, thus ruffling the feathers of faculty, administrators and unions elsewhere in Oregon. To prevent one institution that has the means to provide more competitive salaries using non-state funds from doing so because others in the system lack similar means is to consign all to mediocrity.” 

Let’s bring the story closer to home and imagine that the provincial government has ordered all BC universities (and there are now tons of them) to freeze their faculty’s salaries for a few more years. And assume that the President of UBC starts worrying about his university losing its best and brightest given that he is, after all, competing on the world’s stage and in a different league than say, Northern Lights College. So, he proceeds with a few like-minded visionary industrial leaders of the Vancouver community to fundraise so as to remedy the situation without having to use taxpayers money.

OK, suppose he also proceeds to announce –just like Berdahl and Lariviere– that “achieving excellence in a university or in a system of universities requires a willingness to make choices among competing components; to insist that all be treated alike reduces all to the lowest common denominator.” Remember the G5 controversy? And who said that Canada is the only place where the term “differentiation” is forbidden?

With this in mind, and well aware that the province is now providing only a small percentage of the operating budget of the university yet it still insists on 100 percent of the control, suppose that the president goes a bit further and decides “to reverse this by restructuring the university’s relationship with the (province) and by establishing independence from the stifling bureaucracy of the (provincial) system.”

You may say this cannot happen in Canada. Well, the University of Toronto has recently decided to call itself “publicly assisted” as opposed to “publicly funded” as the provincial support level has fallen to about 25% of its budget. Is Naylor up to something?

Still both UBC and UT have some way to go before reaching what has happened in Oregon, where the state’s support for the university has dwindled down to 5% of its total budget. And by the way, the appointed members of UBC’s Board of Governors for one, seem to be a cool and fairly independent-minded bunch, though it would be interesting to see how they would react to an attempt by a President to secure a province-independent governing board for the university.

Now this might well be a highly unlikely scenario for BC and Ontario but still,  government meddling with university business is real. It is common, and can take all kinds of shapes and forms. Do you know that government could for example “order” the university to give salary increases to all its faculty and staff, without increasing their provincial grant, and without allowing the university to use neither past savings (i.e, carry-forwards), nor privately raised funds? Only cutting of existing programs is allowed!

Back to the Oregon State Board of Higher Education, we now learn through one of its members, David Yaden, and not the Chair, Matthew Donegan, what they are thinking. “I really believe that he (Berdahl) also understands a couple of important things; one, the importance of an open and transparent relationship with this board. And secondly, he does understand that the University of Oregon is not an island unto itself.”

Does all this mean that the Board will soon go through some changes within its ranks? It remains to be seen, but what David Yaden failed to say is how fortunate they are to have someone like Robert Berdahl “in the neighborhood”, ready and able to redress the situation.

Indeed, Berdahl is a former president of the University of Texas at Austin, and chancellor emeritus of the University of California, Berkeley. He is an iconic figure of the US public university system, having also been president of the Association of American Universities (AAU), an organization that “focuses on national and institutional issues that are important to research-intensive universities”, and which dwarfs our own AUCC in size, clout, vision, and reach –to government.

Still, how Berdahl –who was obviously needed to pacify the faculty– will be able to fix the situation without expecting major changes to the UO system, is a mystery. It is one thing to now be considered a messiah by the faculty, but getting their understanding, support, sacrifice, and help may be something else altogether.

In any case, the only downside of this appointment so far, is that Berdahl will not be able to see enough of his grandchildren, this coming Christmas.


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One Response to Firing a President for all the wrong reasons

  1. Darren says:

    Thanks for writing that. I thought I’d give you the faculty (or at least my) impression of the whole event. Lariviere was a very good president and quite popular. He was solving a lot of our budget issues in tough economic times, and had an ambitious plan to give us more autonomy and establish a huge endowment. (Rumor on the street is that a lot of the endowment was already secured pending the state agreeing to his plan. So the firing at the very least delays these gifts, and at worst, puts them at risk.)

    3 months ago, Lariviere hired Berdahl for 2 days a week to help with lobbying in Salem, among other things. I guess they go back to their Texas days. As I understand it, Berdahl was not on the State Board or Chancellor’s list as an interim president initially. The faculty, Deans, Senate and administration here said the only acceptable interim candidate was Berdahl, and we would not support any other candidate until Berdahl was offered the position. Apparently, after a lot of wrangling, the Board agreed. I think this is great news and hopefully will prevent us from being set back too much by the unbelievable action by the Board.

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