Archive for Saturday, November 26, 2011

KU should be wary of implementing ex-provost’s strategy

November 26, 2011


News that former Kansas University Provost Richard Lariviere has been told his contract as president of the University of Oregon will not be renewed is sure to trigger considerable discussion among his former KU associates, as well as many others around the state.

Lariviere has been president at Oregon since July 2009 after serving as KU’s provost from 2006 to 2009. Prior to moving to Lawrence, he was dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas. Chances are, he arrived in Lawrence with the idea of moving into the chancellorship after several years as provost. However, former Chancellor Robert Hemenway gave no signals he intended to step aside in the foreseeable future, so Lariviere decided it was time to move.

An Oregon news story telling of the OU board’s decision to terminate Lariviere’s contract said, “He came from the University of Kansas, where he was provost and brought a brainy (he has a doctorate in Sanskrit from the University of Pennsylvania) and a sharp-elbowed style that was refreshing to some and offensive to others.”

This description of Lariviere probably is shared by a large percentage of those who knew him when he was here in Lawrence.

The Oregon report continued, “He gave substantial raises to U of O faculty in the teeth of the recession, spoke provocatively for a college president (comparing college athletes to Lady Gaga) and, in his most controversial move, shopped an idea to have the state sell $1 million in bonds, which the U of O would match with private fundraising.”

The report added that Lariviere had tried to put U of O on a “separate and unequal track from the six other universities in the state system.”

He encountered a growing number of critics, but he also had many supporters. One of his supporters, a state legislator, said she was extremely sorry the board chose to let him go. “I’m proud of the job he has done,” she said. “He dared to try new things and he just didn’t tell people what they wanted to hear. He had a plan, and he had students and donors behind him. I just think this sends a terrible message. … After this, I’ve got to wonder how we’re going to attract someone of Lariviere’s caliber again.”

The description of Lariviere as “brainy and sharp-elbowed” is shared by many in this part of the country. Several members of the Kansas Board of Regents have told this writer Lariviere made the best presentation to the board of any KU representative and better than representatives from the other regents universities. However, they added, he was arrogant and looked down his nose at the regents.

He had big dreams for KU, and KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little and other senior Strong Hall staffers are trying to finesse one of Lariviere’s goals at Oregon, which was to put U of O “on a separate and unequal track from the six other universities in the state.”

Gray-Little and others want to position KU as an elite flagship school, which would send a message that KU is different, better and has unique strengths that other regents universities don’t have. They are increasing their efforts to point out the differences and strengths of KU relative to the other schools.

Apparently, Lariviere’s effort to initiate a similar plan at Oregon didn’t work and upset too many throughout the state.

KU officials need to be careful of how they try to sell KU’s specialness and seek to separate themselves from the state’s other regents universities. Over the years, KU has had to fight the image, often self-inflicted, of being “snob hill.” A not-too-subtle effort to place KU in a special category is not likely to set well with many state legislators and alumni and friends of other state universities.

While at KU, Lariviere led the reorganization of the graduate school and the School of Fine Arts. The jury still is divided as to whether these were good moves.

Currently, KU officials are in the final stages of selecting a new dean for the graduate school. This search, however, is considerably different than search efforts for graduate school deans at other major research institutions.

Traditionally, the excellence of a university’s graduate school and the academic and research excellence of its dean, faculty members and students have been used as a yardstick to judge the overall excellence of a university. A great graduate school usually was a sign of a great university.

Here at KU, however, university officials are quick to say the dean of the graduate school is a “dean without a faculty. The dean is more of a coordinator.” They suggest the faculty of the graduate school is the entire faculty of the university.

Undoubtedly, the four in-house KU candidates for the deanship are top-flight and able individuals, but wouldn’t an unlimited search effort for candidates from within the school, as well as outstanding individuals from throughout the country or even abroad, say something about the desire of KU officials to seek the very best and elevate the excellence and reputation of the university?

Time will tell whether the Lariviere plan to transform the KU graduate school will turn out to be good or bad for the school, and the university overall, in attracting outstanding faculty and students.

The manner in which those serving on the Oregon university system’s board handled the Lariviere matter shows a strong, knowledgeable, involved and courageous body of individuals deeply concerned about the operation and excellence of the universities they oversee.

