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December 22, 2014

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HIGHER EDUCATION:

At UNLV, president’s wife raises eyebrows

Her ‘abrasive’ style should be part of his review, Rogers says

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Steve Marcus / File photo

Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, left, shows an award to UNLV president David Ashley and his wife, Bonnie, at an exhibition in February dedicated to Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Daisaku Ikeda at UNLV’s Richard Tam Alumni Center.

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UPDATED STORY: Wife of UNLV president sends apology note to Rogers, regents

UNLV President David Ashley was receiving congratulations in early May. A consultant had just given him a positive preliminary evaluation, calling him a “quiet, brilliant” leader.

Just one month later Ashley is in a very different position. Jason Geddes, vice chairman of the higher education system’s Board of Regents, said Wednesday that he has concerns about the president’s performance.

Jim Rogers, the system’s chancellor, said the consultant’s evaluation was deficient. “I do not believe that it adequately covered the issues that should be examined,” he said.

Rogers, whose last day as chancellor is June 30, declined to comment on whether he would recommend extending Ashley’s contract, which expires next year.

How could Ashley’s standing change so quickly?

As it turns out, it didn’t. Trouble has been brewing for a while. Many UNLV employees have complained that the president communicates poorly with the campus community. Some higher education system administrators have said he is unresponsive to their concerns.

One major problem that has so far escaped the public eye, and which the consultant failed to address, Rogers said, is the alleged bullying of campus employees by the president’s wife, Bonnie Ashley.

Rogers, who has spoken with many campus workers about the issue, said her behavior is a serious concern.

“I’ve heard that she’s been very abrasive and aggressive toward system employees, that there have been threats, maybe of discipline of system employees, and that there are more than just a few employees who are intimidated by her,” Rogers said.

It’s the type of behavior that could expose the system to lawsuits, he said. Although he has not determined whether all the allegations are true, what he knows so far worries him.

He said when employees feel intimidated, “You tend to kill ideas that people will have. You kill their desire to work for the system. You frighten them and their basic ability to make a living because they come to work every day wondering if there’s going to be some arbitrary decision made that affects their lives.”

David and Bonnie Ashley said her involvement in campus affairs should not be considered in his evaluation.

Bonnie Ashley said although she has told employees who have made mistakes that they need to do a better job, she has not threatened to discipline anyone: “I have never done that. Absolutely not. That is not my job.”

Regents will vote in August on whether to extend her husband’s contract. The grievances about her, which have been circulating for months, raise questions about the way the higher education system evaluates presidents.

Rogers said that after speaking with people ranging from secretaries to administrators, “I know that there is a feeling of frustration on campus that the evaluation was not thorough.”

To gauge Ashley’s performance, evaluator John Welty, president of the California State University at Fresno, interviewed 59 people including faculty, students and community leaders over two days.

Some meetings were planned to last 15 minutes. Others consisted of conversations with groups of stakeholders, not one-on-one discussions. Rogers said he was not interviewed by Welty.

The consultant has not submitted a final evaluation, but he praised the UNLV president widely in a preliminary report, leveling few criticisms.

Bryan Spangelo, a faculty senate member, said he and the current faculty senate chairman spoke to Welty together for 20 minutes. Their talk, scheduled for a half-hour, was cut short because Welty was running late, Spangelo said.

“My impression was that he wasn’t going to take us seriously,” said Spangelo, who shared several concerns with the consultant. One was the way the UNLV president was handling the development of a hate crimes policy that many professors feared would stifle free speech.

Welty declined to comment this week on the thoroughness of his evaluation or whether he had heard complaints regarding Bonnie Ashley, saying it would be inappropriate to do so before completing his final report.

His initial assessment, which he gave verbally to a committee of higher education regents and other stakeholders, did not cover interactions between Bonnie Ashley and university staff.

But according to Rogers, Welty was aware of complaints regarding the president’s spouse when delivering the preliminary review.

Rogers said he has spoken with David Ashley on several occasions about the way the president’s wife has allegedly treated employees, who have helped her with tasks such as scheduling events and planning university parties at the home she shares with the president.

E-mails UNLV provided to the Sun in response to a public records request shed light on Bonnie Ashley’s relationship with campus employees.

In one December Monday morning missive to UNLV’s special events manager, the vice president for advancement and the assistant president/chief of staff, Bonnie Ashley demanded to see updated party guest lists “WITHIN THE HOUR.” (Download this e-mail)

“You all are paid way too much for me to have to put up with the constant problems I am dealing with, and it’s just wasting my time,” she wrote. At the end of the e-mail she reiterates: “I want a full and complete update on every aspect of the parties as of right now.”

Also in December, she sent the events manager a message following a confrontation over the number of skewers the employee had ordered for a party.

“I should not have to tell you this ... you do NOT argue with the first lady nor yell at her to let you do your job ... that behavior is completely unacceptable,” wrote Bonnie Ashley, who frequently calls herself “the first lady.” (Download this e-mail)

“I am sorry I have to be so firm,” she added, “but you need to understand my position and responsibilities, and your place in all that we do.”

In January, Bonnie Ashley e-mailed the president’s assistant to say that someone had falsely told a newspaper that she was making demands of UNLV, including asking for a university job.

“We do not know who is making the calls, and so we are not allowing anyone to handle any of my information right now,” she wrote. “I get paid nothing, give my services for free, and I get crap in return ... and am sick of it. We do not know at this time who it is, so no offense, but everyone is suspect until we find out for sure. It may include me subpoenaing telephone records and Internet search information from University computers. I will not stand for anyone being disloyal.”

Rogers said some of the e-mails he reviewed were “excessive.”

David Ashley on Tuesday defended his wife as a “wonderful partner” and said people at the UNLV Foundation have asked that she participate more in university life. In an e-mail, the president wrote that the Sun’s questions implied that the chancellor might ask him to “control my wife.”

“I can tell you that I respect women too much, especially my wife, to consider such a request as even remotely appropriate. ‘Controlling my wife’ is an offensive concept that demeans women,” David Ashley wrote. “Bonnie contributes to the university in many ways and I am very grateful for her support and participation.”

Rogers, however, contends that in UNLV affairs, Bonnie Ashley is her husband’s “agent.”

“This is the president’s wife ... When she does A, B and C, and he does not stop her from doing that, it shows that she has implied authority to do those things. She represents him. She represents him at a basketball game or a graduation or whatever. If she does something that is out of line, and if nothing happens, it’s the same as him doing it himself.

“I think Mrs. Ashley has alienated many people,” he said, “and I think it’s essential that she understand that she represents the university when she does these things and it detracts from her husband’s ability to do his job.”

Asked whether he had heard about problems related to Bonnie Ashley, regents Chairman Michael Wixom said, “I am just not going to comment on that. I view that as a personnel issue.”

He also said he could not judge whether Welty’s report on David Ashley is thorough before reviewing a final version.

Wixom said he and some other regents “had questions” about the higher education system’s evaluation process, which allows campus presidents to make recommendations on whom the system should hire to evaluate them. Welty was one of seven candidates Ashley suggested.

The two men worked together on California’s Central Valley Higher Education Consortium when David Ashley was at the University of California at Merced, where he served as a high-ranking administrator before coming to UNLV in 2006.

Besides covering Welty’s travel expenses, the system is paying him $7,500 to complete the evaluation.

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