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President Richard Lariviere talks pay raises, New Partnership, fedora

University President Richard Lariviere sat down with the Emerald on Sept. 13 and talked about everything from the New Partnership, justifying pay raises to Officers of Administration, all the way down to why he wears his signature fedora. This Q & A was edited for brevity and clarity.

Oregon Daily Emerald: What are some of the challenges that the University is facing today?

Richard Lariviere: Our biggest challenge is finding the money to do all the things that everybody wants to do. This is a community where people have one idea after another at least, many of which are great. Enough of them are great, but you’ve always got more great ideas on your plate than you can possibly pursue. So you have to decide which ones to follow through and you have to find the money to do it. Our biggest problem is matching our aspirations with our ability to fulfill them.

ODE: How would you describe the relationship between the University and the Eugene community?

RL: I have found this community to be wonderfully supportive. I’m really keen for the success of the University on all fronts, not just athletic success, but the academic success is pretty important to this community. Both Jan and I feel very lucky to be living here. It’s a place with a lot of smart people. It’s a place with a lot of volunteerism and community spirit. I think it’s a great place.

ODE: What do you hope students can get from the University of Oregon? What makes it special?

RL: Well, in the broadest terms, this is a pretty unusual institution in that its an internationally reputed research institution. I mean, national medal science winners and national academy members, etc. And it’s got a really robust research agenda with lots of options and specialties from journalism to genetics. But it’s also only got 23,000 students. And that means that it’s of a size where you’re free to identify your passion and pursue it here. You can find someone who will help you fulfill it, but also small enough that you have an identity as an individual and a place in the community and you can feel like part of the whole University, not just your own little, tiny bailiwick. And that’s really unusual to be right in that sweet spot of size where you’ve got unlimited options but also it’s a human-enough size that I feel like I can meet students and know them and meet them on the streets and encounter them in the daily intercourse of the campus. Most students here don’t really realize how unusual that is — not that they meet me, but that there’s a human scale to the place. I’ve been at places where there are 50,000 and 52,000 students and it feels fundamentally different.

ODE: Last year was a pretty eventful year. How would you describe the 2010-11 school year and what have you learned from that year?

RL: It was great fun because we made really significant progress on the New Partnership Plan. The New Partnership is really important because I think it’s the way forward for us to begin to find those resources and begin to focus what resources we have better than we have been able to in the past. If we get this right, I think we could have a model for the whole country, with regard to public education and how it’s governed and funded. It was really fun working on that. I meet with the Wall Street Journal editorial board, had articles in the Dallas Morning News, Newsweek, Chronicle of Higher Education; people are paying attention to what we are doing here.

ODE: A June 15 article in The Oregonian read that your contract was renewed for a year and with several conditions. How does this impact your role as University president? How does it relate to the New Partnership plan?

RL: Well I think it’s fair to say that the contract grew out of dissatisfaction with the New Partnership effort. It was unfortunate the way it was handled, I think. But it is what it is, and I don’t think it’s going to be much consequence going forward.

ODE: What progress do you hope to make this year with the New Partnership? What progress do you think can be made given the new terms of your contract?

RL: My contract doesn’t have anything to do with it. And the terms of my contract wouldn’t impede me from speaking my mind on this anyway. Governor Kitzhaber has really got this about right, I think. He’s got this new perspective on the state’s investment in education. 60 cents of every taxed dollar is spent on education, but it’s spent in silos on pre-K, K-12, community college and universities. And there’s no attempt to measure, from the state’s perspective, whether this oath investment is doing what we want it to do as an electorate. All we ask is, “Is pre-K doing a good job?” and we go to pre-K and say “Are you doing a good job?” and guess what, the answer is, “Yeah, we think so.” K-12, same conversation. Nobody’s stepping back and saying “is our investment resulting in a kid being able to go through this process to fulfill herself to the maximum potential, in a way that is going to be of a long-term benefit to the state of Oregon?” Those kind of questions have not been asked. This governor is asking those questions. He’s got a new structure for education that I think is really intriguing, and it matches with our understanding of our segment of higher education at the University of Oregon very, very well. Our intention is to follow the governor’s lead on the implementation of this new plan, and work with him and the Oregon Education Investment Board, OEIB, to figure out the details of implementation that will optimize the return on the investment that the state is making. My conversations with this governor around these issues have been a real breath of fresh air. This is one smart cookie, and I’m pretty cynical about politicians.