They didn’t sit on their hands. Some time ago, they gave Lariviere a one-year extension but told him he would have to shape up if he expected to stay around for a longer tenure. Apparently, they didn’t think Lariviere was making progress, and they pulled the plug this week. He was given the option of either resigning or accepting the termination of his contract. A few days ago, he said he didn’t know which option he would take.

Unfortunately, in recent years, the Kansas Board of Regents has not demonstrated a similar resolve in handling serious, delicate personnel matters. They have preferred to have some of these tough decision made by those on the campuses or let the situations drift and get worse until they or their on-campus surrogates were forced into action.

On the other hand, recent situations suggest the regents have been in the dark about what is going on at the universities they are supposed to oversee.

Friends of Lariviere are sure to be sorry things did not work out for him in Oregon. He’s smart, a dreamer, articulate and makes a good appearance. He has much to offer higher education. Universities need individuals who do not settle for mediocrity, who will challenge the status quo.

Unfortunately, his manner seriously handicapped him at KU. Apparently, he ran into the same people problems, and his sharp elbows bruised too many in Oregon.


jhawks360 6 years, 6 months ago

Lariviere was a wonderful provost at KU and helped make this school more exceptional. Dolph always preaches about bringing KU above mediocrity, but any time some one actually takes the actions needed to make KU great, he scolds them in this editorial.

Looks like Lariviere was liked at U of O, too:

WilburM 6 years, 6 months ago

I don't disagree, but you always need to be wary of someone who thinks he is (and may well be) the "smartest guy in the room," AND acts like it. RL was SO dismissive, SO much of the time, that it was difficult to imagine that he had the political skills essential to be a University president. Still, in an era of difficult times, he had some provocative and potentially positive ideas.

yourworstnightmare 6 years, 6 months ago

Apparently KU and UO are indeed peer institutions.

The problem with KU has been and is the inability of the Regents and legislators to listen to and work with leaders like Lariviere.

Lariviere was a visionary leader with great ideas and goals, and the ability to achieve them for his school. He was also brusk, aloof, and sometimes insulting. Often, the two qualities go hand in hand.

The Governor, legislatures, and Regents constantly say that want KU to rise above mediocrity and become great.

Well, leaders like Lariviere are how this happens.

Until KU and Kansas can handle leaders like Lariviere, the mediocrity will continue.

Kendall Simmons 6 years, 6 months ago

Dolph apparently wants KU to be an elite school...but to not tell anyone about it because that would make us seem like snobs. KU is supposed to be head-and-shoulders above the other regents schools...indeed other schools, period...but must walk around slouching so that it doesn't 'appear' to be standing any taller than the other schools. And KU mustn't offend anyone in its striving to be excellent...unless you're the Chancellor, at which point you aren't supposed to be calm and level-headed because that automatically makes you wishy-washy and willing to settle for mediocrity.

Of course, he is consistent about the Kansas Board of Regents because they don't take the actions that Dolph believes they should. And, because they decide to let some situations be handled on campus...the horror!...they must have no "resolve". Indeed, they must be "in the dark".

At the same time, Dolph believes the Oregon regents absolutely must be a "strong, knowledgable, involved and courageous body of individuals concerned about the operation and excellence of the universities they oversee". Why? Because they terminated Richard Lariviere.

However, maybe Dolph ought to think twice about that?

After all, Dolph describes Lariviere as "smart, a dreamer articulate, and makes a good appearance" who "will not settle for mediocrity, who will challenge the status quo".

Yes, Dolph admits Lariviere has "sharp elbows". But if the Oregon Board of Regents really were as "strong" and "courageous" as Dolph proclaims them to be, then how come those strong and courageous regents did not stand up for Lariviere? Why didn't they just tell others "look, we know he's abrasive...but he has vision and refuses to settle for mediocrity and we need this in tough economic times like these"?

But, nope. The Oregon regents apparently didn't like the way Lariviere looked down his nose at they fired him. Can you imagine if it had been the Kansas Board of Regents who had done that...???

KU_cynic 6 years, 6 months ago

Dolph's headline has it all wrong ("KU should be wary of implementing ex-provost’s strategy").

