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An Aspirational Sort
Richard Lariviere settles into his new role as university president, impressed by all he sees and impatient to make it better.
By Guy Maynard

Richard Lariviere always knew he was going to college, though no one in his family had before him. His father, Wilfred F. “Larry” Lariviere, grew up in the Depression and dropped out of school after the eighth grade because that was the norm in his French-Canadian working-class community. But he always felt cheated out of a significant opportunity and was determined that the same thing would not happen to his children. He made an oath when Lariviere’s mother Esther announced her pregnancy, that his child would go to college no matter what the financial obstacles.

For Larry Lariviere, a welder who earned his GED late in his life and worked his way up to be regional manager for a public utility, college was the gateway to a lucrative profession and financial security for his children. For Richard, growing up in Marshalltown, Iowa (just east of smack dab in the center of the state), his father’s fixation on his education sank in so deeply that college was just the next natural step after high school. But something happened that neither of them could have anticipated when Lariviere went to the University of Iowa, what he thought of as his only option for college, less than 100 miles away in Iowa City.

He began to learn who he was and where he fit in the world. “The University of Iowa gave me an inkling of how big the world might be and how much there was to be discovered,” he says. “It also gave me the confidence that I had the ability to participate in that discovery. That experience transformed me into someone who was impatient with my own ignorance—and it gave me the capacity to redress that ignorance.”

His pilgrimage of discovery has led him to delve into the world of religion and law; to meet and marry his wife Jan (also a student at Iowa and the “brightest spot” in the troubling campus atmosphere of the late 1960s); to travel to India; to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania; to teaching at Penn, Iowa, and the University of Texas; to raising a daughter, Anne (“the best and longest lasting lesson of my life”); to a wildly successful fling in international business; to university administration as dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Texas and provost at Kansas—and now to the presidency of the University of Oregon, where he seems completely at home, just months into the job.

Larry Lariviere imagined that higher education promised a better life. Richard Lariviere has lived that promise and is passionate about upholding it for this and coming generations of students—especially for students like him whose families don’t have a history of going to college.

“Going to a public university changed my life so profoundly and so dramatically that I realized I have a lifelong obligation to give back,” he says with unmistakable ardor in his voice. “What you give someone when you educate them lasts a lifetime. No one can take it away from them. It changes their lives, and that transformation takes place on a campus like this. It’s really moving.”

And he’s convinced from his own experience that the most important thing a university teaches students is to know themselves.

“If you come away from your experience at the University of Oregon with a firm understanding of who you are, a firm understanding of the history of your culture, and an understanding of the context in which you are living—social, economic, international—our education has been a great success,” he says.

CONTEXT

Lariviere, who took office July 1, has spent much of his first few months getting to know the context of his new job: the state and the University of Oregon. His only time in Oregon before this was visiting a family friend in Hood River when he was a teenager. As he advanced in his academic career, he became aware of the University of Oregon for its reputation as an international leader on environmental issues and has followed, with admiration, the UO’s effort to cope with the diminution of state funding in recent history.

But, he says now, he and Jan didn’t really know just how great a place this is.

“We are far happier, more impressed, more moved by this experience than anything we could have imagined—it’s really remarkable,” he says with a gleam in his eye and a lottery-winner’s smile. “We literally pinch ourselves every morning when we wake up.”

In his first three months on the job, they put more than 8,000 miles on their new hybrid car. They traveled to Charleston, Coos Bay, North Bend, Roseburg, Medford, Jacksonville, Ashland, Bend, La Grande, North Powder, Baker City, Ontario, Fossil, Pendleton, and Portland. Larivere visited the Warm Springs Reservation, and met with the Coquille, the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians, and the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians. He and Jan have been to Crater Lake, to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Britt Festival, the Oregon Bach Festival, the Pendleton Round-Up. They’ve fly-fished on the Rogue, the Deschutes, and the McKenzie.

They are smitten.

“The people who have driven around the state with us are probably sick of Jan and me interrupting every conversation every fifteen minutes, saying, ‘My god, look at this!’”

The cultural offerings have impressed as much as the beauty of the landscape. Lariviere, whose academic specialty is Sanskrit and Indian religious law, was astonished to find out that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival had last year produced “The Clay Cart,” a Sanskrit play.

“They gave 112 performances and it was seen by 50,000 people,” he says. “I’m willing to bet that there has been no production of that play in history that has ever had a bigger audience. It’s amazing. Just amazing.”

In his travels around the state, he’s met with legislators in their home districts, civic leaders, alumni, opinion leaders, and all the presidents of the community colleges. He’s discovered that while people in different regions have different attitudes toward the University, there is great affection for the UO throughout the state—and high expectations. Those expectations are sometimes accompanied by frustration that the University is not doing more to help solve local problems or by the fear that the University is not going to continue to reach out to those communities.

He sought to allay those fears with his visits and provided facts and figures about how many students from each county come to the UO and how much financial aid they receive. And he welcomes the expectations.

“The University is being looked upon to come up with solutions to the problems that confront Roseburg and Medford and other communities around the state,” he says. “On first blush, you might want to be a little defensive and say, ‘We can’t do everything.’ But what’s behind that expression is a level of confidence and expectation that is very affirming—the University of Oregon is the place that is going to have the answers.”

Lariviere says his travels around the state serve another purpose: he wants to make it clear that “the University of Oregon is the university of Oregon and not the university of Eugene or the Willamette Valley.”

As the new president has discovered unexpected delights around the state, he’s also found distinct strengths of the University that he didn’t fully appreciate until he showed up for the job.

“The biggest surprise on the plus side is the depth of quality of the faculty,” he says. “I knew that there were big guns, both the young up-and-comers and the established people like Frank Stahl, Geri Richmond, Judith Eisen, John Bonine, Steve Shankman. But I didn’t realize how good the faculty was once you get past the marquee names. I’ve been mightily impressed by them.”

Lariviere says it’s not just the academic credentials of the faculty members that stand out but also their concern and dedication to the well-being of the University as a whole.

“It’s quite rare,” he says. “There’s a collective focus here that I haven’t seen before at any institution I’ve been at, a collective pride in the institution.”

It’s also rare, he says, for faculty members at a flagship research institution to value teaching as much as they do at the UO.

“I spent a lot of time at Texas cheerleading for the value of teaching because the emphasis was so intensely on research, but that’s not necessary here,” he says. As he’s met with faculty members over the first few months of his presidency, he never had to raise the subject of teaching because it comes up naturally. “It just the way you would hope they would talk about their work. It’s very edifying. I don’t know if it’s something in the water or the climate, but it’s a precious feature of this institution.”

The UO is also notable, he says, for its creative approaches to developing programs that shine in their fields. He cites the Lund-quist College of Business as an example. Instead of “emulating top-ranked schools in every detail,” he says, LCB offers a great “nuts and bolts education” and distinguishes itself through its four centers: sports marketing, green management, entrepreneurship, and security analysis. “That is a very, very savvy way to use your assets,” Lariviere says.

Similarly, he says, “the Materials Science Institute is a scientific collaboration like I’ve never seen before, and I was in Austin when the IT industry was burgeoning.” MSI works closely with peers at other institutions and with private industry to shape a research agenda and provide opportunities to students. The institute, Lariviere says, places students in internships at “a rate that’s astonishing.” The students, then, are conscious of the needs and concerns of industry when they come back into the campus laboratories.

“This is a brilliant structure,” he says. “And that kind of collaboration and inventiveness around our core mission of research and education is what distinguishes this place.”

Lariviere says many people have thanked him for reminding them of the beauty of Oregon, with the enthusiasm generated by his fresh eyes on the state’s many treasures. He thinks a similar reminder might be necessary about the value of the University.

“There is a Hindi expression,” he says, calling on his background working in India, where chicken is the most desirable meat and lentils a routine staple, “Garh ki murgi, dal barabar—chicken that’s cooked in your house is just like lentils.’’

“This is a remarkable place,” he says, “a national treasure. It’s often the case when you have a great resource or asset in your backyard, you kind of overlook it.”

CROSSROADS

To look at Richard Lariviere’s résumé is to see what seems like a straight career path: student, grad student, professor, director, dean, provost, president. But there have been some interesting decision points along his route to Room 110 in Johnson Hall.

As an undergraduate at the University of Iowa, Lariviere indulged in what he calls “the incredible luxury of being able to just pursue whatever is of interest to you” (something, incidentally, he still urges students to do: “Don’t waste this opportunity because it never comes back”). Among the courses he pursued was a freshman survey on religion taught by George Forell (who happens to be the uncle of UO law professor Caroline Forell). It was the late ’60s and Lariviere found that the questions about religion and law that were being explored in the classroom “were being illuminated in daily life in ways that took the classroom into the street.”

Eventually, he focused on the two oldest continuously applied legal traditions: Jewish and Hindu. “I want to see how religion and law interacted to make rules that people chose to live by and how they shape culture.”

When he got to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, he had to pick a specialty and he opted for Hinduism and India because, he says, “I didn’t want to compete with the yeshiva kids at that point.

“And I am really glad I did because India afforded me many opportunities in the business world that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.” But that’s still a little ways down the road.

At Penn, he became a specialist in Sanskrit, the classical language of Hinduism and Indian literature. He completed his Ph.D. in August 1978 and, with jobs sparse for Sanskritists at U.S. academic institutions, he accepted a lucrative offer from the Queen Empress of Iran to start a Sanskrit program at Shiraz University. But the Iranian revolution changed those plans in a hurry.

He spent a year teaching at Penn, filling in for three full professors. Then he received a three-year grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities that took him to Paris, London, and India to prepare a critical edition and translation of a seminal Indian text on legal procedure. “This grant literally made my career,” he has written. “I remain deeply grateful to the taxpayers of the United States. The NEH is, for me, one of the high-water marks of American civilization.”

He taught for two years at his alma mater, the University of Iowa, and then moved on to the University of Texas at Austin in July of 1982. In 1986, he took the position of director of the Center of Asian Studies, a move into the administrative side of academia that many scholars resolutely avoid.

“I was asked to take on administrative jobs very early in my career, when I was still an assistant professor,” he says. “I was counseled by my adviser and others not to do it. But I did it and enjoyed a modicum of success. After a few years, I began to realize that I took more pleasure from making it possible for other people to do their work than I did from doing my own work. And it wasn’t supposed to be that way; that’s not the code of the committed academic. So I kind of denied that for a long time and tried to extract myself from it. But the truth of the matter is that I really do take more pleasure from that so I finally just accepted it and said, ‘Why not?’”

His role as director of Asian studies brought him in contact with some high-powered executives in the information technology industry. He and a University of Texas colleague started a partnership, with the university’s blessing, to advise IT companies about doing business in India. They were in the right place, at the right time, with the right sorts of information. It went very well.

“It was very seductive,” Lariviere says. “I was making a lot of money. India was just being discovered by the IT industry. It was just great, great fun.” His industry colleagues urged him to give up his academic pursuits and go into business full time. But he had also been asked to apply for the position of dean for the College of Liberal Arts at Texas. He was torn.

“Then I got out of bed one morning and realized that if I had a great day as a businessman, I’d make more money,” he says. “If I had a great day as a dean, some kid would get a better education, and I realized those two don’t balance at all. And I resolved right then and there to gradually withdraw from the business side and stick with academia.

“We all have to decide what we’re going to do with our time. We can’t replenish it, we can only spend what we’ve got and I can’t think of any better use of one’s time than in education.”

ISSUES

Lariviere was still in the thick of his honeymoon period as UO president when he ran into what he calls a “detour”: the incident in early September when UO football player LaGarrette Blount threw a punch at a Boise State football player—a punch broadcast around the nation that caused a wave of negative reaction toward the University. It was the first public crisis of the Lariviere era, and tested a new football coach, Chip Kelly, a new athletic director, Mike Bellotti, and a largely new team in the president’s office.

