UO president's mistake: Getting it done, but not getting along

By Jayson Jacoby December 05, 2011 04:05 pm

I’m calling it the “Kitzhaber rule.”

And it goes this way: Giving public employees pay raises is a noble goal — so long as the governor is doling out the dollars.

Ignoring this edict is a perilous act.

One that can cost you your job, in fact.

Richard Lariviere, the soon-to-be-ex president of my alma mater, the University of Oregon — which makes him, I suppose, a lame duck Duck — can attest to the potential hazards if you defy the Kitzhaber rule.

The Oregon Board of Higher Education, after apparently taking a straw poll — thank goodness for the state’s strict public meetings law, right? — made its decision official Monday when it voted unanimously to terminate Lariviere’s contract. Lariviere, who was under contract until June 30, 2012, is out on Dec. 28.

Although the higher ed board had the final say, Kitzhaber’s signature might as well have been printed on the dismissal. The governor put out a written statement on Saturday in which he pitched his case for why Lariviere deserved his fate.

It’s a curiously muddled document.

The gist of Kitzhaber’s treatise, it seems to me, is that the qualities he desires most in the presidents of Oregon’s seven public universities are not creativity or ambition.

What the governor seems to be looking for instead is a cadre of sycophants, for whom facilitation is a more important trait than leadership.

Getting results isn’t as important as getting along, to put it another way.

Among the governor’s chief complaints is that Lariviere this past spring approved pay raises, totaling $5 million, for about 1,300 UO professors and administrators.

But Kitzhaber doesn’t object to the pay hikes because they aren’t warranted.

“They are,” the governor wrote.

Nor does he contend that Lariviere lacked the authority to spend the money.

Lariviere’s gaffe, it seems, is that he failed to drive up I-5 to Salem — to grovel in person, I suppose — before he made the deal.

Kitzhaber wrote that he had previously told all seven university presidents to “limit compensation increases given the state budget’s severe revenue constraints.”

“Unlike every other university president in the state,” Kitzhaber wrote, “(Lariviere) disregarded my specific direction on holding tight and delaying discussion about retention and equity pay increases until the next biennium to allow for a consistent, system-wide policy on salaries.”

Yet Kitzhaber doesn’t explain precisely how Lariviere “disregarded” his direction.

The governor’s mandate was that each university cap compensation increases at 6 percent during the two-year biennium that started July 1, 2011.

But the raises Lariviere approved came during the previous biennium. Moreover, the pay hikes had nothing to do with creating those “severe revenue constraints” that Kitzhaber cited.

The governor’s criticism rings hollower still, though, when you consider that even the 6-percent “limit” was short-lived, and why.

The state boosted the figure to 8.4 percent in late summer after the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents thousands of non-faculty university workers (and contributed to Kitzhaber’s campaign), agreed to a package of pay and benefit increases totaling 8.4 percent.

Yet according to Kitzhaber, it’s Lariviere alone whose “actions show little regard for the needs of the rest of the university system, other campuses, and the state.”

This is silly.

The governor seems not to be bothered by that SEIU pact.

Nor did he, to borrow his own phrase, “hold tight” on personnel costs when he negotiated contracts earlier this year with the two unions that represent most state workers. Those contracts include modest pay raises in the second year of the current biennium.

And despite the implication in Kitzhaber’s comment that Lariviere had “little regard” for the six other state campuses, the UO president didn’t plunder the coffers in Monmouth or La Grande or Corvallis to cover the faculty and administrator pay raises in Eugene.

Nor did the state budget suffer so that a relative handful could benefit — the UO, after all, gets only about 9 percent of its revenue from state taxpayers.

The money for the raises came from the UO’s tuition reserves, not the state’s general fund.

In other words, UO students are paying their professors.

What a revolutionary concept.

To their credit, Lariviere’s colleagues, unlike Kitzhaber, concede that the UO pay hikes did not come at the expense of any other university.

“UO simply makes more money than we do, primarily because they have more tuition revenue from more out-of-state students,” said Portland State University president Wim Wiewel.

Now if Kitzhaber wants to impose some sort of revenue-sharing scheme on the university system — perhaps that’s what he means by “system-wide policy on salaries,” although there’s no way to be sure — then he ought to say so.

Instead, as is typical of politicians, the governor resorts to rhetorical pabulum when confronted with an official such as Lariviere, who actually takes concrete steps to achieve his goals.

Which, curiously, seem eerily similar to Kitzhaber’s goals:

“My education strategy includes building a world class, innovative system of higher education that delivers better results for students and serves as an engine for our state’s economic recovery,” Kitzhaber wrote.

Impossible to argue with that.

Unfortunately, he continues:

“Achieving these goals requires all of our university campuses, the Oregon University System and the State Board of Higher Education to be pulling in the same direction.”


The problem with your scenario, governor, is that it suggests all the players possess identical muscle power.

But as the PSU president pointed out, that’s just not so.

So long as the UO can afford raises — and neither the governor nor anyone else has shown how Lariviere’s decision was reckless — why shouldn’t the money be spent?

Kitzhaber and the Higher Education board seem to believe that it’s better to have all seven state campuses suffer together rather than allow one to try to improve its lot.

Which is as nonsensical as forcing a student who has mastered algebra to quit math until all of his classmates have figured out fractions.

The truly perplexing part of this situation, though, is that Kitzhaber himself has bemoaned the state’s limp-wristed financial support for its universities — and rightly so.

Yet when Lariviere dares to do something other than whine about the circumstances, his reward is not public commendation but a publicly delivered pink slip.

The governor even had the audacity to compare Lariviere’s position to that of a CEO in a private company, by way of an analogy that bears little if any resemblance, or relevance, to the situation in Eugene.

“Any private sector CEO, faced with a division manager who was totally dedicated to his or her specific department but willfully and repeatedly undermined the needs and goals of the overall company would, I expect, fire the manager,” Kitzhaber wrote.  “And probably after the first instance of such behavior; not the second.”

Never mind that a public university in no way is comparable to a division in a company.

The truly insipid part of Kitzhaber’s statement is the allegation that Lariviere “undermined the needs and goals of the overall company.”

I’m certain the governor would agree that raising faculty salaries is a “need” —  and should be a “goal” — of Oregon’s higher education system.

Lariviere not only didn’t undermine that goal.

He accomplished it.

If Lariviere worked in the private sector, governor, he wouldn’t have been fired for that decision.

He might even have received a raise of his own. 

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.