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October 24, 2014

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Quiet man about campus

UNLV president a behind-the-scenes kind of leader

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Sam Morris

UNLV President David Ashley refused to raise fees to plug funding holes created by budget cuts, saying he didn’t want to make it more difficult for students to attend.

With Nevada’s budget crisis threatening to gobble ever-larger chunks of UNLV’s budget, Douglas Unger asked the university’s president, David Ashley, to consider using the Washington Monument strategy.

Unger, interim chairman of the English Department, was referring to the tactic of threatening to shutter popular programs as leverage to get politicians, wary of angering constituents, to come up with more money.

Ashley refused.

As Unger remembers it, “He came back to me and said, ‘Look, that’s not my style. I believe in telling it like it is, and I don’t believe in making any kind of false threat to do something that I’m not willing to do. Even if it’s politically expedient, I’m not going to take that route and that’s just not my style.’

“He’s just not that kind of cat,” Unger continued. “What you’re going to get from him (is), when he tells you something, he means it. There’s no hidden agenda, and it’s about transparency ... He wants to talk about the real problem. He doesn’t want to play politics.”

It was a typical Ashley moment. In two years on the job, UNLV’s eighth president has developed a reputation as a thoughtful decision-maker, low-key and straightforward.

While the chancellor of Nevada’s higher education system has been sending the press and power brokers weekly memos railing against looming budget cuts, Ashley has taken a quieter approach.

A few weeks after Chancellor Jim Rogers issued a memo saying UNLV could disband its law and dental schools to help meet the prospective reductions, Ashley reassured faculty, staff and students that no school or college within the university was “on the chopping block.”

The way the president is dealing with the budget crisis is indicative of his modus operandi.

He meets often with faculty leaders to learn about their concerns. He lobbies lawmakers in person, one-on-one.

In general, he lies low, working behind the scenes, leaving the chancellor to battle for higher education and the university in the public sphere.

“There’s not much more that needs to be said there because he’s very visible and effective,” Ashley said.

Some on campus say there’s more to it, however. They say Ashley is shy. The term “socially awkward” is floated on occasion.

He describes himself as quiet — and it’s perhaps this trait more than any other that has shaped the community’s opinion of him, for better or for worse. His unassuming nature is part of what separates him from his predecessor, Carol Harter, who was more gregarious.

Though “quiet” might seem an ill-fitting attribute for a person whose job requires hobnobbing with Las Vegas elites, Ashley’s manner has won him friends at UNLV. He has no problem ceding the spotlight, often encouraging others to share their ideas rather than expounding his own views.

His supporters see him as grounded, a good listener who explores problems from many perspectives before acting. They say although he doesn’t brag about his achievements, he has helped UNLV progress toward becoming a top-ranked research institution, installing a top-notch management team.

Ashley’s critics, however, say he’s so low-key they can’t figure out what he has accomplished.

They don’t know whether the university is making progress on its $500 million fundraising campaign, scheduled to end this year, because Ashley has largely been mute about it.

They wonder whether the president’s composed reaction to budget cuts is a sign of dispassion. They’re not sure what Ashley is doing to fight future reductions.

“It seems like (Rogers) is doing most of the work for higher education,” said Rick Shukis, a senior who has been a student body senator for three years. “It’d be nice if (Ashley) could take more of a leadership role.”

Some faculty members say that outside of two town hall meetings he hosted in June, Ashley has recently been a ghost on campus.

“I don’t see him, I don’t hear from him, I don’t get e-mails from him,” said Bob Ackerman, an associate professor of educational leadership who has been at UNLV for more than 20 years.

“I’m not criticizing his leadership. He’s probably behind the scenes and, as far as I know, doing a good job,” Ackerman added. “It’s just, you don’t know who he is; you might not be able to pick him out of a crowd.”

The man himself is something of a question mark. At the University of California, Merced, where Ashley was provost before moving to Las Vegas, colleagues said he was such a workaholic they could not describe him outside of work. At UNLV, many faculty members can’t even figure out whether the president is married, fodder for the university rumor mill.

When he interviewed for the presidency more than two years ago, Ashley brought his wife from Merced. But he arrived in Las Vegas alone and has since developed a serious relationship with Bonnie Moore, a children’s portrait photographer and actor, who accompanies him to fundraising and other UNLV events.

Ashley wouldn’t tell the Sun whether he is divorced or remarried.

Many colleagues say they have no interest in what Ashley does outside of work. But even some supporters say he could communicate better with the UNLV community about university matters.

Nasser Daneshvary, faculty senate chairman, has lauded Ashley for involving faculty leaders in decision-making but said many employees would like to hear more from the president about budget cuts and other UNLV issues.

“It wouldn’t be a bad idea to put some shoe leather on those sidewalks when it comes to opening up the semester,” suggested John Filler, faculty senate chairman-elect. “Walk around, talk to people. Look for opportunities to speak, send

e-mails out.”

“The faculty,” said John Farley, a professor of physics, “want to know that somebody is minding the store and doing the best to try to help the institution survive.”

Ashley contends he has been visible on campus. He said when possible, he walks the university grounds instead of riding around in a golf cart so he can stop and meet people along the way. He picks up lunch at the student union at least once a week. (He likes the BLT and chicken wraps at the sandwich place.)

“We have lots of different events on campus, and I basically come to every one (when) I’m available, and I enjoy doing that, I want to do that, I want to be part of all different aspects of the university,” Ashley said.

He said he is aware some people say he hasn’t done enough of that, so he will try harder to be more visible.

