Dave Frohnmayer, man of honor
Dave Frohnmayer's early ambition was to become a member of the U.S. Senate, and it was a realistic goal — he was launched early on a high trajectory. But the fates had other plans for Frohnmayer, and in retrospect they were better ones. Frohnmayer did more good during his 15 years as president of the University of Oregon than would have been possible during an equal amount of time spent in Washington, D.C. When Frohnmayer died late Monday at age 74, the UO, Eugene and Oregon lost a friend of value beyond reckoning.
Frohmayer's presidency was in some ways an accident. He was a professor at the UO School of Law, a Harvard grad and Rhodes Scholar, when he began what promised to be a long political career, winning election to the Legislature in 1974 and as attorney general in 1980. He would have been elected governor in 1990 if his Republican Party had not begun to fracture in ways that have led to a quarter-century of Democratic dominance in state politics. A breakaway social conservative candidate siphoned 13 percent of the vote from Frohnmayer, opening the way for Democrat Barbara Roberts' victory.
In that same election, Oregon voters approved a property tax limitation measure that saddled state government with additional responsibility for funding local schools and helped precipitate a long decline in state support for higher education. Roberts spent her single term as governor managing a painful process of adjustment. Frohnmayer returned to the UO law school, this time as dean. In 1994, he succeeded Myles Brand as university president.
The next 15 years would see the UO evolve into the institution it is today. Frohnmayer understood that the state was becoming increasingly irrelevant to the university's future, and diversified its sources of financial support. He doubled the volume of federal research grants, led private fundraising campaigns of a size without precedent in Oregon, and shifted the cost of education to students through tuition increases.
The latter step was painful to Frohnmayer, who regarded access to higher education as an engine for social equity and economic opportunity — but he knew that the pain was the unavoidable price for survival. Other public universities across the country have since followed the UO down this path. Frohnmayer was also an early advocate for greater autonomy for the UO, a goal that has now been realized with the creation of an independent board of university trustees.
Throughout his presidency, Frohnmayer did not lose sight of the university's purposes — research, service and teaching. He kept in touch with students by teaching a freshman seminar on leadership and frequently visited classrooms and offices around campus. The educational enterprise was always paramount.
That the UO could increase enrollment, engage in a building boom and maintain membership in the elite Association of American Universities during a period of public disinvestment is a strong record of achievement for any university president. Arguing seven cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and winning six of them is a stellar record for any attorney general. Founding the Fanconi Anemia Research Fund, which is on the trail of a cure for the disease that killed two of his daughters, is a proud monument to any parent.
Underlying those successes was Frohnmayer's character, which was more remarkable than his resume. For a man with little to be humble about, he was a man of humility. For someone who spent a lifetime in or near the messy scrum of politics, with all its compromises and disillusionments, he remained a believer in the nobility of public service. He never grew cynical, never lost a zest for learning, never lost faith in the possibility of a brighter world.
Dave Frohnmayer was a man of honor.