Oregon's State Board of Higher Education fired Richard W. Lariviere as president of the University of Oregon on Monday, ending his contentious tenure over a management style some described as too independent and sometimes defiant.
During a sometimes-raucous two-hour meeting, the board voted unanimously to oust the president, who has served in the job a little over two years. Board members chastised Mr. Lariviere for what they described as several violations of their trust during his presidency, including lobbying against the board's wishes for a plan to make the flagship independent from the rest of the university system. His last day will be December 28.
Some elected leaders have characterized Mr. Lariviere's style as aloof and arrogant. They describe his failures to cooperate, most recently by granting staff and faculty raises after being told by the state's governor to hold the line on salaries.
Last week the board informed Mr. Lariviere that his contract would not be renewed after it expired on July 1, giving him the choice of stepping down or being fired. With strong faculty support, he said he would not resign. After the board vote, he defended his actions as being in the best interests of the institution and not necessarily the board.
"There is a fundamental conflict between the welfare of the institution and the welfare of the board." Mr. Lariviere said. "I'd rather be fired... trying to seize an act to make the university better than watch it on the glide path to mediocrity."
The vote to dismiss Mr. Lariviere ended his brief and tumultuous tenure leading the university—his first job as a college president.
Within a year of taking office, the president was embroiled in a scandal over the dismissal of the university's athletic director—a beloved former football coach—and its general counsel.
While Mr. Lariviere was not generally blamed for the firings, the news-media firestorm was a distraction from his main goals of raising the academic profile of the institution. It is a member of the Association of American Universities, but its academic profile had fallen by some measures in the years preceding his presidency.
In May 2010, the president released an unusual plan that he said would solve the university's long-term financial problems. Under the proposal, the state would issue $800-million in bonds and agree to provide about $65-million a year, equal to the state's 2010 appropriations, to cover debt service on the bonds for 30 years. In turn, the university would raise private money to match the bonds and create a $1.6-billion endowment, allowing the earnings to replace state appropriations.
Mr. Lariviere also proposed that the university should break off from the state system and have its own governing board.
But the president's efforts to pass that plan during the 2011 legislative session were seen as conflicting with a bill, backed by the state board and governor, providing greater regulatory freedom to all seven of the state's public universities.
The state board responded in June by giving Mr. Lariviere just a one-year extension for his contract, and set expectations that he would be more communicative and cooperative with the board.
This fall, Mr. Lariviere approved pay raises for more than 1,300 professors and administrators, totaling $2.8-million. In October, the president hired Robert M. Berdahl, former president of the Association of American Universities, as a special assistant to be paid $96,000 for working two days per week.
Those raises for faculty and staff, however, had been expressly opposed by Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat, and key legislators were ruffled by the hiring of a part-time administrator who would earn nearly six figures.
The disputes reached a head last week when board members met privately with Mr. Lariviere to say they planned to end his contract. Instead of weighing his options privately, the president issued a public statement saying he was being forced to choose how to leave.
By Saturday, the governor, who had previously expressed his support for the president, said he favored the board's actions, describing Mr. Lariviere as a rogue leader. The president "disregarded board direction on more than one occasion," the governor wrote. "His decision to bypass the board and lobby for increased independence for the University of Oregon was a clear violation of policy and made our large, collective efforts to advance system-wide reform much more difficult."
"Unlike every other university president in the state, he disregarded my specific direction on holding tight and delaying discussion about retention and equity-pay increases until the next biennium," Governor Kitzhaber said in a prepared statement released last week.
State Sen. Mark Hass, chair of Oregon's Senate education committee and a Democrat, said Mr. Lariviere's relationship with the board soured because of his lobbying for the university's independence from the system. "The governor and lawmakers have to look out for the entire system," the senator said in an interview. "University leaders only have to look out for their own institutions."
Faculty and staff members at the university showed their support for the embattled president by sending a letter to the state board, starting a petition to protest Mr. Lariviere's ouster and filing an ethics complaint against the board that accused it of violating public-meetings laws by coming to a consensus on firing the president before today's meeting.
Faculty leaders have framed the dispute as one between academic excellence as supported by Mr. Lariviere, and mediocrity tolerated by the board and elected officials.
"You are making a decision based on no real substance," Robert Kyr, a professor of music and president of the University of Oregon Senate, told board members during the meeting Monday, expressing his frustration that faculty and staff members were not consulted about the president's performance and value to the university.
And faculty members contend that the firing will be devastating to the institution.
"His departure will shatter morale, ... cause many of its employees to leave the state for positions elsewhere, and make it difficult to recruit new academic talent," said a written statement from faculty members of the University Senate.
Faculty members at the university have generally viewed Mr. Lariviere as a scholar who understands the academic needs of the university. Mr. Lariviere earned a doctoral degree in Sanskrit from the University of Pennsylvania in 1978, and held faculty positions, mostly at the University of Texas, until 2006 when he became executive vice chancellor and provost at the University of Kansas.
He had begun to raise the standing of a university that has been neglected by the state, said Ian F. McNeely, associate professor of history and chairman of the university's Academic Council. Mr. Lariviere "is a maverick who pushed for making the university better, and he ran into a bureaucracy," Mr. McNeely said.
Board members, however, were not dissuaded by the faculty response, including more than an hour's worth of angry public comments, catcalls, and derisive laughter at Monday's meeting, which was Webcast live.
They were also undeterred by recent criticism from Nike co-founder and chairman, Phil Knight, the university's most generous donor and a key supporter of the university's athletics empire.
Matthew W. Donegan, the board's president, said the decision should come as no surprise to anyone who has been reading the newspapers over the past two years.
"This has been a long, dysfunctional ride, and it is heartbreaking to be here right now," he said.