In governing the campus, he has solicited broad input, saying, “I want decisions to be driven by data and consultation. I really have tried to open up new avenues of discussion and consultation.”

Last year he invited students, staff and faculty to 16 town hall meetings to discuss what direction they wanted UNLV to take.

Through that process, the university drafted a list of priorities — a big achievement for a new president, some faculty members say. Many of the goals are ones the university can work toward even in tough budget times. In coming years, for example, UNLV will focus its research on “regionally relevant areas” such as hospitality, and researchers will be encouraged to pursue competitive grants and private funding for projects.

Harter, the former president, said she is pleased that Ashley has continued to champion UNLV as a research university, that he has supported a more selective admissions process — though that could lead to falling enrollment and less state funding for the school.

To spur research, Ashley has distributed $2 million to help faculty members purchase equipment and establish research projects that could help them win additional money from agencies such as the National Science Foundation.

Hoping to improve graduation and retention rates, officials have established an “academic success center” to connect new students with help such as tutoring and advising.

Ashley’s supporters say his dedication to UNLV and its students also is apparent in the way he has handled budget cuts.

When other campuses raised fees temporarily to plug funding holes, Ashley refused to follow, saying he didn’t want to make it more difficult for students to attend.

Instead, his administration has come up with a wide range of plans to save money, from the conventional (layoffs and offering buyouts to older workers) to the more creative (cutting hundreds of thousands of dollars per year by changing office cleaning schedules). Ashley also has cut three positions from his office.

And Ashley said he has worked to keep the university and Las Vegas communities apprised of how UNLV is responding to cuts. In July he established a president’s advisory council, which he plans to consult often, that includes staff and faculty leaders and the undergraduate and graduate student body presidents. The school has put up a Web site dedicated to the budget.

Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley said she has spoken with Ashley at least twice this year and hears from UNLV about its budget problems at least once a month.

Ashley says he recently talked to groups including Rotary clubs and the Nevada Development Authority about UNLV’s contributions to the region.

The president also meets with donors frequently.

But whether those conversations are yielding results is a mystery. The latest major donation the UNLV Foundation announced was a $30 million gift for the hotel college — a gift Harter had helped cultivate.

The latest update on the campaign’s progress put the total amount raised at $424.5 million as of June 30, making the school’s goal of hitting $500 million by year’s end look like a tall order — though Rogers said Ashley has been aggressive in chasing big donations that are still in the works.

To some people’s disappointment, Ashley has refused to tap Harter — who is still on campus as executive director of a literary institute — for fundraising.

“I would like to have her more involved,” said Ted Quirk, chairman of the UNLV Foundation. “I think that she, over the tenure of her presidency, she made a lot of good, solid friends for the university that had and still have a high regard for her. And fundraising is personal. It comes as a result of personal relationships, and I think she has some relationships that could help us raise funds.”

Ashley, who doesn’t consult with Harter on other matters either, said that because donors need to be invested in UNLV’s future, “in the vision going forward,” the school’s current leaders are the “appropriate” people to lead the campaign.

But even Rogers, who in the past slammed Harter for alienating donors, says asking her to join the effort could be helpful. He stopped short of recommending that Ashley do that, however. “That’s a question of style,” Rogers said. “I don’t think there’s a right or wrong to it, so I would be very reluctant to say, ‘David, you should use Carol’ or ‘you shouldn’t.’ ”

Quirk said on balance, Ashley is “doing pretty darn well,” making “a concerted effort” to court donors.

“It’s good because it’s not something that he’s natural at,” Quirk said. “He’s not a real outgoing type of guy.”

Quirk added that Ashley has assembled a strong management team. Neal Smatresk, the highly social provost and executive vice president Ashley brought to UNLV last year, complements the demure Ashley well, Quirk said.

Ashley consolidated fundraising, marketing and other outward-looking divisions under the leadership of Bill Boldt, an outgoing longtime development professional UNLV poached from the University of California, Riverside.

Eight of the university’s 15 deans are Ashley appointments.

Rogers particularly likes the fact that Ashley meets often with the presidents of Nevada’s other six state colleges. UNLV has agreed to share space at a satellite health sciences campus in Las Vegas with Nevada State College and UNR.

And Ashley and UNR president Milton Glick consult with each other frequently, a departure from past years when leaders of Nevada’s public universities squabbled over resources.

Ashley also gets along with Rogers, who clashed with the strong-willed Harter and was accused of pushing her out. The president’s quiet style has probably helped him stay on good terms with the hotheaded chancellor.

When Harter stepped down, it was easy to see how much she had accomplished. Though some folks on campus saw her as self-aggrandizing and were happy to see her go, she had, in 11 years at the helm, transformed UNLV.

She sold Las Vegas leaders on her vision that the university would one day be Southern Nevada’s UCLA. Under her watch, UNLV launched dozens of graduate programs and raised hundreds of millions of dollars in private funding.

It won’t be clear until years from now whether Ashley’s efforts to raise graduation rates and enhance UNLV’s stature as a research university have been successful.

Whereas Harter oversaw a long period of growth, Ashley didn’t even get a honeymoon. Cornered by budget cuts of gargantuan magnitude, he is fighting just to maintain services UNLV offers. Employees including teachers have lost their jobs. Class sizes are growing.

In challenging times, it’s evident that many people at UNLV would like to see their president take on a more public cheerleading role. But even many of Ashley’s critics say it’s too early to pass judgment on him and seem to remain inclined to, as Unger puts it, “give the guy a chance.”

For now, though, even Unger acknowledges, “the jury is still out.”

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