ODE: Aside from the New Partnership plan, what other things do you think went well?

RL: The faculty productivity continues to go up. Our faculty got a lot of research money, and national and international recognition at a very enviable rate. Our freshman retention rate went up to 87 percent. Over two years, that’s up from 84 percent. That’s a pretty substantial increase over that time. It’s going to go up more, we’re going to do a better job of retaining people. The buzz around the University is really strong. And I’m not talking now about athletics, I’m talking about what’s happening on the campus here. We had 22,500 applicants this year for 3,800 seats. That’s up 25 percent in one year. We had 11,000 applicants four years ago. More than double in four years is pretty remarkable. We’re going to admit, in this coming year, the most diverse and smartest freshman class in our history.

ODE: Where do you hope to see the University at the end of this year?

RL: Well I hope the governor is successful in implementing his plans for higher education. I hope that we continue to grow in popularity and fascination with the whole country. We had 45 applications from Pittsburgh this year — I don’t think we’ve had 45 applications from Pittsburgh in the whole history of the University. No one can really explain these things. There’s just a buzz about the University, and people say, “Oh it’s just football.” Nobody comes to a University because of football — football helps you build the brand.

ODE: A constant narrative here seems to be the tension between academics and athletics. Where do you see yourself in that tension and how do you manage those two?

RL: I think you’re right. The word is “tension.” I’ve lived with that tension for most of my adult life because that’s just part of academia, but I think a lot of people, I know I did for a long time, make the mistake of thinking about these as essentially the same arena of activity. And they’re not. There are academics and then there’s entertainment. Because that’s really what big-time Division I football and basketball is all about. Nobody is worried about the tension between club sports and academics. It’s about football and basketball. That’s what the whole conversation is about. And those are multibillion-dollar industries. Now is that a good thing or a bad thing? Well, if you’re naive enough to think that the people who are paying $100 for a football ticket, if they hadn’t had the opportunity to buy that football ticket, they would’ve given it to you to support the newspaper; if you’re naive enough to think that, then we’ve got a problem. I don’t think that’s the case. I don’t think that person who wants to pay all that money for a football ticket would have turned around and said I can’t go to football games anymore I’m going to give it to the English department. Doesn’t happen that way. They want entertainment. And we provide it for them.

Here’s where it’s really good for us: Last year during the BCS Championship Game, our logo, just during that game, was in 14,000,000 homes, in front of 27,000,000 people for four hours. We couldn’t buy that kind of advertising exposure, even if they sell it to us. Even if we took the entire athletics budget it wouldn’t buy that kind of exposure. Now is that good or bad? Well I’m not keen as a professor of Sanskrit to be known only for football, but how am I going to get anybody to pay attention to what I do? They’re not sitting out there turning their channels saying, “Where’s the Sanskrit report?” They’re looking for sports, for entertainment. “There’s the University of Oregon — tell me, what’s this place like? Would I ever want my kid to got there?” Now we’ve got them, because the answer to that is yes. But until they ask that question, we’re not on the radar screen. If you think about it from that perspective, the net benefit for a place like this is really great. Here’s the danger: All that great advertising, the logo, etc. can go out the window in a heartbeat if the program is corrupt. Because now the headline is “University of Oregon is corrupt,” or Ohio State or whatever. And that is a source of considerable concern and needs to be for everybody. Now we’re damn lucky here, really lucky because we’ve got, as far as I can tell, and I worry about this a lot, a group of people who have the highest values that I’ve seen in college athletics. Head coaches, AD, staff, and that helps me sleep at night. But you got to be constantly vigilant because it’s a multi-billion-dollar industry. And with multibillions of dollars come pressures and tensions and temptations that are pretty powerful, and you’ve got to pay attention and make sure that you’re staying on the straight and narrow.

