When University of Oregon football coach Chip Kelly was handed the trophy for winning the Pac 12 championship, he immediately turned and presented it to "the real leader of our university, President Richard Lariviere."
It was a touching tribute to a man who, in two years at the helm of Oregon's flagship university, had made important strides in improving the quality of education and had won the affection of faculty and students. Unfortunately that affection wasn't shared by the State Board of Higher Education, which instead of a trophy handed Lariviere his walking papers last week.
In fairness to the board, Lariviere had given it plenty of provocation. The problem wasn't so much with what he did, but with how he did it.
He was unquestionably devoted to making UO a first-rate university, and he had made clear progress in that direction. The university is attracting more students (fall enrollment hit an all-time high of more than 24,000 this year) and smarter students (more than a quarter of them are in the top 10% of their high school graduating class) than ever.
But Lariviere seemed to have an infallible instinct for antagonizing both the board and the politicians whose support he should have been courting, all the way up to Gov. John Kitzhaber. He often didn't bother to show up for board meetings. He went to the legislature to push his plan for giving UO more independence even as the board was trying to get its own plan through. (Lariviere ultimately backed off at Kitzhaber's urging, but the episode left a bad taste.)
Probably Lariviere's worst offense, as the board and Kitzhaber saw it, was giving $5 million worth of salary increases to UO faculty and administrators even after the governor had asked all state university presidents to hold the line on pay - and Lariviere had agreed.
Lariviere had excuses for his faux pas. He said he had good reasons for missing the board meetings he didn't attend, and always sent somebody in his place when he couldn't go. He said the pay raises didn't violate the governor's edict because the money came out of UO's tuition reserves, not the state treasury. Whatever. Lariviere is gone now, and the question is where his university - and the state university system - goes from here.
The first order of business is finding a capable replacement for Lariviere. That job isn't going to be made easier by the way the state board handled l'affaire Lariviere. Candidates who have a passion for excellence and are willing to buck the system to achieve it are bound to be discouraged when they see what happened to the last guy who tried it.
In the longer run, the state higher ed system has to find a way to change its culture, which often appears to prize conformity above innovation and embrace the philosophy that good enough is good enough. It has to find a way to accommodate the people who, like Richard Lariviere, are willing to rock the boat - because without them, the boat will just keep sinking into the muck of mediocrity.