Bureaucracies are like blunt objects. They don’t deliver subtle or nuanced messages. And they are relatively inarticulate. That is one way of looking at the State Board of Higher Education’s decision not to extend the contract of University of Oregon President Richard Lariviere.

Lariviere has been one of Oregon’s most innovative and brash university presidents. Moreover, he ran the one university whose sparkling new infrastructure is at odds with two decades of Oregon’s disinvestment in higher education. UO alumni have been the most generous of all universities.

While the state board described the decision to remove Lariviere as a personnel matter — disconnected from his entrepreneurship at the university — it was very much about a university president who challenged everyone’s comfort zone.

A student of the bureaucracy also would tell us the state board had to remove Lariviere. Why? Lariviere’s sin was to expose how marginalized the higher education hierarchy has become. Successive state legislatures — full of graduates of Oregon institutions — have implicitly told Oregon university students they matter less than than graduates who preceded them.

Lariviere did not help his own survival. Of course, harbingers of the future usually don’t. The Register-Guard of Eugene put it this way: “… Lariviere understood that the UO — indeed, the entire state higher education system — was in crisis. With state funding for universities in steep and lasting decline and no realistic prospects for reversing that trend, Lariviere grasped that the UO’s future depended on freeing it from regular state appropriations and central control.”

It is not just whole sectors of the American economy that are threatened in this recession. The public sector — and particularly post-high school education — must reinvent itself.

Some elements of the private sector tolerate and thrive on iconoclasts like Steve Jobs. The bureaucracy does not welcome them.

No doubt Lariviere could have saved himself. But that is not the larger point of what’s gone down. The point is that Lariviere — or someone like him, but with more political sensitivity — represent the future of the state system of higher education. The future belongs to innovators, not bureaucrats.

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