University of Oregon


UO Senate Meeting Remarks by Interim President Robert M. Berdahl
January 11, 2012

Photo: Interim UO President Robert M. Berdahl
Robert M. Berdahl, Interim UO President

Good afternoon. Although, as I am sure you know, I am not pleased with the circumstances that have led to my being here today in this role of interim president, I am very pleased with the opportunity to return to the UO and to participate, once again in its wonderful and important activities.

I want to apologize in advance to everyone I will not have a chance to meet during my interim presidency, to every department and office I’m not able to visit, and to all who invite me to functions that I’m not able to attend. An interim presidency is different, and my orientation across the campus and with stakeholders across the state can’t be as thorough as it was for Richard and will be for the next president. There simply isn’t enough time to get to know each of you the way I would like to.

I am honored that the faculty, represented by this senate, was in favor of my appointment as interim president. Absence, it is said, makes the heart grow fonder; in fact, I suspect, absence only causes the memory to grow fainter, so that somehow whatever memory remains of my earlier incarnation here is colored more favorably than it should be. People seem to have an exaggerated esteem for me, so that it is certain and inevitable that my reputation will be worse by September than it is now. On the other hand, presidential honeymoons usually last about 9 months, so if we can keep this marriage happily together until September, I may escape before you entirely regret your recommendation to the Oregon Board of Higher Education.

Last night, as I was settling in to write these brief remarks at McMorran House, I chanced to pick up a brochure on the history of the UO president’s residence and I was surprised to learn that of the twelve UO presidents who have lived in McMorran house during the last seventy years, I have followed the University closely as a faculty member or champion through nine. And I have known reasonably well or worked in some fashion with six of them.

I served as a dean when Paul Olum was president; I knew Myles Brand when we were both deans, he at Arizona, I here, and then when we were both provosts in the Big Ten; I have known Dave Frohnmayer for forty years, from the time we were both young faculty, and I worked closely with him and admired his leadership when I was president of the AAU, where he served with distinction on the AAU executive committee and hosted one of its best meetings here at UO. And I have known and worked with Richard Lariviere at Texas and here; I have already offered public testimony of my admiration for his leadership.

Those are all tall shoulders upon which to stand, and it is because we stand on their shoulders that we have been given a more far-reaching vision of where this University can go, of what it can achieve.

But, however much inspired leadership these presidents may have provided, however far they can see to a distant horizon, it is ultimately the faculty that will take us there. For it is, in the final analysis, the quality of the faculty that determines the quality of the University. It takes excellent staff to make it all work, but this University will ultimately be judged by the quality of its faculty, nothing more, nothing less. Excellence begets excellence across the entire University community. That refers to our faculty, to our students, to classified staff, officers of administration and everyone else associated with the university. I remember a comment from 1986 Nobel Laureate Yuan T. Lee who earned his Ph.D. at Berkeley then later in his career returned to teach at Berkeley. Professor Lee said that he originally came to study at Berkeley because of the quality of the faculty then he returned to teach at Berkeley because of the quality of the Students. Excellence begets Excellence.

So, you may ask, where do I hope we can go over the next few months?

First, it is essential that we recruit and retain the very best faculty we possibly can. Because of good financial management and a successful model for growing revenue, despite poor state support, the UO is relatively unique in its capacity to add faculty to its ranks over the course of this academic year. CAS currently has about 35 searches underway, many of them new lines; the other schools and colleges are also adding faculty. Few public universities are able to do this in this fiscal environment.

We must take care that we are recruiting the very best. The mark of a first-class faculty, a self-confident faculty, I believe, is the willingness to recruit people who are better than those of us who are already here. The other mark of a first-class faculty is the willingness to halt a search and start over, rather than filling a position with a lesser choice simply to fill it. I am confident that the deans and the central administration are determined to help you achieve successful searches in every possible way. This is how our momentum can be sustained.

Second, we must recruit a strong, visionary, effective leader as the next president of the UO. The search process is getting underway, as Chancellor Pernsteiner and Board member Ford will be discussing with the campus today and in the days ahead. I clearly have an interest in this process being completed by the beginning of the summer and a new president in place for the next academic year. But I also believe that the campus has a great interest in securing a president who can be in place by September.

We have a lot of momentum. Although morale has been damaged by the Board’s decision to terminate President Lariviere, it is generally high because of the momentum, the hope and expectation of the future, which he generated.

One of my tasks as a presidential consultant this fall was to help in planning for the upcoming capital campaign. I met with all the deans and a number of faculty. Contrary to one of the truisms coined by Peter Flawn, one of my predecessors as President of UT Austin, who observed that “Faculty morale is always at an all-time low,” I found faculty morale to be very high. One associate dean in CAS commented, “I would rather be at the UO right now than at any other public university in America.”

