Richard Lariviere: Sitting Duck A Classic Evolutionary Case Study

The sitting president of the University of Oregon saw something special in his campus and his community.  He was able to look at the university, not just for what it is today, but what it could be in the future. The potential of the campus is so amazing that it feels like an irresponsible waste of resources to keep things the same. For those who see the possibilities, the status quo is exasperating.

Richard Lariviere

Anyone who knows anything about university administrations in general knows that there are few organizations in the world that are more glacial, cautious, petty, and reactionary than tribes of tenured academics trying to govern themselves. And it is true that the UO has earned a reputation for being particularly difficult to manage. Suggest a change or new idea at UO and you will discover a gnarly political blackberry vine—packed with twists and thorns—that will dissuade even the heartiest champion.

But Lariviere, who came to the UO in 2009 wasn’t the least bit concerned with the politics of the status quo. He was operating from a vision of the future and a clear set of values about the characteristics of the modern research university. He began operating at multiple levels simultaneously. He worked to understand and improve the practical lives of his professors—a group that has experienced death-by-paper-cuts for more than 20 years. He improved enrollment statistics and put in a number of programs to improve the student experience at UO.  He is cracking away at the rough, mossy stone that conceals the gem of what UO could, should, and must be.

Like the Evolutionary that he is; Lariviere doesn’t care much for the bureaucratic power base that has so effectively kept UO in tangles. This is a man on a mission. It seems clear he was not obsequious enough to Chancellor Pernsteiner and the Board of the Oregon University System. He gave pay raises to faculty to staunch the bleeding of the best talent—disregarding an appeal by Governor Kitzhaber (himself an Evolutionary in his own right) to be as frugal as possible in these bad economic times. But the pay raises were hugely important—and a pittance in the big scheme of things. And finally he took a plan directly to the State Legislature (apparently snubbing the Board) that would allow the UO to be less dependent on State funding—and fulfill its purpose as a world class research university. It is an idea whose time has come, so let’s get it done…right?

Wrong. For all those reasons; Pernsteiner and the Board informed Lariviere that they would not renew his contract in June 2012. As of this writing, there are petitions, protests, and formal actions being taken by the University of Oregon Senate to try and keep Lariviere at the helm. Whatever transpires, there are big lessons here for students of leadership and transformational change.

When you read Evolutionaries, you get the feeling that all of these leaders are well aware of the risks they are taking and they would gladly take them again and again—even knowing the consequences—because the vision and the values mean that much. Should Lariviere have done things differently?  The point is he probably couldn’t do things differently and still be true to his vision.

His comments reported on Monday, November 28 are 100% Evolutionary: “…but your cause should not be my employment status. Your cause must be how Oregonians will be educated. Your cause must be how institutions like the University of Oregon can be strong in a state with weak public resources. I urge those who plan to rally or attend the state board meeting to focus your time, energy and efforts, not on questioning the wisdom or process of the decision. Instead focus yourself on the larger cause of meaningful policy reforms that will benefit the UO, the system of higher education, and the state of Oregon.”

This is a man living by the Evolutionary Code (It’s in the book…). If you meet the man one time you recognize him instantly as a man of ideas who does not suffer fools gladly. He is a classical scholar. It is more like he is on a quest for something epic and good.  He even wears a classic Fedora hat reminiscent of Indiana Jones. Indeed the hat has become a rallying symbol for those opposed to the Board’s decision.

Evolutionary leaders often create frustration and anger in their hell-bent push for change. Smart Boards recognize their leaders as change agents and work to build functional alignment with their visions of the future.

The termination of Lariviere is a story about how Boards fail when they don’t have vision themselves. Without an aligned vision, you get the awful, fracturing, failure that we see unfolding now. As the Dean of the UO Journalism School Tim Gleason observed, Lariviere’s departure will be a body blow to the university now and in the future, as the best faculty prepare to leave and the ability to recruit a new president of any worth will be extremely difficult. In an op-ed piece in the Register-Guard on November 26, 2011 Gleason says, “Oregon cannot afford to lose a visionary leader over style points.”

In the absence of clear vision, fear rules the agenda.

If you are an Evolutionary, this is a cause worthy of close study. Learn the facts yourself and do what you think is right. If you are not an Evolutionary, learn the lesson and be clear about what you stand for and take care in choosing leaders that will align with your vision.  Don’t expect Indiana Jones to be content teaching Archaeology 101.

Look inside and find the courage for a real adventure into the future.