20 Mar

Dave Frohnmayer deserved thanks, for leaving politics

The only thank-you note I ever sent a politician was written to Dave Frohnmayer.

It wasn’t for anything he did as a politician; there are other ways to express approval for that. In fact, I sent Dave Frohnmayer a thank-you note for leaving politics – although my attitude really wasn’t the way that sounds.

Frohnmayer, who died last week and whose memorial service is scheduled for the University of Oregon this Saturday, spent the 1980s as the heir apparent to the Hatfield-McCall-Packwood moderate Republican regime that had dominated Oregon politics for a quarter-century. Three times elected statewide, he was the attorney general who argued (and typically won) the state’s cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, the Rhodes Scholar and law professor in politics. The governor’s office, the Senate, seemed to stretch inevitably before him.

After Gov. Neil Goldschmidt suddenly announced in early 1990 that he wouldn’t run for re-election – for reasons that wouldn’t be clear until years later – Frohnmayer’s path to the job seemed wide open. But it was now a different world, and a different Oregon Republican Party. Not only did an anti-abortion third party candidate draw away 13 percent of the vote, but Frohnmayer himself couldn’t find the right rhythm or message. By November, enough of his support had slipped away to elect Democrat Barbara Roberts.

It wasn’t a bad election to lose. Voters also passed the tax-cutting Measure 5, affecting Oregon much more than whoever was governor, and Roberts had a miserable four years.

Part of that ordeal was a lively argument which parts of the state’s higher education system might be thrown overboard. Programs and majors were dropped across the system, there was a serious effort to shut down the Oregon State veterinary school, and once again Oregon was considering whether Western Oregon might not be better as a prison.

And some people were asking whether the University of Oregon actually needed a law school. After all, Oregon had two private law schools, Willamette and Lewis & Clark, and closing down the public one might save the system and the state a few bucks.

Besides, given Oregon’s general absence of support for higher education efforts, the law school’s American Bar Association accreditation was at some risk.

We can’t know whether the conversation might ever have gotten serious. We do know that when Dave Frohnmayer agreed in 1991 to leave the attorney general’s office to become dean of the Oregon law school, the conversation ended.

It seemed reason enough for a thank-you note.

At a time when the state’s higher ed system was having its always fragile supports kicked away, Frohnmayer put one of the major names in Oregon politics behind it. And in 1994, when he became president of the University of Oregon, he became the state’s most prominent advocate for higher education, someone who knew how both the state Capitol and a university were supposed to work.

Although these days the tenure of a research university president, especially a public research university president, typically lasts about as long as the four-year stretch of a student, Frohnmayer was UO president for 15 years – a considerably more unusual achievement than being a senator for 30. The landmark was especially striking since it was neither a great place nor a great time to be a university president.

Throughout his tenure, the state’s support for its universities continued to shrivel, until by his departure Oregon was providing only about 5 percent of the operating costs of the university carrying its name. “There comes a point,” said Frohnmayer on his retirement, “when you can’t make unlimited cuts without cutting away the essence of what it means to be a public university.”

Dealing with this challenge, making some controversial moves partly because the university was largely in survival mode, Frohnmayer became the biggest fund-raiser in the history of the system, bringing in more than $1 billion. In Oregon, even that created problems; having raised $30 million for one project, he still faced the challenge of finding the state’s matching half.

“I don’t want to be,” he worried, “in the embarrassing position of going back to the most generous philanthropist in the history of University of Oregon academics and have to give the money back. It’s a shocking position to be in.”

The project got built. And the standing and prospects of the University of Oregon are very different from what they were in 1994 – and the law school from 1991.

His achievement justifies my only thank-you note.

Except it seems I’ve just written another.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 3/18/15.