What UVA can learn from the University of Oregon's presidential sacking

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Rector Helen Dragas and the rest of the Board of Visitors drew ire over the last week for their handling of the ouster of Teresa Sullivan. But while the forcing out of a president is unprecedented here at UVA, that’s not the case nationwide. (Photo by Cole Geddy/UVA Public Affairs)

While the University continues to grapple with the aftermath of the Board of Visitors’ decision to push out President Sullivan, a peer institution on the West Coast is experiencing the end of a similar saga—and whatever the outcome of the ongoing battle over governance on Grounds, UVA can learn from the experiences of the University of Oregon.

Michael Gottfredson was named the new president of Oregon, a public research institution with an undergraduate population similar to UVA’s, on Friday, June 15, six months after the state’s Board of Higher Education voted on something that’s familiar here in Charlottesville: the decision to force the school’s president out after just two years on the job.

According to news reports, Richard Lariviere was an unconventional president well-liked by faculty and students. But he ran afoul of the state officials who act as the university’s governors when he proposed to fill the gap in state funding independently through bonds and matched donations. He also defied the governor by insisting on raising salaries higher than requested. The state Board unanimously voted him out last November and told him to pack his bags before Christmas.

It didn’t go over well. University leaders immediately jumped into action, with the first emergency Faculty Senate meeting in more than two years, followed by protests and petitions.

As at UVA, much of the anger was centered around the process by which the president was forced out. Robert Kyr, a music professor and president of Oregon’s Faculty Senate, said he and his colleagues were kept in the dark about the decision to dump Lariviere, and “felt very betrayed” that the state Board made such a decision without their input.

“We felt strongly that we should have been part of the process of evaluating the president before the firing,” he said.

Protests and anger persisted on campus until the semester’s end. Ultimately, Oregon faculty and students seeking reinstatement of their president didn’t get what they were asking for, but the way they dealt with the aftermath might offer insight into the process of rebuilding trust in the wake of an unpopular ousting.

The faculty at Oregon demanded closer involvement in their university’s governance, and they got it. Faculty, students, administrative employees, researchers, and general staff were formally included in the committee that searched for a new full-time president in a process Kyr said was “a very fair one based on collaboration and consultation.”

The chancellor and the Board accepted the recommendation, which Kyr said was a sign that the relationship has already improved.

“We’re working hard to maintain that as we move forward with our new president,” he said.
The upheaval in Oregon isn’t the only precedent for what’s happening at UVA. Penn State and Louisiana State University have seen presidents fired in the last year, and there have been two high-profile resignations at the University of Illinois.

Terry Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council for Education, said public universities have always experienced tension and turnover, and it’s increasingly common as they face serious financial challenges. But conflict doesn’t have to spell doom for schools.

“Great organizations can move beyond turmoil, no matter how significant it may seem when they’re in the middle of it,” he said.

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