Las Vegas Sun

October 21, 2014

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Q+A: David Ashley

David Ashley is not one to hurry an opinion. He is cautious and methodical. When he arrives at a decision, he makes it with confidence based on his research.

Those traits were ideal for his first profession: construction engineer. Nevada is learning whether they are also well-suited to his latest job: college president.

Ashley has spent his first eight months as UNLV president gathering information to decide what UNLV needs to do to get where it wants to go.

All of this surveying has made his first months eerily quiet, and the sense of anticipation on campus is palpable, like the long, slow climb before a roller coaster takes that first steep drop.

At UNLV the coaster is about to crest. With the recent hire of Ashley's No. 2, Executive Vice President and Provost Neal Smatresk, and Ashley's inauguration ceremony coming up April 27, the Sun sat down with the president to get a sense of what to expect.

Q. You are in your eighth month. What are your impressions of UNLV and Las Vegas?

I have spent a lot of time visiting every college, sitting down with senior leadership, faculty and staff. People seem to be quite happy with UNLV, but there's also a sense of wanting to do something more, of inviting change. There is not the built-in resistance you would otherwise expect, and that may be a part of the Las Vegas spirit.

The question is whether that change should be evolutionary or revolutionary. At most universities, the desire would be slow, gradual change. Here, there seems to be an appetite for revolutionary change, people expect bold strokes.

What have you found to be the university's strengths and weaknesses?

There's a lot more variability inside and outside of the university than I would have thought, as to the quality of programs and the kinds of programs offered. Some are more advanced than others. Several are very good, better in their ability to do research than I anticipated.

Outside the university, there are people in the community who think this is a spectacular place, and those who dismiss UNLV as a four-year university of little importance.

That view will be hard to turn around quickly, despite the strides the university has made. What is interesting about UNLV is how dramatically it has changed from a part-time student, teaching-oriented commuter school to a comprehensive university with graduate and undergraduate programs and research capability.

Some say UNLV has grown too fast, adding programs before it had the resources to support them. Your first impression was that UNLV needed to narrow its focus and funnel new resources toward programs that had the best chance to excel. Any idea what those programs may be?

I've avoided answering that because I think there needs to be a universitywide, strategic plan developed to make those decisions. There does need to be more thoughtful investment in the future.

There needs to be a more deliberative process when new academic programs are added, including making sure funding is in place to support them. There also needs to be a more rigorous program review process with outside entities involved to scrutinize whether a program is meeting its intended purpose. The result of that is some programs may be disbanded.

What resources does UNLV need to better pursue its research mission?

UNLV does not have the research infrastructure it needs. My assumption was that the university did not have enough laboratory space, equipment, or the people to do the research - professors and graduate students. Those are issues, but the real problem is on the soft side - the administrative help and support needed to seek and process government grants. The good news is that it can be fixed with a smaller amount of money. Acquiring the 1 million square feet of space we need for research will take longer to fix.

Before you arrived, the Board of Regents approved increasing the grade point average requirement for admission, to make UNLV more selective. Do you think that step is enough?

We want to identify people who will succeed, who can do well in an academic program, without cutting off access or adversely affecting any one group. We have the responsibility to create a more comprehensive admission standard beyond GPA. The University of California system has 14 criteria, not two, and it takes into consideration whether someone is first in the family to go to college, or has an economic hardship, or has shown leadership in overcoming a challenge.

When you were hired, many people asked whether you worried about working with Chancellor Jim Rogers, given that he helped engineer the departure of your predecessor. How has he been as a boss?

Everything hinted at in those first questions has been a part of my experience, but he really hasn't micromanaged UNLV. I see Jim Rogers as almost two people, as the chancellor and as a donor/avid sports fan. As chancellor, I treat him as one would treat the chancellor, but as an avid fan, I treat him as an avid fan.

Meaning what, exactly?

Meaning, "Thank you very much for your input."

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