Leadership & Governance

Oregon’s Interim Chief Addresses Challenges for Next President

Scott Coltrane, University of Oregon

April 24, 2015

Video produced by Julia Schmalz and Lisa Philip

Scott Coltrane, interim president of the University of Oregon, was thrust into his position last summer after a tumultuous series of leadership transitions. His temporary appointment came on the heels of Michael R. Gottfredson’s abrupt resignation as president and Richard W. Lariviere’s firing from the job, in 2011. The university hopes to attain surer footing on July 1, when Michael H. Schill, dean of the University of Chicago Law School, is expected to take office as president.

Mr. Coltrane was in Washington this week for a meeting of the Association of American Universities, and he stopped by The Chronicle's office to talk about the challenges ahead for Oregon’s next president. He plans to return to the position of provost when Mr. Schill arrives this summer.



JACK STRIPLING: I'm here with Scott Coltrane, interim president of Oregon. And thanks so much for coming to The Chronicle. I really appreciate it.

I wanted to talk to you a little bit about the latest news out of your university, which is the hiring of a new president, of course, which makes you the ultra lame duck in this scenario. Michael Schill is coming in. Tell us a little bit about him and some of the things you think he's going to have to grapple with immediately.

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SCOTT COLTRANE: Sure. So Mike Schill was really a great choice for us. He was by far our first choice. And we're honored that he's going to come and be our next president. Coming as he did from the University of Chicago — he was the dean of the Law School — I think he brings a lot of understanding of what a top flight research university looks like.

And I think that also his experience at UCLA, another larger public university on the West Coast, gives him some sense of what Oregon is like. We're a member of the AAU. And we really want to increase our research profile. And I think he understands that. I just came from an AAU meeting just this morning. And there are quite a number of presidents who are former law deans. And so I think that will serve him well.

JACK STRIPLING: Fair enough, yeah, maybe you don't need a general counsel. Folks who watch this probably will know, but the AAU is the Association of American Universities, which is the top-flight crew of research institutions in this country. There has been a nasty habit of getting rid of people from the AAU in recent years. And it has to do with metrics the AAU has defined, in terms of what they want from research output and so forth.

You actually issued a report when you were in the provost position where you talked a little bit about benchmarking Oregon against other institutions that you consider peers. And you said some things that people interpreted as, Hey, Oregon's falling a little behind on some of these measures.

Where does Oregon stand relative to other research universities in your view at this point? And do you feel like its position within the AAU is secure?

SCOTT COLTRANE: Sure, well, AAU has — the membership status is dependent upon being a comprehensive research university. So Oregon is one of those flagship universities that does not have medicine, does not have engineering, does not have agriculture.

So there's less in our portfolio than some of our sister institutions. But the reason we entered into doing benchmarks was to see how are we doing if you control for size, if you control for the sorts of disciplines that we have. How do we compare to the AAU. So we're in the middle of that.

We do that every year now. We need to have a sense of whether we're competitive. Can we hire the best faculty? Can we provide the best for our students? Can we develop the new cutting-edge programs? And our new board, I think, will not only allow us but help us move in those directions.

JACK STRIPLING: And the AAU's deliberations are not public. But you're a private group. But I'm curious whether you hear any discussion, though, about this. Are people comfortable with Oregon being in this group at this point?

SCOTT COLTRANE: Well, sure. We're a member. And we enjoy being there. And I think the membership policies always evolve in organizations like that. And we cooperate with them and provide them information and judge ourselves on how we're doing. And I think that's important.

We're in a unique position because our state has been disinvesting in higher education. And that's really the challenge of most public universities today. When state coffers are thin, what happens to higher education? We're expecting this year for some state reinvestment to take us back to — we're hoping for pre-recession levels.

But our contributions from the state are down to about 6 percent of our operating costs. And we really want to reverse that trend, as well as we're launching a big private-capital campaign. We have a goal of $2 billion. So we realize our endowment has to double or triple for us to be on strong financial footing.

You look at the other AAU institutions — they either have stronger endowments or stronger state support, or both. And we need to move in that direction. Because it does matter how much money you have to put into these programs.

JACK STRIPLING: Sure, state resources is obviously a huge issue. So talk a little bit about the context of your coming into the presidency. So you followed Michael Gottfredson, who surprised a lot of people by stepping down after just a couple of years.

Richard Lariviere had put forward a lot of agenda items that seemed like they came true about autonomy for the flagship institution. But his presidency ended in a difficult way. He was dismissed. It has left the impression in some people's minds that this is very difficult environment within which to work.

What's your impression, just from your brief time as interim president?

SCOTT COLTRANE: Well, I don't think it's any more difficult than a lot of public universities today. I've learned from actually three predecessors. Bob Berdahl was interim in between those two presidents. And all three of them worked with the state legislature to really get us to a point where we can actually grow in ways that will really benefit the university.

So we previously were part of a state system that wasn't benefiting us in our research mission as much. It was more instructional and teaching-focused. Our new board is very keen on helping us to achieve our goals. And so how do we hire the best faculty? How do we develop research programs, enter new fields, get the best students?

So we're heavily dependent on out-of-state students, as many institutions are these days. And they get charged much more. So we figured out the business side over the last decade. And I think we're now poised to move forward. The new board —

JACK STRIPLING: But you don't think this is a job that drives presidents crazy?

SCOTT COLTRANE: Well, it's not an easy job. But I don't think we have too many exceptional challenges. We're a relatively low-population state. There's fewer than four million people in the state of Oregon. It's a beautiful state, but doesn't have the population base or exceptionally strong economy.

So we entered the recession a bit late and are a little bit slower to come out. But things are looking much better. The state has more resources to spend. And we hope they'll invest it in all of higher education.

JACK STRIPLING: All right, well look, we wish you luck with the new president. Thanks for coming by The Chronicle. Really appreciate it. Thank you.


Jack Stripling covers college leadership, particularly presidents and governing boards. Follow him on Twitter @jackstripling, or email him at jack.stripling@chronicle.com.