The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

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John Byrne Oral History Interviews

Four life history interviews conducted by Chris Petersen.

January - February 2014


“The Early Years: From Long Island to Los Angeles”  January 23, 2014  Location: Center for the Humanities, Oregon State University.  Watch Video | Download Transcript (PDF)

In interview 1, Byrne discusses his childhood growing up on Long Island, including memories of boyhood interests, community life and experiences at Horace Greeley High School. He then recounts his academic and social progression as an undergraduate at Hamilton College in upstate New York. From there, Byrne moves on to memories of his graduate training in geology at Columbia College, including his experiences conducting research in the Bahamas and the South Pacific. The interview concludes with an overview of Byrne's time as a doctoral candidate at the University of Southern California, a period during which he researched the geology of the Sea of Cortez, went on his first oceanographic cruise and met his wife, Shirley.

“Building Oceanography at Oregon State and Moving Up the Ranks”  January 24, 2014  Location: Center for the Humanities, Oregon State University.  Watch Video | Download Transcript (PDF)

In interview 2, Byrne reflects upon his first professional job with Humble Oil in Houston, Texas and his decision to accept a position at Oregon State College in 1960. From there, Byrne recounts his impressions of life in Corvallis during the 1960s as well as the early years of the Oceanography Department, led by Wayne Burt. Byrne also discusses the development of his research program, the department's first research vessels, the creation of the Hatfield Marine Science Center and campus life in the 1960s. Byrne then notes his first experience of living in Washington, D.C., where he worked for a year as a National Science Foundation program manager in oceanography. The interview continues with thoughts on the growth of the OSU oceanography department into a school, which Byrne administered as Dean and, for five years, as Director of the Hatfield Center. The session concludes with remarks on Byrne's movement into upper administration, first as Dean of Research and then as Vice President of Research and Graduate Studies.

“Directing NOAA and Returning to OSU as President”  January 28, 2014  Location: Center for the Humanities, Oregon State University.  Watch Video | Download Transcript (PDF)

Byrne begins interview 3 by recounting his tenure as head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which he led from 1981-1984. In so doing, he reflects upon his confirmation process, his goals as head of the administration as well as allies, accomplishments and lessons learned. From there, Byrne moves on to the beginnings of his OSU presidency, starting with the story of his recruitment for the job and his memories of the man that he replaced, Robert MacVicar. Byrne then discusses his inauguration, establishing a presidential agenda, creating an executive cabinet and operating within the funding model then in place for universities in Oregon. Additional topics explored include the implementation at OSU of Total Quality Management, outreach and engagement, budget reallocations, working with Extension, and creating a strategic plan. The session concludes with Byrne's memories of strengthening the liberal arts at OSU, creating the Center for the Humanities and eliminating a campus tradition wherein seniors were not required to take final exams during their last term of college.

“Leading OSU During Difficult Times”  February 4, 2014  Location: Center for the Humanities, Oregon State University.  Watch Video | Download Transcript (PDF)

In interview 4, Byrne continues to relay his memories of his OSU presidency. The session begins with Byrne's recollections of alumnus Doug Engelbart and his thoughts on OSU having raised $1 billion through its capital campaign. From there he discusses fundraising during his presidency, the expansion of the OSU library, his interactions with Linus Pauling, and the development of other facilities projects during his tenure. Likewise discussed are issues of diversity and racial insensitivity on campus during Byrne's time as President, the state of the athletic department and Byrne's actions in support of improved athletic performance. Byrne also touches upon his relationship with athletic personnel including Ralph Miller and Dale Thomas, and his decision to support baseball and cut track and field during the university's budget crisis of the late 1980s. Byrne also shares his memories of working with the public employees union, revitalizing the University Honors College and internationalizing OSU.

From there the session switches focus to the challenges that Byrne faced, including the massive budget cuts brought about by the passage of Oregon Ballot Measure 5 and the resulting programs that were eliminated, including the Journalism department and the Horner Museum, as well as the threatened elimination of Veterinary Medicine. Byrne discusses the means by which he coped with the strain of the job and his decision to retire from OSU. The interview winds up with Byrne's memories of handing his office over to Paul Risser and adjusting to life in retirement. He concludes with thoughts on the strengths that Paul Risser and Ed Ray brought to the position of OSU President, remarks on changes in Corvallis over time and advice to those becoming a college president for the first time.