Lariviere issued a statement calling Blount’s actions “reprehensible,” and Kelly suspended Blount for the season while maintaining his scholarship and offering him continuing support and a role on the team. Lariviere says he’s “very, very sorry” for the damage the incident did to the institution’s reputation and for the personal consequences for Blount, but he believes the University “responded about as well as we could under the circumstances.”

“People communicated extremely well, Bellotti, Kelly, [my] staff.” he says. “It really told me what the character of this place is: there was no self-defensiveness, no circling the wagons around individuals or egos but rather a clear concern for the welfare of the institution and for the young man involved.” He believes that, led by Kelly, they arrived at a collective response that was “very humane and sophisticated.” Since that original response, Kelly, with Lariviere’s support, has said he may allow Blount to play again if he meets certain academic and behavioral conditions.

Here is a sampling of Lariviere’s thoughts on broader questions about athletics and other issues facing the University:

ATHLETICS: “The first thing to remember about a big Division I program like this is, there are 500 young people who are getting an education paid for, many of whom would never be able to afford it otherwise. The behemoth machine around NCAA athletics is something that is just astonishing. It’s bigtime entertainment as well as education. Those are very different things and people tend to confuse them. This institution is extremely lucky, and we should all be quite proud that [our athletic program] is self-sustaining. So, in addition to being just a fan of athletics personally, I feel we’ve got a program here to be proud of. It brings—almost all the time—great renown and credit to the institution. I have to confess that it’s my nature to want to be the best at everything. Period.”

FUNDING AND NEW RELATIONS WITH THE STATE: “If we continue on the funding path we are on right now—we’ll never destroy the place; it will always be here—but over time we will force mediocrity on this university. You can’t continue to cut the state allocation to the University of Oregon and cap our ability to increase tuition in the name of accessibility. If I think about this very long, I get a knot in my stomach because the notion that only the rich can afford to come here flat gets me mad. We have excellence here and we need to preserve it and make it accessible to kids whether they’re rich or poor as long as they are capable of succeeding here. And we can do it if they’ll let us.

“We have to have not only a reorganization of the governance of the University but also a new fiscal relationship with the state. We’re having conversations with political and civic leaders about that right now. The response has been very encouraging. Our goal is to have something ready for the next legislative session in 2011, and by that I mean a carefully reasoned and articulated set of solutions that have been vetted by constituencies around the state.”

DIVERSITY: “We’ve got a lot more that we need to do. This has been a remarkably homogenous state and it’s changing and we have to get out in front of that change as an institution. We’ve got to get the message into every community in Oregon that if you work hard and God gave you the gray matter to succeed here, it doesn’t matter who you are. And the way that message will be accepted is when people step on the campus and see folks like them. It’s a big challenge, especially in communities that don’t have a tradition, like my family didn’t, of going to university. It’s a very high priority for me.”

INTELLECTUAL CLIMATE: “Our stock in trade is controversy: it’s ideas that upset the apple cart, that make people uncomfortable, that nobody had thought of before. The only way you can engage in that kind of tough intellectual discourse is in a civil manner. When you sacrifice civility, you’ve said that the person who can shout the loudest or flex the biggest muscle is going to prevail, and those aren’t our criteria. Our criteria are truth and accuracy and what works. People who want to prevail by shouting don’t like universities whether they’re on the right or left.”

THE HUMANITIES: “The idea that you engage in a course of study so you will be an identifiable profession at the end—an accountant, a doctor, a lawyer, and so on— is something we’ve lived with for the past fifteen years at least. But I see it eroding. I asked every student I met at IntroDucktion what they wanted to study and one of the really encouraging things was the frequency with which I heard people say, ‘I want to be a writer’ or ‘I want to be a journalist.’ Finally, I started to ask them what they knew about the state of the newspaper industry. They don’t care. They say, ‘I’m going to go out and tell stories and I’m going to do it in a way that people are going to be fascinated by, probably do it on the Internet. You ask who will pay for it. That will all get sorted out.’ That’s exactly the kind of optimism you want to see in kids at that point in their lives.

