Monday, November 28, 2011

Aggressively Aspirational

The stereotypical view of a university professor is someone with leather elbow patches kicking back in their office discussing philosophy. They get paid for that? To be sure every university, like every workplace, has a few professors who mail in their lectures and ride the end of their tenure into retirement. Life for the vast majority of faculty is wildly different, however. The most successful faculty members work 60-80 hours a week and function as small business owners running their own enterprises. They are responsible for securing venture capital, staffing their operations, and efficiently producing their products (students, papers and books). This is why the faculty bring in twice as much research funds (>$130 million) than the money provided to the university by the state.

The other largely unknown feature of faculty members is that, if they are to succeed, they must be aggressively persistent in the face of failure. Faculty working at the edge of their fields are close friends with failure. The acceptance rate at top academic journals is 5-10%. The slow down in the economy means that most funding agencies reject 90% of all proposals sent to them. Every year the university hires the best and brightest in the country, rigorously evaluates their performance, and then fires them if they do not meet a high set of standards dictated by the review of their peers drawn from around the world. Laying down in the face of failure is not an option, and only those that stand up from a beat down remain to fight on to advance their scholarship. The simple reality is that only doers can succeed.

That may be why President Lariviere is so well liked on the University of Oregon campus. He is the ultimate faculty member. He is a true scholar in his field – a field (Sanskrit) that seems so esoteric that it speaks to what it means to be a university that embraces knowledge for its own sake. But mostly, the university loves him because he continually strives for excellence for the students, faculty and staff of the UO. That is what we are all about, or at least it is what we should be all about. President Lariviere’s experience as a faculty member has trained him to keep striving to advance the field, to advance the university, in the face of all obstacles.

And sometimes those obstacles are institutional in nature. The bureaucracies of the state higher educational system are clearly not keeping up with the financial realities of today. Lariviere has ruffled feathers by being perceived in not working within the existing system to achieve his aspirational aims. Rather than giving him space to push the state forward, the power structure is collapsing back upon him in what some might portray as a cynical attempt to maintain the status quo and their own positions. It’s Dumbledore versus Umbridge. It is exactly these properties that have brought two of the major entrepreneurs in the state, Phil Knight of Nike and Tim Boyle of Columbia Sportswear, to Lariviere’s defense. It is rare to find a great man whose epitaph reads, “He played well with others.”

Word has it that the UO’s sister institutions have been very quiet on the issue of the firing of the president. They obviously are being trained to keep their heads down, which is likely to be the longest lasting negative impact of this action. But it is also possible that they think that it is time for the “uppity” UO to be brought down a notch. This is truly sad if true, because excellence in higher education in the state is not a zero sum game. You can be sure that weakening the UO will lead to damage to every other institution of higher learning within the state. Being known as a state where innovation is suppressed will drive away faculty and administrators in all locations. It is easier to steer clear of controversy than to come into a situation where to have to worry about fixing it.

The University of Oregon aspires to be great, and it will not be apologetic about it. This is the highest role that a public university provides its citizens, and it is exactly what Oregon needs now and in the future. And so the campus mourns the potential loss of a true academic leader at the helm of the university. Whoever comes next will by default be more bureaucratic and less visionary. And we know that the actions of the Governor and the State Board of Higher Education means that we will not be seeing likes of Richard Lariviere again for a very long time. The State of Oregon is diminished by this fact.

1 comment:

  1. Yep, Dumbledore vs. the Ministry of Magic. And we know what happened to them.