ODE: An editorial in The Register-Guard described the recent raises granted to tenure-related staff as “bumfuzzling.” Can you walk us through this decision, and why you felt it was the right one?

RL: The policies that we’ve had visited on us in the last two years basically have resulted in no salary increases for faculty or officers of administration. It’s remarkably broad; people talk about administrators and they think it’s all the people in Johnson Hall, but in fact officer of administration means anybody who’s not a faculty member or classified employee. So all the people who do all the work to support the efforts here, they essentially got no salary increases for the last two years. It looked like there was a danger that there might not be any salary increases for the next two years either. And this has to do with OUS policies, and the state’s policies, etc. We were losing faculty here for the first time in quite a while, in significant numbers — 12 really good faculty. We always have more turnover than that every year, but these were 12 people who were lured away by outside offers. These weren’t people who left because of their families or they didn’t get tenure or some other, these are people that we wanted to keep, somebody else wanted to hire and we lost them. And that’s a big number in that category. We said, “Look, you get an outside offer, we’ll match it.” But their response to that is, “Well, what have you been doing for the last 10 years that put me in this position where I’m so poorly paid that I can get such a big salary increase by going to another university?” That’s a hard question to answer if you’ve not given salary increases. So we had permission to make retention and equity adjustments for our faculty and staff, not for the classified employees, because that’s negotiated by OUS with the union for classified employees. We don’t have any control over that, but we do have control over these other salaries.

ODE: Are classified employees taking furloughs?

RL: Well that’s what’s being negotiated with the Oregon University System. We have been very, very clear for quite a long while that we do not want furloughs for our employees.

ODE: Did that make it a difficult decision for you to give those raises while classified employees are taking furloughs?

RL: Well they’re separate issues. We have no control over those negotiations. We have very little input into it. We have some, but we’re just one voice among seven institutions negotiating with the OUS faction, and then there’s the Department of Administrative Services negotiating with the SEIU as well, so we don’t really have a lot to say about the outcome of those decisions. And I have to be pretty careful about what I say about that because they’re negotiating now anyway. This is an institution that rises and falls on the basis of the quality of the people who work here. It’s not about the bricks and mortar. It’s only important to the extent that the people who work here can do their jobs well. Our salaries for our faculty, for example, when I came here were 80 percent of the average of our peers, so 20 percent below average. In that environment, with highly mobile, highly talented people, you’re vulnerable. Not to do something about that would be the height of irresponsibility.

ODE: If you could give advice to every incoming freshman, what advice would you give them?

RL: Get involved. Pay attention, do your homework, but get involved on the campus. Get involved with clubs, with the newspaper, with volunteer groups, with community service entities, get out and mix in this community. Our superb College of Education people have identified and basically proven that there are four things that contribute to the success of a student at college. We all think about the academic preparation side of it, and that’s just one of the four. But it’s only one of four; there are three others that are just as important. One is the ability to imagine yourself successful here. If you don’t think you can do it, even though you got the gray matter and the preparation to, you’re probably not going to be successful. The third one is self-discipline. Pretty obvious. And the fourth one is fitting into the community. If you don’t know how to fit into the community, you won’t be successful. All four of those things are equally important for success. And I really would like for students to understand that those four things are going to determine their success.

ODE: Last question, and I have to ask this: the fedora. That’s kind of like your signature around campus, you look around you see a fedora there’s a good 90 percent chance it’s you, what made you start wearing the fedora and where did it come from? Was there anything that inspired you?

RL: I’d really like for you to go away from it with the impression that it’s just innate coolness (laughs). But the truth of the matter is that I’ve had several incidents of basal cell carcinoma — it’s that kind of not-very-serious skin cancer that you get from overexposure to the sun. I have had now three dermatologists tell me that I should never ever again go outside without a hat with a two-inch brim on it. So it’s really about being a cool guy. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

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Tyree Harris

Tyree Harris