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How to Succeed as a University President (unpublished)

August 15th, 2014 by dk

[Note: I offered the newspaper two versions of this essay. One speculated how final conversations might have gone, and this one did not. This is the version they did not choose to publish.]

Nobody would ever suggest that the job of a university president is an easy one, especially at the University of Oregon, and especially lately. Balancing the competing constituencies has been expressed succinctly. “To keep everybody happy, you have to make sure that alumni are getting enough football and basketball, students are getting enough sex, and faculty is getting enough parking.”

Sure, it sounds simple. Nobody told me what happens when the needs for basketball and sex collide. Apparently, nobody told Gottfredson either.

On July 1, the state relinquished control of the university to an independent Board of Trustees. Wresting control from the state has been the long-term vision for the University of Oregon. It will be considered Gottfredson’s signature accomplishment.

George Pernsteiner, who was Chancellor of the Oregon University System, and the man who fired Richard Lariviere in 2011, has moved to Colorado, where’s he’s now president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. Lariviere has moved on to be president of The Field Museum in Chicago.

These two powerful men are out of each other’s lack of hair. But here in Oregon, the search for a peaceable kingdom continues.

Last week, the University of Oregon Board of Trustees convened to accept UO President Michael Gottfredson’s resignation and to approve a $940,000 severance package for the absent and abruptly departed president.

Afterwards, board chairman Chuck Lillis insisted that both actions were voluntary and not interdependent. An exasperated public sighed, “Yeah, right.”

Gottfredson’s resignation letter was oddly not on University of Oregon letterhead. His signature omitted at least one of the letters in his name. It cited a trope as tired as the man must have been after the last few days he’d had. Gottfredson claimed his desire for more “time with family” to be the cause for his resignation.

Family time must have become suddenly urgent, because he gave the university one day’s notice. (I’m sure International Excuse Guidelines, if such a thing exists, must recommend some reference to “health concerns” when a resignation is paired with a sudden departure.)

If his scholarship were in literature instead of criminology, he might have quoted Robert Frost’s “The Death of the Hired Man”:

Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.
I should have called it something you somehow haven’t to deserve.

Returning to a place where you are loved without conditions — that’s a universal desire. Professors often have the academic equivalent in tenure. Published reports claim Gottfredson’s tenure at the California university he departed two years ago was about to lapse, so that may have been the “scholarly interests” that “beckoned” him. We may never know.

We also may never know whether the Board of Trustees was displeased with their president. It may have been simply that they were given power to hire and fire their university president and they intended to use that power.

Willfully ignored last week was an odd coincidence. Forty years ago last week, headlines blared with the most famous resignation in American history. Richard Nixon also gave only one day’s notice.

Gottfredson was “not available” for comment beyond letters he wrote to the board and to the UO at large. Again, it provided a notable contrast with Lariviere, who sat for nearly an hour with the Oregon Daily Emerald’s reporters for a televised interview.

Gottfredson’s departure reminded me instead of a man still in university leadership and still under severe pressure.

When news broke in 2010 that Dana Altman was leaving Creighton after 16 years to become the head coach for the University of Oregon men’s basketball team, he tried to evade the press corps by taking a back door into the parking garage. A television news crew intercepted him there, where he had no comment.

“No comment” sometimes comments powerfully.

One of Gottfredson’s final acts as president was to appoint one of his campus allies to serve as the university’s Faculty Athletics Representative for the NCAA. Sports must have been on his mind when he wrote his final letter to the university, which ended with “Go Ducks!”


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

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