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UO President Quit? Yeah, Right

August 15th, 2014 by dk

Planning a trip to Chicago last month, I tried to catch up with former University of Oregon president Richard Lariviere. His first few months were rocky as the president of one of the world’s finest research museums, but The Field Museum seems now on better footing, and so does its president.

My request was denied. His wife Jan put it this way in a Facebook message: “We want to leave Eugene totally to the new administration. We hear things are going well at UO and we are very pleased.”

That was in April. On July 1, Lariviere’s central goal for the University of Oregon was accomplished. The state relinquished control of the university to an independent Board of Trustees. George Pernsteiner, who was Chancellor of the Oregon University System, and the man who fired Lariviere, has moved to Colorado, where’s he’s now president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.

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.)

Lillis told reporters he learned of the president’s intended departure only a few days earlier, in a phone call. Reporters cannot speculate about a private conversation, but columnists can. Here’s how that conversation might have gone.

CL: We’d like you to leave.

MG: The Oregon University System extended my contract through June 2016.

CL: We could pay you for those two years.

MG: Is that a threat or a bribe?

CL: (silence)

MG: I don’t want to have to answer any questions.

CL: This will be just between you and me.

MG: My contract requires that I give 30 days’ notice.

CL: That won’t be necessary.

MG: (silence)

CL: I’ll look for your letter later today.

Now imagine how the same conversation must have gone between Pernsteiner and Lariviere in 2011.

GP: We want you to go.

RL: We all want things we cannot have.

GP: (silence)

RL: (silence)

Lariviere was fired. Gottfredson quit. But it sure didn’t look that way.

Willfully ignored 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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