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July 23, 2016

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j. patrick coolican:

Why is higher ed getting pushed around?

J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican

The Redfield name can be seen all over campus at UNR. The Nell J. Redfield Foundation has given about $40 million during the past three decades for gems such as the auditorium in the math and science building, a student health clinic and the Redfield Theatre.

So when a director of the foundation, Gerald Smith, wrote a letter to the Board of Regents recommending that interim UNR President Marc Johnson be appointed president permanently, no doubt regents noticed.

The foundation went one step further, however, warning of consequences if Johnson wasn’t appointed.

“Should the Regents select a stranger to fill the vacancy, there can be no assurance that current funding discussions will continue or that the projects currently being considered for funding will receive support in the future,” the letter said.

More than one regent found the letter threatening.

Dr. Mark Doubrava voted for Johnson and called him a “capable individual who will do a very good job.” (The point here isn’t about Johnson, who by all accounts is very capable.)

But Doubrava also said he found the letter “threatening” and reflective of a process that “appeared almost orchestrated” to anoint Johnson. The letter was dated April 5, one day after UNR boasted of receiving a $1.6 million gift from the foundation for the medical school.

In a phone interview, Smith said, “I see nothing threatening in the letter. I think it’s a pretty obvious statement of fact. We’ve been involved with the leadership of the university for many years. As a result of our involvement with Marc Johnson, we’ve developed a strong working relationship with him due to his leadership and vision. If he were appointed, we would have the same working relationship.”

Smith added: “If someone else were appointed, we would have no way of knowing what that relationship would be.”

Smith said he couldn’t think of another case in which the foundation had weighed in like this on an issue affecting the future of the university.

For Kevin Page, vice chairman of the regents and whose decades in Nevada are belied by his lingering Queens accent, the letter was just one aspect of a search process he found so flawed that he abstained from voting for Johnson.

“Send a letter of support. Don’t send a letter of support with a threat in it. That’s what they did,” Page said.

Click to enlarge photo

Dan Klaich, right, vice chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education, speaks with Chancellor Jim Rogers at a 2006 meeting.

Nevada System of Higher Education Chancellor Dan Klaich sent me a statement: “I certainly do not read that letter ... as a threat. Nor do I think a reasonable person reading it fairly could do so.”

Mr. Chancellor: Am I not a reasonable person?

Klaich continued: “Mr. Smith is indicating, not surprisingly so, that the contributions of the Redfield Foundation have been based in the large part on their trust in the leadership at UNR, including Dr. Johnson. ... Should that leadership, and/or vision change, they indicate they would reconsider future gifts. What could be more natural from a major donor who is committed to impact gifts?”

Let’s ask a major donor who is committed to impact gifts.

Klaich’s predecessor as chancellor, Jim Rogers, is one of the biggest donors to the University of Arizona, specifically its law school, but he said he wouldn’t dare make demands about personnel. Rogers is certainly no shrinking violet, but when the university needed a new dean for the law school, he called the university president and told him he didn’t want to be on the search committee, even though he’d be a natural choice given his experience in higher education and relationship with the law school. The university president, in Rogers’ telling, scoffed at the very idea of Rogers on the search committee. “He said, ‘What made you think you would be on the committee? We’re going to pick the best dean, and it won’t have anything to do with you.’”

As for the Redfield letter, Rogers called it “outrageous.”

He added: “I’m disappointed they would not be sophisticated enough to know to stay the hell out, disappointed they would put that in writing and distressed they would make it a threat and compromise Johnson.”

I’m inclined to agree but must say I’m not entirely surprised: Nevada’s public institutions get pushed around by private interests all the time. Just visit Carson City during next year’s legislative session, and you’ll see what I mean.

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