The key to keeping that sense of optimism alive is to recruit and retain outstanding faculty, but also to recruit an outstanding president. I believe I can be of help in that process, in part because my previous positions have enabled me to know a large number of potential candidates. I hope to be able to play an active role in the search process.

Our third imperative, upon which the others depend, is to advance the project of gaining an independent board for the UO. I believe this is essential to sustaining the morale of this institution. It is essential if we are to successfully recruit faculty. It is essential if we are to be able to spend the university’s resources to best support our people and our mission.

And it is essential to the successful recruitment of a strong, independent leader for the UO. Given the abbreviated tenure of the last president, all presidential candidates – at least any whom we would be interested in recruiting – are bound to ask whether, given the current abysmal support for the university from the state, is it possible to succeed in advancing the University unless it is liberated from its current constraints.

My answer is simply, no. One need only to look to the success of OHSU to realize how an institution provided with greater freedom of action can prosper. OHSU has moved from a middling medical school to being a first-rate medical school and research center, now competing for talent with the very best medical centers in the nation.

I believe the UO can experience a similar leap forward; I believe there is the possibility of a major restructuring of our revenue stream that can happen if we are given the freedom to do so. I believe there is substantial support for this within the context of the governor’s plan for restructuring education in Oregon and that the moment is ripe for such a change.

I am aware that there is opposition to the UO’s efforts from some quarters and that some other institutions in the State System view this initiative negatively. I confess that I do not understand why. We do not propose to take any resources from other institutions in the system; we do not propose to withdraw from any of the collaborations with the other institutions. We are as committed to the public mission of the University as any institution in the state, and we will remain committed to that public mission, as are other public universities who have their own boards.

Higher education in Oregon was not weakened by granting OHSU independence; it was strengthened as OHSU grew better and attracted to Oregon outstanding faculty and students. Excellence begets excellence; mediocrity begets mediocrity. If the UO becomes a stronger University, how is another institution weakened? I know from personal experience that UC Berkeley is a better university because it compares itself to Stanford, because it competes as well as collaborates with Stanford as well as with UC San Francisco.

So I am determined to advance the project of an independent board for UO. And, since members of the Board of Higher Education have indicated publicly as well as privately that the Board’s differences with President Lariviere were not over policy, but over style, I intend to work with the Chancellor and the Board to achieve those policies that will yield an independent board for the UO.

Since this is a meeting of the University Senate, let me close with a few words about shared governance. At the University of Oregon, in a manner that is almost unique to this university, the statutory faculty has included, through the creation of a broad-based University wide Senate, many voices in fulfilling the faculty’s primary responsibility of addressing academic matters.

I am a firm believer in the principle of shared governance. In my various capacities as a faculty member, or university administrator, or president of the AAU, I have seen a wide range of experiences in shared governance. I have seen examples where the faculty role in shared governance was extremely weak, held so by administrative design. I have seen cases where the principle of shared governance was present by design, but where it functioned very poorly and ineffectively because the faculty senate was controlled by faculty who commanded little respect from either the administration or their faculty colleagues; as a consequence, the best faculty refused to be involved and the faculty senate became the playground of the malcontents who ground their own axes and operated, not as an advisor to the administration, but as its adversary. As a result, mutual trust disappeared and shared governance failed to function properly.

At Berkeley, I experienced shared governance in one of its best manifestations. Shared governance at Berkeley dates back to 1920, when the faculty gained a major voice in the academic matters of the campus, advising the president on all appointments and promotions of faculty and deans, on all curricular matters and changes of educational policy, and on budget issues. According to one historian of shared governance at Berkeley, the faculty there enjoyed more influence on the academic direction of the university than any other faculty in the nation.

I happen to believe that this level of shared governance has been largely responsible for the excellence of Berkeley. The very best faculty at Berkeley, including Nobel laureates, take responsibility for maintaining the quality of the faculty. While post-tenure review at some universities is seen as an invasion of the right of tenure, at Berkeley, it is taken for granted. A powerful committee of the faculty reviews every member of the faculty every three years and makes recommendations on all merit increases. Every appointment, every promotion is reviewed by this committee, providing advice to the chancellor. It is the faculty, working with the administration, that largely accounts for the quality of Berkeley.

So I approach the newly drafted constitution for the faculty senate of the UO from this perspective on shared governance: it works best when the most respected members of the faculty are willing to assume responsibility for it; it works best when the faculty takes most seriously its job for sustaining the quality of the faculty and the academic program; and it works best when it considers the administration as an ally in the quest for quality, not as its adversary.

Further, it works best when we engage in participatory decision making but with clarity about who then makes the decision. If, together, we trust that each of us, faculty and administration, want to build the best university we can, we may occasionally disagree on the means, but not the ends, and we can work together in a non-adversarial fashion.

Thank you for this opportunity to talk with you.


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