UO Presidential Legacy Begins on Day One

Academic habits die hard and Richard Lariviere is nothing if not an academic. So if the former Kansas University provost is doing anything this weekend, it’s cramming. On Wednesday, Lariviere takes over as the University of Oregon’s 16th university president.

He has studied up for his first day on the job, but wisdom surely has taught him that ends and beginnings are connected. Students don’t attend his university — it will be [italics] his [end italics] — only to bide time. They arrive thinking about the degree they’ll receive at the end. So with Lariviere’s tenure and legacy. When he finishes, what will his contribution have been?

He’ll set the course ahead for the university beginning Wednesday. Thursday will be too late. He’ll have plenty of willing mentors on campus, but what about from the community that surrounds the campus? Oregon’s flagship university is anchored in Eugene. Their fates intertwine.

Eugene and the University of Oregon have learned new ways of collaborating in the past year or two. The Olympic Trials last summer took us to a new level for optimizing mutual benefits. Both partners have demonstrated the ability and desire to build on that success.

The president of the University of Oregon is uniquely positioned to open the throttle on the progress already underway and the best time to begin is at the beginning.

This is not a rebuke of outgoing president David Frohnmayer; only an acknowledgement that you’re “the new kid on the block” only once. Once you set your course and pace and style, changes thereafter become ever more incremental. Success has that effect.

The flagship sets sail under a new captain on Wednesday. What will be its guiding north star? Where will it be ten years from now? What course corrections are necessary to reach those goals? These are the essay questions Dr. Lariviere must be pondering this weekend.

An enterprising university can effect wholesale change on its host city over a decade. I’ve watched it happen.

On February 17, 1991, a Yale University sophomore named Christian Prince was shot and killed in an upscale neighborhood of New Haven, Conn. in a botched robbery attempt. Yale University was startled by the tragedy, and saw that its fortunes could not be separated from New Haven’s. Robert Levin became president of Yale a short time later, and he hit the ground running.

New Haven is roughly the same size as Eugene; about 150,000 residents. It’s also the second largest city in a smallish state. It’s also best known for the university that calls it home. New Haven’s struggles were deeper than Eugene’s, more lethal. But no less intractable. Its downtown was barren after retail fled for free parking on the outskirts.

In 1991, New Haven slid from “sad” to “scary.” Yale, under Levin’s leadership, became proactive.

A thousand small initiatives flowed from the talent of faculty and idealism of its students. Levin appointed a new Vice President for New Haven and State Affairs to coordinate the myriad and to identify new opportunities. Education students volunteer in the public schools. Yale professors write books about the resurgence of urbanism. Successful alumni gamble on downtown development opportunities.

The university’s new central police station also houses a community center. The university has invested in a downtown housing and entertainment district. Yale Health Services is relocating to a new building beside a cemetery, so there will be “eyes on the street” 24 hours a day. Yale Entrepreneurial Institute focuses on bringing jobs to the city. The Yale Homebuyer Program recruits and rewards university employees who buy homes in New Haven.

Neighborhoods have been rebuilt. Violent crimes are now half as frequent as in the early 1990s. Property values are way up. Construction has been booming. Schoolchildren are getting better test scores. Downtown is thriving, day and night. The city and university co-host each summer the International Festival of Arts and Ideas.

The prestige of the university regularly recruits new retailers to the city. The renewed vibrancy of the city lures new students and young faculty families. That mid-sized city is now on a roll, but it was a new university president who got that ball rolling.

Welcome to Eugene, Dr. Lariviere. Let’s get to work on your legacy, starting now.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) is a Yale alumni and has been an adjunct instructor at the University of Oregon. He writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs.