Las Vegas Sun

September 2, 2014

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Daily memo: higher education:

Praised where it counts, but criticized for X factor

UNLV president gets high marks, though some say he needs to be more passionate, visible

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Tiffany Brown

UNLV President David Ashley speaks to a committee of regents and other stakeholders last week at Lied Library during an evaluation of his performance. Ashley was praised as “thoughtful” and as a man of “high integrity,” but some on campus have found fault with his communication skills.

UNLV President David Ashley sailed through the first phase of his performance evaluation last week, with a consultant labeling him a “quiet, brilliant leader.”

People lauded Ashley for hiring a strong executive team, the consultant said. They thought the president had handled UNLV’s budget crisis well.

But it’s perhaps an indication of the difficulty of a university president’s job that for many members of the campus community, that alone isn’t enough. Praised where it counts, the president lost some points on style.

Many people interviewed by the consultant hired to evaluate Ashley’s performance indicated their leader could improve his visibility on campus and in the community. Others wanted the president to communicate more, to keep stakeholders better informed about how he spends his time.

Hannah Brown, president of the Las Vegas chapter of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women and a member of an evaluation committee that had gathered to hear the consultant’s comments, defended Ashley, saying the community knows and respects him.

But the criticisms the consultant raised about communication were difficult to ignore. They must have seemed familiar to the man who has led the university since 2006.

After the 11-year presidency of the gregarious Carol Harter, many stakeholders on and off campus find Ashley and his quiet manner mystifying. The terms that members of the campus community use to describe the president are sometimes unflattering: shy, socially awkward, “an enigma.”

Last summer one longtime faculty member said of Ashley: “I don’t see him, I don’t hear from him, I don’t get e-mails from him.”

Cognizant of the criticism, Ashley has taken steps this academic year to improve communication. He has held town hall meetings on budget cuts and visited regularly with a newly established advisory council including faculty, staff and student leaders.

Those efforts, while helpful, miss the point in some ways. What many people want to see is a more organic form of communication. They would like to see Ashley lunching in the student union and walking around campus, not just answering questions at forums.

They want to see passion and anger over budget problems that have resulted in layoffs, as well as anxiety among students who worry the university won’t offer the classes they need to graduate.

But Ashley is not a man who publicizes his emotions. Even at his evaluation, with the consultant describing him using glowing terms such as “thoughtful” and “high integrity,” it was difficult to tell what he was thinking. He allowed himself a few reserved smiles, but for much of the time sat largely expressionless, blinking calmly.

Some employees have interpreted their president’s measured approach as a sign that he is aloof. Many offer Ashley slight praise for his handling of the budget crisis while expressing something near reverence for Jim Rogers, the fiery chancellor of Nevada’s higher education system who has lambasted the governor over budget cuts.

Improving communication might seem trivial, especially because Ashley appears to have strong support for the direction he wants to take UNLV. But setting aside more time to mingle and talk could bolster campus morale.

Some people simply want to know more about Ashley — his hobbies, who he is outside the office — so they can view him as a fellow human being and not just a distant administrator. Revealing such details does not always come easy for the president, who has said he sees his private life as clearly separate from his public. He even refused, for some months, to say whether he was married.

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