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April 18, 2014

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Ashley called ‘total package’

Born: Jan. 5, 1951, in Delaware; childhood in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Personal: Married 21 years to Anna, a painter. The couple have two children - Kimberlee, 35, a CPA for a defense contractor in Fort Worth, Texas, and Mark, 31, a magazine photographer near Dallas. At home are three beagles - Cricket, Gus and Elvis.

Current position: Executive vice chancellor and provost of the University of California's newest campus, at Merced.

While at UC-Merced: Ashley helped transform a Central California cow pasture into the campus of a research university under the UC brand. As second in command, Ashley helped develop its undergraduate and graduate programs, research institutes and founding faculty.

About 9,000 professors, including other UC researchers, applied for Merced's 55 founding-faculty positions. More than 9,000 students applied for the university's inaugural class of 1,000 students in fall 2005. For the upcoming fall semester, another 9,000 applied for 800 spots.

Merced has raised $50 million in private funds and brought in nearly $30 million in research grants and contracts in the last two years.

The fledgling, $475 million campus includes a library, classroom building, and a student housing and dining facility. A science and engineering building is almost complete, and a recreation center is under construction.

Previous experience:

Dean, College of Engineering, Ohio State University, 1997-2001

Civil Engineering professor and department chair, University of California, Berkeley, 1989-1997

Civil Engineering professor at University of Texas, Austin (1982-1989) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1977-1982)

Education:

Doctorate and master's in Construction Engineering and Management, Stanford University

Master's and bachelor's in Civil Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Research expertise: Construction management. Ashley recently served on a five-person team that consulted on reconstructing the Bay Bridge and expanding the Panama Canal.

Favorite books/leadership slogans: None. "I'm anti-sloganism and anti-airport management books," Ashley said. But he said he wants to read the best-seller "Who Moved My Cheese," which deals with how to cope with major change.

What he's all about: Students. Ashley said that higher education "is really about changing lives."

MERCED, Calif. - It is easy to be impressed by what David Ashley has accomplished if you stand alongside the two-lane highway that bisects rolling cow pastures in the middle of the nation's richest agricultural region.

Just over there, around the bend, Ashley helped create the newest of the University of California's signature research institutions.

And starting this weekend, he'll see what kind of a future he can help create for UNLV.

Ashley, 55, a construction engineer by training, was named president of UNLV on Thursday. On Friday, he and his wife, Anna, packed for Las Vegas, in search of housing and intelligence about the job that lies ahead.

Universities, he said, "are about creating new opportunities for students who are the first in their families to go to college."

It is a mission that strikes a chord in Southern Nevada.

And it is what landed him in Merced in 2001 - to help bring the University of California's distinguished brand of education to students living in the most impoverished region of the state, a place some call Western Appalachia.

Teaching and research, he said Friday in his soft, deliberate voice, are what a university is all about. And it comes down to the students, he said.

As vice chancellor and provost, Ashley is the second-ranking campus administrator at UC-Merced. He was hired away from Ohio State University, where he was dean of engineering, to help create UC's 10th campus.

Here was a professor-turned-administrator thrown into the world of politics and bureaucracy - trying to create research programs while recruiting faculty and tapping an already overstretched state budget.

The university's first 1,000 undergraduates enrolled last fall, receiving instruction from 55 faculty members that Ashley helped select. I try to hire people smarter than me, he said.

Colleagues say Ashley is such a workaholic they are not able to describe him outside of work. But there are plenty of hints in his office about what he loves. Just look at the outdoor landscapes, painted by his wife, that show a joy for hiking and bicycling.

But he's an engineer first, it seems, and processes problems from different angles, just like an engineer, said Nancy Tanaka, Merced's assistant vice chancellor for academic affairs.

While leaving the campus on Friday, he couldn't help but point to a poorly installed window. It's just the engineer in me, he said. I can spot other problems, too.

Of all the chancellors, provosts and deans she has worked with, Tanaka said, Ashley is the most passionate administrator she has met in the ranks of higher education.

"The commitment runs deep,'' she said Friday. "He's incredibly dedicated to higher education, and that commitment comes down to the staff so that we all know what we are working for. That's a rare ability."

There have been some bumps along the way.

Kenji Hakuta, dean of the College of Social Sciences, Humanities and the Arts, said Ashley caught flak for some tough budget decisions.

But he has won faculty support for including them in his decision-making, Hakuta said.

"He's not a politician. He doesn't seek attention or glory," Hakuta said. "He is just someone who tries to get the job done. I think he is someone the Board of Regents there can have confidence in."

He seems already to have won it, based on how his praises have been sung by regents who hired him .

"He's done all the things that we need to get done," Regent Steve Sisolak, who led the UNLV search, said.

Ashley has the "total package," everything UNLV is looking for in a president, UNLV social studies professor and search committee member Kate Hausbeck said .

Of the three finalists, Ashley seems best positioned to improve UNLV's academic standing, Hausbeck said. "There is no point we have (on the job profile) he has not matched. I really feel like he can hit the ground running."

Ashley plans to do just that when he arrives on the job July 1 with a $400,000 annual salary.

The previous week, six regents had recommended the hiring of Lt. Gen. Bill Lennox, superintendent of West Point. He backed out days later, however, saying he and UNLV would not be a good fit. Lennox's candidacy was not supported by faculty, but Ashley's was.

Regents, professors, students and community leaders described Ashley as a builder who had the academic clout and experience to push UNLV forward, just as he helped UC-Merced build a name for itself.

His supporters said Ashley has the academic skills to help UNLV advance as a research university, the managerial skills to run the campus and the political skills for fundraising success.

During his time as dean of the College of Engineering at Ohio State University, Ashley raised $190 million in private gifts for the engineering department while overseeing a college with 6,000 students and 300 faculty members in eight departments and an architecture school. His annual budget was $100 million.

At Merced, he was credited as a pragmatic visionary, overcoming such obstacles as politicians reluctant to fund a new university in the state's Central Valley.

"You know when you start off with cows and a few years later have students graduating, that's pretty amazing," said UC-Merced Chancellor Carol Tomlinson-Keasey, crediting Ashley for much of that success.

Ashley grew up in Chattanooga, Tenn., where his father was a chemical engineer. As an employee at International Latex, his father invented the latex glove and later founded his own carpet business. Ashley moved from the conservative South to the more liberal East Coast for college during the Vietnam War years.

Ashley stayed in academia because he liked the research focus, but he has worked as an industry consultant. He helped design several U.S. subway systems, and most recently consulted on a project to reconstruct the Bay Bridge.

Ashley said he fell into administrative work by accident. He left his tenured professorship at the University of Texas, Austin, for University of California, Berkeley, because Texas was grooming him for administration .

Budget cuts and early retirements forced him to become department chairman, and he discovered he rather liked the administrative side of things.

Ashley's wife said his perfectionism can "drive you absolutely crazy. The best is just not good enough. It has to be the very best...

"Anything worth doing is worth doing well, in his opinion. And that affects everything he does."

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