Friday, November 25, 2011

On the ouster of UO president Richard Lariviere

This past week, the Oregon State Board of Higher Education announced that they would not be renewing the contract of University of Oregon president Richard Lariviere.  Tensions had long existed between Mr. Lariviere and the board, who had placed the head Duck on a short leash last summer, awarding him only a one-year contract, a move which was highly unusual.  But now the other shoe has dropped, and Mr. Lariviere is, as of next summer, out.

Mr. Lariviere is, of course, disappointed.  Many in the UO community are outraged.  Phil Knight called the Board's decision an example of "assisted suicide".  The Board is not talking, other than to note a "disagreement about the future of the university."

I'll say.

The disagreement was about far more than the future of the University of Oregon.  The dispute was about the very nature of higher education in Oregon.

(I should mention at this point that I'm an alumnus of Oregon State.  While I relish beating the Ducks on the athletic field, outside of sports and other extracurricular activities, I don't view UO or any other college in the state as "competition" to be defeated; particularly when it comes to academics.)

The proposal that got Mr. Lariviere in hot water was a 2010 proposal to give the University of Oregon more independence from the Board--one which would match $800 million in private donations with $800 million from the state to provide the university with an endowment which would reduce its need for future funding from (and thus political dependence on) the state Board.  He also suggested that UO have its own board of directors, separate from the state Board, a proposal which obviously did not go over well.  Mr. Lariviere also annoyed some when he used private donations to raise pay for professors.

It's easy to dismiss this as political infighting, and of the Board smacking down someone who didn't know his place.  That is, after all, probably part of it.  It's also easy to play the Randian card, as some at the UO are doing (ironically, given the student body's political leanings), claiming that this is a case of a band of mediocrities (the Board, and by extension, the other five state universities, particularly those on the Park Blocks and in Corvallis) beating down a peer who tries to excel, like the hypothetical crabs in a bucket preventing an ambitious fellow crab from escaping.  But buried in all the heated rhetoric, is a real difference of opinion on how higher education should be structured.

The current structure is of an essentially centralized system.  The six general-interest public universities in the state (UO, Oregon State, Portland State, Western Oregon, Eastern Oregon, and Southern Oregon) are all supervised by the state Board, and each given a role to play in providing education to the state's students (and to students from out-of-state), and are expected to play that role and stay within their boundaries.  The three regional universities focus on undergraduate education in specialized fields, with limited graduate programs; the three comprehensive universities offer a wide range of disciplines, and have extensive graduate and research programs, including doctoral studies in many fields.  Different schools focus on different majors, though there is significant overlap between them. 

In practice, there is quite a bit of turf war that is fought.  OSU, for example guards its engineering program jealously, and attempts to expand the scope and quality of engineering at PSU as frequently treated as a threat, despite Silicon Forests' frequent demands for a flagship engineering school that is closer than Corvallis. 

On the other hand, it's easy to see that administrators at other universities might view Mr. Lariviere's proposals as threatening in a way that proposals to expand Portland State's EE program might not be.  Right now, the state of Oregon doesn't have a "primate university".  No, that's not a term referring to monkeys, but a term meaning a dominant flagship school which is widely regarded as the premier public university in a political region.  To the south, California is big enough for two primate schools, with UCLA in Southern California and UC-Berkeley in the Bay Area.  To the north, the University of Washington stands head and shoulders about the other schools in the state in terms of academic and social prestige (and in resources); it's peer in the Pac-12, Washington State University, is frequently dismissed as a second-rate ag school that offers a lackluster education in anything other than agriculture and related disciplines, despite being a full-service university.  On the other hand, Oregon's land-grant school (OSU) enjoys much more parity with UO in academics, and has the best reputation among the state schools in quite a few non-agricultural disciplines.  However, neither UO nor OSU (nor PSU) enjoys the nationwide prestige that UW enjoys.

I suspect that a big reason that Lariviere is getting the hook, is that many in the state higher-ed establishment suspect that he wanted to erect a primate university in Eugene--that his proposed reforms were intended to go beyond simply improving the quality of the current degree programs offered at the UO, and instead try to expand the scope of UO's offerings in a manner that encroaches on the other major universities in the state.  Were any of the three major public universities to transition to primate-school status, the two most likely are UO and PSU--the latter because of its location in the state's largest city and economic capital (and close physical proximity to OHSU, with which a merger has been previously discussed), and the former because of the wealth of its donor base, which far outstrips those of Oregon State or Portland State.  (OSU, which is located in a college town rather than a major city, which has extensive agricultural programs, a discipline which tends to carry a stigma in the upper-class cultural circles where such decisions are often made, and which lacks billionaire alumni such as Mr. Knight, is probably the least likely candidate to become a primate school). 

Should the state of Oregon have a primate school--a flagship institution which towers about the rest?  Or is it better-served by the current model?  I don't know the answer to that question.  The quality of an educational system is often judged by the (perceived) quality of its top institution, so perhaps its better to have an A-list school and a bunch of C-list schools and/or specialty schools, than several B-list schools.  On the other hand, no existing institution is going to surrender its prestige and resources voluntarily.  It should be noted that the state of Washington has a higher ed structure which is more similar to what Mr. Lariviere would like, with UW and WSU having far greater autonomy, and the state higher education apparatus instead focusing on the regional schools and community colleges within the Evergreen State.

Perhaps this is a conversation that the educational establishment, and the people of Oregon, ought to be having.  Perhaps the forced departure of Mr. Lariviere will encourage the conversation to take place.  But the current soundbites being bandied about don't serve to enlighten the discussion--instead, they simply reaffirm suspicions that athletic rivalries have become extended in the classroom as well.

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