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August 22, 2014

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UNLV president garners praise, catches a break

Review lauds performance; support on board appears split

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Steve Marcus

UNLV President David Ashley listens during a June 19 meeting of the higher education system’s Board of Regents at the Desert Research Institute. The system’s former chancellor has called for Ashley’s ouster, citing communication and leadership problems, as well as conflicts between his wife, Bonnie, and UNLV staff.

The final report from UNLV President David Ashley’s evaluator is in and it reads like a recommendation that Ashley’s contract be extended.

But when the Nevada System of Higher Education regents meet Friday to try to hash out Ashley’s fate, this report won’t be the only consideration.

The regents appeared split on Ashley on Tuesday. Most said they had read the final report but want to consider the public discussion Friday before they make up their minds.

The report itself is unlikely to surprise anyone who followed reports about the highly positive preliminary version. Added to the final report were mentions of how Ashley mishandled a controversial proposed hate crimes policy as well as the widely publicized conflict between his wife and staff.

But the evaluator mainly commends Ashley for a strong start at UNLV and for making real progress toward improving the university in the face of “incredible fiscal pressures.” The report also notes that he has the support of most of the university community for his various efforts to improve UNLV.

“The descriptions most often used by those interviewed when describing President Ashley were: brilliant, honest, supportive, personable, and thoughtful; a problem solver, a data driven decision maker, a quiet leader, a collaborator, an engineer, and a calm leader,” the report states.

Friday’s hearing will also take into account a survey of about 37 percent of UNLV faculty taken in December. It found 72 percent of that group supported renewing Ashley’s contract. In general, the faculty members said they liked the way he handled the budget crisis, faculty governance, diversity and his unwavering support of research.

The survey found that those with the highest levels of interaction with the president were more likely to strongly support the renewal of his contract. But it also notes unusually high levels of “don’t know” or “neutral” answers in the survey, as high as 60 percent on some questions.

The evaluator’s report and faculty survey highlight Ashley’s use of town-hall-style meetings to communicate with faculty, staff and students about the budget crisis, and his use of data to effectively to reach budget decisions.

The evaluator compliments Ashley’s leadership on UNLV’s new development plan. Many at UNLV described it as “strong and insightful” but noted that some on campus were skeptical of whether UNLV can carry out the plan in the current fiscal environment.

The evaluation found Ashley to be an expert at delegating. It noted his assembly of a strong senior leadership team that has clear responsibilities and performance expectations. Sixty percent of those interviewed by the evaluator, Cal State Fresno President John Welty, indicated that the appointment of leaders at UNLV was Ashley’s most important achievement.

He was also praised as an effective fundraiser. Few know of his successes because he avoids self-promotion, the report says.

A complaint raised by faculty and regents is that Ashley is less visible in the community than his predecessors, which leads some to conclude he “doesn’t care.” But according to the evaluation, a number of community leaders told Welty that Ashley has been very engaged in the most important areas.

The evaluator recommended that Ashley work on his communication skills and better publicize his fundraising and campus activities. He also noted the importance of better defining the role of the president’s spouse.

“I believe that President Ashley is off to a good start under incredibly trying circumstances,” Welty wrote. “He enjoys support within the University to move towards the goal of UNLV becoming a top-notch urban, research University. President Ashley’s leadership will be a significant part of UNLV achieving its aspirations and potential.”

Welty’s evaluation was partially based on Ashley’s self-evaluation.

“I think I’ve been a very good steward of the university and its resources,” Ashley said Tuesday, “and that’s the single most important thing a president can do at this time. I still think we’re making progress. I think we’re still doing some very important things to move the university forward. I think that still puts us on track to be the kind of university we’d all like to have here.”

Not everyone agrees, however. Former Chancellor Jim Rogers called for Ashley’s ouster last month, and he and some regents have questioned the validity of the evaluation.

And although public input is generally ancillary to decisions about university presidents’ contracts, it is set to play a much larger role in Ashley’s case.

Regent Robert Blakely said many Ashley opponents and supporters have asked to speak at Friday’s hearing.

Blakely and other regents indicated that they’re going to seriously consider the public comments as they deliberate on Ashley’s fate.

“I know some people felt they didn’t get a chance to speak with (Welty) long enough,” Regent Cedric Crear said. “Some things still will be missing (from the final report) that we’ll find out Friday.”

Regents Bill Cobb and Crear said they consider the evaluation incomplete and question Ashley’s ties to the man hired to perform the evaluation. Ashley was once executive vice chancellor at a university near Welty’s and the two met frequently in their academic capacities.

Welty was chosen by the regents out of a field of seven candidates submitted by Ashley.

Some suspect the two were closer than Ashley says and that the evaluation is biased.

“The evaluation is not as extensive as the other presidents’ evaluations,” Crear said. “But it is his evaluation. We’re going to have time to ask (Welty) some questions at the meeting before we accept it.”

Ashley countered that it is absurd to accuse Welty of bias toward someone he met only occasionally and in an official capacity.

“We were colleagues,” he said. “We saw each other at events. We knew each other but didn’t work together in any meaningful way.”

Regent Jack Schofield said he supports Ashley and would have to hear something pretty damning Friday to change his mind.

“I can’t see anything that David Ashley has done wrong,” Schofield said. “President Ashley is a scientist and he uses the scientific method for evaluating things. And I believe that he’s very successful because of the lieutenants he has. You appoint the best and you try to help them succeed, and I believe he has been doing that the past three years.”

He said he wants to ensure the evaluation is fair and doesn’t involve character attacks on third parties or turn into a battle of personalities.

That’s Ashley’s concern too.

“I’m disappointed that there is a controversy,” Ashley said. “I think I have done what I was asked to do. The evaluation and survey are really the reference documents normally used by the system. They really indicate this is a solid record and I should be going in feeling reasonably comfortable about things. I’m not at all comfortable. I don’t think this process that’s now in place is following the normal procedures.”

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