The clear inference -- one quite consistent with Dolph's past editorials -- is that KU needs a strategy for differentiation and distinction. Despite my natural cynicism about it, KU's current strategic planning process is part of such a strategy. Another important component will be re-allocating resources toward more sharply articulated priorities and securing new resources. But if KU is unwilling or unable to say "We are special" -- to students, to faculty, to legislators, to donors -- then what's the point?

The lesson of Lariviere is not the message, it's the messenger. A sharp-elbowed and sharp-tongued elitist whose rhetorical style embodies condescension at its worst is exactly the wrong kind of person to lead an effort of change that must by necessity begin with trust and communication.

voevoda 6 years, 6 months ago

It's odd that Mr. Simons invokes Lariviere's approach in order to argue in favor of a more prominent and prestigious Graduate School. Before Lariviere, the Graduate School was a free-standing unit with more authority and prestige. Lariviere downgraded it to a department of the Office of Research, and reallocated most of its powers to the various colleges. That's why the Dean of Graduate Studies is "more of a coordinator" now. Are we now at a point that just "a dream"--any "dream"--is welcome because it's not lethargy?

voevoda 6 years, 6 months ago

toe, A graduate school can also affirm academic freedom, when colleges abuse it. It can guarantee that colleges devote necessary attention to graduate programs, and maintain standards. Conversely, colleges can (and unfortunately do) destroy academic excellence and academic freedom on their own. By making Graduate Studies a subunit of the Office of Research, Lariviere decided that the only significant aspect of graduate study is research, and everything else--coursework, teaching, professionalization, job placement, etc.--is peripheral. A lot of important issues just aren't getting addressed, because the colleges don't have the authority to change university-wide policies and practices.

KU_cynic 6 years, 6 months ago

Back when Diana Carlin was dean of the Graduate School there was an unfortunate and clumsy effort at centralization of many policies that frustrated many units....and I thought that was a bad thing. When Carlin stepped down and the grad school was reorganized many of those centralization efforts were reversed....and I thought that was good thing.

One thing that's become clear in the strategic planning process, however, is that the investment in doctoral education is not yielding consistently good results across all units. Statistics such as time to doctoral degree (averaging up to nearly a decade for some departments!) and placement outcomes are very disheartening. One of the tasks for a new Graduate School dean is to be the new sheriff that cleans up this mess, downsizing or eliminating some doctoral programs that can't seem to produce productive and employable scholars and reinvesting in those that can.

begin60 6 years, 6 months ago

No one has to worry about KU becoming an elite school. I have studied and worked at several public ivies, and KU in comparison to these places is incredibly substandard. Apparently, the KU cracker mentality does not offend everyone from the West Coast, but I have zero use for it and only wish to be spared the aggressive intrusiveness such people seem to regard as good manners. Zero respect for personal space and tacky backwoods sexism! Hardly appreciate it when crackers go about unconsciously asserting their superiority over every other living being. The stupidity of it is terrifying.

begin60 6 years, 6 months ago

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lama 6 years, 6 months ago

Adolph wants KU to be great -- but not too great. What a nonsenical column. Why doesn't he spend his time pounding on his Republican cronies at the Legislature for more freedom to be excellent -- as in funding and admissions standards?

question4u 6 years, 6 months ago

Kansas doesn't have a university ranked nationally within the top 100. Shouldn't the path out of mediocrity involve trying to keep more of the top graduates from Kansas high schools in the state rather than trying to get more students to choose KU over other Kansas regents institutions? Are myriad students with top SAT scores choosing to attend Emporia State rather than KU? Is K-State preventing KU from becoming an "elite flagship school"?

Some clothes from Walmart are arguably better than others, but it doesn't mean much if you're wearing them and standing next to someone in an Armani suit – and the Armani-suit universities aren't in Kansas.

BillyGoat 6 years, 6 months ago

The best leaders differentiate themselves not by knowing the answers, but by knowing the right questions to ask. The former Provost was bright --- but not brighter then the collective wisdom of those under his command. His arrogance was palpable and irritating. Moreover, his disdain for seeking information and insight from others will always (1) lead to sub-optimal decisions and (2) lead to resistance from those tasked with implementing these decisions. His demise at Oregon was predictable --- all they had to do was ask a few people at KU about him. Apparently they failed to do so.

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