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October 26, 2014

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Searching for ‘God on a good day’

As the Nevada university system embarks on what promises to be a difficult search for presidents of its four-year campuses, one thing is clear: The ideal candidates will be those who can lead, follow and get out of the way.

Or, as Elko Regent Dorothy Gallagher sees it: "What they're looking for is God on a good day."

Even in the best of circumstances, the search for a university president is difficult because of competing forces.

Professors want leaders who came up through the ranks with impeccable academic credentials. Various campus constituencies - students, staff, faculty - want presidents who govern democratically, giving those groups a strong voice in decisions. They see presidents as administrators and chief academic officers.

But state legislators and business interests often want college presidents who are decisive and assertive leaders who won't be slowed down by campus naysayers. With public funding of higher education shrinking, presidents around the United States need to be tireless fundraisers and to wield political clout.

All those factors are in play in the Nevada presidential searches, plus three homegrown peculiarities: the state's phenomenal population growth, a political North-South divide that fosters competition between the two universities and X-man Jim Rogers, the businessman who has given more than $250 million to education across the country and who, as university chancellor, created the openings at UNR and UNLV by forcing out the two presidents.

John Lilley quit at UNR in December to become president of Baylor University. UNLV President Carol Harter is leaving in June to head the university's capital campaign.

Rogers said he "encouraged" both presidents to seek exits. Their departures came after months of disagreement with Rogers, giving some regents and faculty heartburn because they feared that Rogers' personality and pushy nature might keep strong candidates for the two presidencies from applying.

What's clear to everyone is that the incoming presidents at UNLV and UNR will have to be able to work well with Rogers and each other.

The conflicting views of the roles of the two presidents stems from the needs and aspirations of each campus.

UNLV thirsts to continue its focus on teaching undergraduates but to do so while also becoming a university respected for its academic research. "We have to have people here who are not only the disseminators of knowledge but the creators of it," UNLV Liberal Arts Dean Ed Shoben said. "That's the difference between the really great research universities and the also-rans."

At the same time, UNLV is conducting its first capital campaign, with six buildings already under construction. It has plans to revitalize the surrounding community on Maryland Parkway and wants to secure 2,000 acres from the Bureau of Land Management in North Las Vegas for a new campus.

UNR is similarly trying to advance its research mission and its international scope. The university is getting ready for its own capital campaign, and is trying to respond to the undergraduate growth while also expanding the medical school and its science laboratories.

The success of both universities lies in their ability to pay for new construction and to attract quality faculty and administrators, nearly everyone interviewed for this article agreed.

The question is in defining the kind of presidents needed to accomplish those ends - and on that point, Nevadans are not alone, said Clair Van Ummerfen, vice president for the Center of Effective Leadership at the American Council of Education.

The dynamics of university presidents is changing nationwide as state and federal funding for universities continues to shrink, Van Ummerfen said. University leaders can no longer remain insular. The need to embrace off-campus communities and tap into contributors has sent universities in search of candidates outside the academic arena.

Universities conducting capital campaigns or suffering from financial difficulties are likely to seek candidates with business backgrounds or political clout.

Some have been tremendously successful. Others have crashed and burned.

The difference, higher education officials said, is whether those presidents also listened to voices on campus - especially faculty. And to do that, it helps if the president has come from within.

Harvard President Lawrence Summers, for example, was a tenured professor at the university before he did stints in business and government.

Nevada may well want hybrids such as Summers, but finding one isn't easy. Perhaps 15 percent of all university presidents span the on-campus and off-campus universes, Van Ummerfen said.

The typical path to the presidency - and the one most faculty prefer - is someone who has paid dues, earning a doctorate, establishing tenure, working up the administrative ladder from department chair to dean to provost or vice president of academics and then finally to the presidency.

The president "needs to understand scholarship and research and needs to have demonstrated the capability of doing it to have faculty respect," said Stuart Mann, dean of UNLV's Harrah College of Hotel Administration.

