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

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.