“If you write and think clearly and critically, if you know who you are and are deliberately conscious of your context and your environment, what your history is, and if you know what you feel passionate about and why—man, those are the tools you need to succeed. And those big questions are the very ones that you engage in when you do the humanities.”

INTERNATIONAL CONNECTIONS: “Alumni and students in Asia are very important to our future. We have a wonderful collection of alumni and supporters in Korea, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, a growing brand presence in China, all of which needs to be nurtured. I’ll be making a couple of trips in the next year or two to that region. We have very few students from India. [India sent more students to the United Sates than any other country in 2007–8, almost 95,000, according to the Institute of International Education.] I think there is enormous potential for stronger relationships with appropriate research institutions in India, but also just making Indian students aware of the terrific opportunities we offer.

“The ideal education is that every student would have some international experience. It’s important for the obvious reason that in these students’ working lives, the international dimension is just going to keep getting larger, but there’s another side of study abroad that goes to the core of what we’re trying to do. You learn more about yourself when you study abroad than you do about any other topic. Nothing does that with greater efficacy and intensity than studying abroad.”

PORTLAND: “Portland is vital to the University of Oregon. We have tens of thousands of alums there. It’s the largest, most vital city in Oregon so we have to have a proportionate amount of efforts invested. That’s why the White Stag Building is so important. It’s a venue for us to hold our programs: the law school, journalism, business school, architecture, the athletic program, and so on. Our presence in Portland has been characterized as a competition with Portland State. I don’t see it that way at all. PSU has a very special and incredibly important mission in Portland that we could never fulfill. But we have things to offer the community that are unique, and that’s what we intend to do.”

AN ASPIRATIONAL SORT

In late May, during a visit to campus before he officially took office, Lariviere said he was still trying to figure out the “Oregon Way” he’d heard so much about. Since then, in addition to his travels around the state and many conversations with students and staff members, he’s read Bowerman and the Men of Oregon by Kenny Moore ’66, M.F.A. ’72, a gift from former president Dave Frohnmayer, and Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey ’57, recommended by Caroline Forell, the niece of his teacher at the University of Iowa.

On the Bowerman book: “I learned a lot about who Bowerman is, that he had that kind of edge of being an Oregonian who can look somebody straight in the eye and call ‘B.S.’ That’s a highly desirable trait.”

On the Kesey book: “There is a wonderful scene at the very beginning of the book, where the labor organizer is talking to some disgruntled union members who are mad at Hank Stamper, though we don’t know what he’s done yet, and Kesey says that the organizer is the only one who knows that it’s raining. It’s a great book.”

But how is Lariviere doing in figuring out the Oregon Way, beyond that it has something to do with straight talk and being one with the rain? “I’m making some progress. I don’t think the Oregon Way is amenable to being reduced to a sentence or two. It’s about a set of attitudes—it’s a hard-eyed conservative estimation of what’s possible tempered with great ambition to do things that nobody thinks are possible. And some days the aspirational side dominates and other days the hard-eyed realistic estimate dominates. I’m an aspirational sort on the whole.”

And the impatience that took hold in him with the world of possibilities he discovered as an undergraduate at the University of Iowa is still very much a part of his character, a trait that he readily acknowledges as a flaw, but one he has no intention of giving up any time soon.

“I’ve been very blunt with the staff here about my impatience and asked for their help, not in controlling my impatience but in reminding me what can be done instantly, what can be done quickly, and what’s going to take a lot longer. This is a big, complex, bureaucratic place and I want every single problem fixed immediately. And it can’t be done. But I don’t want to give up my impatience because a big, cumbersome, complicated bureaucracy has a tendency to slow down to barely perceptible movement.

“And we can’t afford that.”

Guy Maynard ’84 is editor of Oregon Quarterly.


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