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December 21, 2014

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LOOKING IN ON: HIGHER EDUCATION:

Regent’s election defeat suits Rogers fine, thank you

Robert Blakely seemed convinced a month ago that he couldn’t get elected to the Board of Regents.

“I kind of know that my opponent is probably going to beat me, so I’m not putting a huge amount of effort into it,” Blakely said at the time.

Surprise.

Blakely, 57, beat out incumbent Bret Whipple for the job, and will join the state board, which governs public colleges and the Desert Research Institute, in January.

The result is a boon for Jim Rogers, chancellor of the public higher education system, who clashed often with Whipple. Rogers has called repeatedly for new taxes in Nevada to fund education, prompting Whipple to call repeatedly for Rogers to stop doing that.

“I’m frankly not only pleased, I’m delighted that he’s leaving,” the chancellor said.

Whipple, a lawyer and certified public accountant finishing up his first six-year term, has overseen efforts to implement an overhaul of college computing systems statewide. But he might be remembered most for the way he butted heads with Rogers, criticizing the chancellor for being too political and calling for Rogers’ resignation after the chancellor wrote Whipple a letter insulting a fellow regent.

On budget issues, at least, the views of Whipple’s successor appear to track the chancellor’s more closely. Blakely said he would consider backing tax increases if that was “the only way to meet the needs of the university system and education system.”

Blakely, an engineer and scientist who worked for many years for the Energy Department and government contractors on the Nevada Test Site, Yucca Mountain and other projects, said he will prioritize undergraduate programs, which serve the majority of students in the higher education system. He said in tough economic times, regents should consider cutting advanced degree programs that are unpopular.

“If you’ve got seven students in a graduate program, that’s not benefiting many Nevadans, is it?” said Blakely, who supports finding federal or private funding to help support graduate programs.

•••

A lot of people are wondering how Blakely, now an insurance salesman, came to win his race against an incumbent who won endorsements from both the Sun and Review-Journal. Blakely signed up to run for office only because a few days before the deadline to file for candidacy, he saw no one else had “thrown their hat in the ring.”

Maybe Blakely won because people were voting against Whipple. Maybe, in an election where voters rallied around Democrats, Blakely owes his victory to the fact that he was the county Democratic Party’s choice for regent. Maybe having his name first on the ballot helped.

Whipple might have prevailed had he done more campaigning. He put up signs around town and talked to news outlets making endorsements. But he didn’t knock or doors, start a Web site or send out mailers.

“Obviously I was wishfully thinking that my six years of work on the board had, you know, given me some name recognition,” he said.

“I was very humbled,” he said the morning after. “I had anticipated to prevail.”

Blakely, who didn’t invest in printing signs or campaign literature, attributes his success to his efforts to speak to local interest groups including labor unions about his candidacy. He said he didn’t see Whipple at some meetings to which both were invited.

“I went out and talked to the people who were interested in knowing what I would do and what I was about,” Blakely said. “And they listened and they obviously ended up liking what they heard, and so basically, I campaigned to the voters.”

Whipple said he’d consider the loss a learning experience and move on. We might see his name on the ballot again soon. He said his future will likely include another run for public office.

“I enjoy working in something that’s bigger than myself,” he said.

•••

With Whipple gone, the 13-member Board of Regents will include four newcomers at the start of 2009.

Steve Sisolak is leaving to take a seat on the Clark County Commission. Bill Cobb, a lawyer in Washoe County, will replace Howard Rosenberg, who is out because of term limits, as is Thalia Dondero, and the governor will appoint her replacement and Sisolak’s.

With two Gibbons appointees coming on board, Rogers might need all the support he can get from Blakely.

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