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    Other Views: U.O. president's abrupt departure invites speculation

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  • Six weeks after a university's independent board gains governance powers, the university's president resigns, effective the following day. Two possibilities leap to mind: One, the board exercised its authority to seek new leadership just about as soon as it could. Two, the president found himself in conflict with the new board and beat a hasty retreat.
    Chuck Lillis, chairman of the University of Oregon Board of Trustees, insisted in a meeting with The Register-Guard editorial board that neither is the case. UO President Michael Gottfredson had the respect of trustees before and after the board was formally empowered on July 1, Lillis said. The chairman described both the board's composition and its structure as hallmarks of Gottfredson's two-year tenure, undercutting the idea that the president suddenly found that he couldn't function in the UO's new environment of institutional autonomy.
    If indeed Gottfredson left on good terms, his departure was awkwardly executed. Most people who quit a job are expected to give at least two weeks' notice. The leaders of big public institutions usually announce their intentions months in advance, allowing time to arrange an orderly transition. Lillis said he learned of Gottfredson's plans to resign both as president and as a tenured member of the UO faculty, and one year short of his three-year contract period only a few days before they were publicly announced.
    On Thursday, the trustees named Scott Coltrane as interim president, six months after he was appointed provost, the UO's chief academic officer. Lillis said it's expected that Coltrane will return to the provost's office at the end of his interim presidency. Presuming a permanent successor to Gottfredson is hired by this time next year, the UO will have had six presidents in a six-year period.
    That's a lot of turnover, but Lillis sees the glass as half full. Gottfredson came to the UO in a period of uncertainty: Proposals for the creation of independent boards for Oregon's larger universities were still taking shape, the UO's football program was under investigation by the NCAA, and faculty members were preparing to negotiate their first-ever collective bargaining agreement. "I think he did a good job wrestling with those," Lillis said, and now that they have been resolved Gottfredson leaves the UO in a period of relative stability. That will make recruiting the next president easier, he said.
    Even if Lillis is fully candid in his assessment, and even if he's correct in judging that "the university is better for Mike's being here," the trustees will be looking for a different type of president. Gottfredson never seemed fully at ease in his role, a perception amplified by contrast to the charismatic Richard Lariviere, the UO's previous noninterim president. Fundraising, which has become the modern university president's primary job, has been lackluster under Gottfredson. His handling of allegations of sexual misconduct against three UO basketball players early this year was clumsy and inspired little confidence in the university's openness.
    Encouragingly, Lillis said there has been no interference from Salem or from Beaverton — he informed Gov. John Kitzhaber and Nike co-founder Phil Knight of Gottfredson's decision shortly before it was made public, in wise obedience to the rule that the governor and the UO's biggest benefactor should not learn of such events from the newspapers. The board of trustees appears to be the seat of authority in dealing with the university president, which is how it should be under the new governance structure.
    So the most positive interpretation — the version offered by Lillis — is that Gottfredson saw the UO through a couple of rough years and by leaving creates fresh opportunities for the new board. This version would be more plausible if it weren't for the abruptness of the president's departure. At 63, Gottfredson could have announced that he would retire in a few months, allowing time for a smooth handoff to Coltrane as interim president or a permanent successor. Instead, Gottfredson's quick exit invites speculation about intrigue and bad blood, disrupting the stability that Lillis called the president's biggest achievement.
    The manner in which Gottfredson's brief tenure ended has the effect of hardening convictions that new leadership is in the UO's best interest — he ensured, at least, that no one would be begging him to stay. The UO needs a president with enough staying power to build relationships on and off campus, as the benefits of Edward Ray's 11-year tenure at Oregon State University make clear. Whatever else may have occurred, Gottfredson has allowed the UO to take the first step in that direction.
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