Ultimately, what professors want is to know the president cares about their concerns and about the quality of the educational programs, said William S. Epstein, a UNLV sociology professor.

Without that commitment, a president won't know why he is raising money, he said. "It's like a baseball manager. You want to know whether he appreciates talent and can bring talent in."

Many faculty members believe Lilley and Harter spent too much time on off-campus issues. They chafe at the idea advanced by Rogers and many regents that the new presidents should devote even more energy to external issues.

"I agree with the concept of evaluating the broadest possible group of candidates, but that said, I think we need to listen carefully to the internal voices," said John McDonald, dean of the University of Nevada School of Medicine. "At the end of the day it's the students and faculty that drive the institution."

The flip side - the outsider president - typically is not truly the chief academic officer of a university. Instead, the role is more that of a chief executive, representing the university to the outside world while allowing a second-in-command - typically the provost or vice president for academics - to run the show at home.

A president's academic background matters less than the ability to raise money to pay for the pricey talent - and for campus expansions.

"The world has changed in higher education because of the shrinkage of both private and public monies," Regent Mark Alden said. "We need people who are adept in communication skills and fundraising.

"The more the president is out of the office raising money and creating partnerships the more successful they are," Alden said. "The academics are run by the provost."

Other regents, community leaders and donors who represent the majority on the two search committees, lean toward that view. Hire a chief executive, let a provost handle internal issues.

How about a Summers-like hybrid?

Nice idea, faculty representatives say, but it's impractical. And they again cite Lilley and Harter as examples.

"There's not enough time for them to be the outside person and the inside person," UNLV economics professor Bill Robinson said.

Rogers believes hybrids do exist - an opinion that might be expected from a chancellor who himself doesn't fit the mold. Rogers owns 15 television stations in five Western states. His primary exposure to campuses has been from participating in the fundraising arms of several universities.

Rogers points to other university presidents who defy traditional definitions, naming Peter Likins, the departing president of the University of Arizona, and University of Southern California President Steve Sample. Both men have academic credentials and span the inside and outside worlds. Both institutions improved markedly because Likins and Sample are prodigious fundraisers.

"The fact is that it takes a combination of talents and abilities these days," Rogers said. "You have to have a president who has a business mind and yet at the same time understands what the needs of the faculty are."

Which brings up the last issue: the X-man.

Although the regents - not the chancellor - will ultimately decide on the next presidents, Rogers' personality is already shaping the outcome because it is influencing who applies, said Alberto Pimentel, vice president for education practice for A.T. Kearny, the presidential search firm hired by UNR.

Chancellors are pivotal in any search, and Rogers will be a "key salesperson" in attracting candidates to the state, Pimentel said.

Some potential applicants are speculating about the reasons for the departures of Harter and Lilley. But Pimentel insisted that the people he's talked with see the opportunities at UNR as far outweighing the possible disadvantages.

What's more, Rogers' actions and strong personality will, for better or worse, make it more likely that the search committees attract the kind of candidates who would thrive working with him, said Pimentel as well as most people interviewed for this article.

"He brings a new dynamic to higher education that higher education hasn't seen before," Pimentel said. Rogers' entrepreneurial side and willingness to "challenge conventional thinking is attractive to many candidates."

Indeed, other presidents, notably Community College of Southern Nevada President Richard Carpenter, have flourished under Rogers because they are results-driven executives willing to shake things up, several regents said.

"You need a person who is a leader and a driver," Rogers said. "You have to be able to lead but at the same time you have to be able to push the people who are reluctant to move along."

In the end, community leaders and donors and faculty and students will have to both compromise and get their way for the next presidents to be successful, Gallagher said.

"We need a superstar, there is no question," said Patty Wade Snyder, a Reno real estate developer serving on both UNLV and UNR's search committees. "And anything less just won't measure up to the needs of the university.

"What we are really looking at is a balance," Snyder said, "someone who understands the intricacies of fundraising while still being able to relate to and communicate effectively with the whole world of the university."

Christina Littlefield can be reached at 259-8813 or at [email protected]

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