In choosing controversial former University of Oregon President Richard Lariviere as its likely next chief executive, the Field Museum has opted for a "change agent," according to the man hiring him, and a "gentleman with elbows," according to one of the references the Field received about the scholar and veteran university administrator.
Lariviere's nomination to succeed retiring President John McCarter at the Chicago lakefront museum was approved unanimously by its executive committee Friday. The museum's full board is expected to finalize the selection in a vote Tuesday, giving the institution fresh blood to try to lead it through current attendance blahs and the struggle to stay relevant in an ever-more-cluttered marketplace.
"He is a tremendous person and a visionary, principled leader. He just brought an incredible spark of leadership to the university community," said Paul Weinhold, president of the University of Oregon Foundation, who worked closely with Lariviere during his more than two-year tenure there. "He got in trouble on the political front because he really saw a bigger vision for Oregon and pushed the envelope. It was all for the right things. It was about greatness for the University of Oregon."
Born in Chicago and raised in Iowa, Lariviere, 62, does not arrive without baggage. Although widely popular, he was fired at Oregon last fall after clashing with the university's trustees over communication and autonomy issues, and his career has been made in Sanskrit language scholarship and public-university administration, rather than in the museum world.
But John Rowe, the former Exelon chairman who heads the Field's board and led the presidential search committee to pick the successor to McCarter, expressed certainty that Lariviere and Field trustees will work well together.
"I'm the chairman who has to live with him," Rowe said. "If I weren't absolutely confident of that, he wouldn't be the nominee."
And Lariviere — fittingly for a man almost always photographed in a fedora — can wear all of the hats that running the Field demands, Rowe said: "He's somebody who can command respect in any room. He can walk from the anthropology department at the museum to any of the major funders in town and be part of any club."
Example: When Lariviere was forced out at Oregon, Phil Knight, the Nike chairman and leading school booster, said publicly that the move was an "astonishingly bad decision" and "yet another application of Oregon's Assisted Suicide Law."
Asked about the Field's tabbing Lariviere, who will start in August, Knight told the Tribune, through a spokeswoman, "Great choice."
The Oregon flap, according to the Portland Oregonian newspaper, came down to State Board of Higher Education leaders' feeling that Lariviere had acted against agreements they had with him.
Lariviere — who could not be reached for comment and would not talk before his confirmation, a Field board spokesman said — worked to restructure the University of Oregon's finances independently of the six, smaller schools also in the state university system at a time when a plan was under way to rework funding for all the schools at once. And he gave $5 million in raises to select faculty and staff when the universities were supposed to be enacting austerity measures.
People in the smaller universities "definitely were pretty unhappy. We would agree with the assessment that he wasn't a team player," said Kemble Yates, a math professor at Southern Oregon University and secretary-treasurer of the Association of Oregon Faculties, which represents the state's public university faculty in legislative matters. "Yet we did have some admiration for the fact that he was willing to defy the chancellor and governor and raise salaries for faculty even when he was told not to. So we were conflicted. It was a guilty pleasure."
At the University of Oregon before the firing, which came in an "emergency meeting" the state board called in November, 36 department and program heads reportedly signed a letter seeking Lariviere's retention. Students decorated the football stadium with signs saying, "I Stand With The Hat," a reference to his frequent headgear.
"Faculty, students, donors, alumni," were in Lariviere's corner, said Robert Berdahl, the man now serving as Oregon's interim president. "I would say virtually everyone except the state board that was wedded to, I think, the status quo."
The fiscal plan Lariviere designed, said Berdahl, a former president of the University of Texas at Austin and former provost of the University of Illinois, "was in effect a kind of restructuring of the university at a time when public funding is in decline. ... He did a great job of cultivating and creating an ambitious vision that private donors were eager to support. He's a very effective fundraiser."
The Field Museum is counting on that, and on his savvy. One of the references interviewed by its executive search firm said of Lariviere, "He was not a rogue, but a gentleman with elbows," according to Rowe, who added, "I would say, 'Gentleman first and elbows only when he thinks it's absolutely necessary.' This is a person who has sailed in tough waters."
Lariviere, who is married with an adult daughter, a New York elementary schoolteacher, earned a bachelor's degree in the history of religions from the University of Iowa and a doctorate in Sanskrit from the University of Pennsylvania. A French and Hindi speaker, he has published and lectured widely and also done consulting work for Indian and American companies.
Before taking the Oregon presidency, he was provost at the University of Kansas (2006-2009) and dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas (1999-2006).
He visited the Field several times as the search committee sifted through its candidates and was able to articulate a vision for the institution seeking to boost lackluster attendance. Fourth most popular of the major Chicago museums, behind the Shedd Aquarium, Museum of Science and Industry, and Art Institute, the Field saw a 5 percent attendance bump in 2011, to more than 1.2 million visitors, but that is far below the 2 million-plus drawn in years of major exhibitions.
"Sometimes it declines. Sometimes it's stagnant," said Rowe, "but only the blockbusters like King Tut (exhibition) seem to move it a great deal. We need to figure out more ways to get more people to the great exhibits we do have.
"We wanted somebody who will preserve the core of what the Field is," including its scientific and educational missions, the board chairman said. "On the other hand, we wanted a change agent ... who can give us a new sense of purpose."
Tribune reporter Melissa Harris contributed to this story.