Las Vegas Sun

August 16, 2017

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Trouble coming to a boil among university leaders

Like a restless volcano, tensions between university system Chancellor Jim Rogers and the elected Board of Regents are stirring and may vent a lot of steam this month.

Regents and Rogers maintained a fragile peace over the past four months so that infighting wouldn't jeopardize lobbying efforts for higher education programs. But with the end of the legislative session, officials are braced for harsh words between Rogers and his critics on the board.

Only a couple of regents on the 13-member board say they have no concerns about how Rogers conducts system business. The others are, to varying degrees, critical of his management.

The troubled relationship between Rogers and his bosses is an episodic melodrama. In a spat in January with two regents, Rogers quit - and then rescinded his decision five days later. There were professions all around about healing and moving forward.

Tensions flared again at a public regents' meeting in May, as Rogers tried to silence Regent Michael Wixom from asking a question about higher education funding and then avoided a pointed question from Regent James Dean Leavitt about his position on appointing regents. Rogers accused Wixom, Leavitt and other regents of delving too deeply into his strategy with lawmakers. Regents persisted in asking their questions.

A week later, Sun columnist Jon Ralston reported that Rogers was talking about mounting recall campaigns against some of his bosses. Rogers told the Sun that was just a joke.

Fundamentally, the tension emanates from a philosophical divide between Rogers and regents over his assertive control of the Nevada System of Higher Education and even wrestling with regents for power.

Rogers has lobbied for an elected Board of Regents against regents' wishes, called for a state income tax to help fund higher education without talking to them about the idea and has left regents in the dark in his zeal for his pet project, a health science system.

A showdown now seems inevitable between Rogers and regents.

Board Chairman Bret Whipple hired an outside consultant to perform Rogers' annual evaluation, which will include surveying regents, university and college presidents and system staff on Rogers' performance. Regents will publicly review that report and discuss Rogers' future with the system June 22. His contract runs through June 2009.

Several other agenda items on the June 21-22 meeting in Reno spring from regents' concerns about Rogers. Regents will consider whether to repeal Rogers' ability to discipline and fire campus presidents , and are considering a new policy limiting the chancellor's ability to create positions in the system.

Rogers hired an entire health science system staff without consulting regents, including the controversial decision to hire former congressional candidate Tessa Hafen as a lobbyist.

Another proposal on the agenda would require executive system staff to disclose their contributions to or endorsements of political candidates. In the 2006 election cycle, Rogers notably donated to some regent campaigns and not to others, and called then-gubernatorial candidate Jim Gibbons "not very bright."

A majority of the regents don't seem ready to fire Rogers, but the issue has split the board.

The board is also in danger of fracturing over who will succeed Whipple as chairman because of differences over whether to rein in Rogers.

Whipple said he's concerned about ongoing tension between Rogers and a few regents and what he sees as the chancellor's increasingly divisive maneuvers.

"I think he's done some good things and he's done some questionable things and each regent will have to take that under consideration," said Whipple, who in January called for Rogers' resignation in conjunction with Leavitt.

"I think this is a regents issue more than a Rogers issue," he said. "Jim Rogers is very much who he is and he is not going to change. I think the regents need to make a determination as to what their expectations are."

For him, the philosophical divide is a "deal-breaker" because Rogers has deemed himself no longer accountable to the Board of Regents even though the public expects regents to set policy and hold administrators - including the chancellor - accountable, Whipple said. Several other regents have raised similar concerns.

Rogers sees it differently. His employer is the Nevada System of Higher Education, not the regents, he said.

Rogers has taken issue with what he sees as regents meddling in the day-to-day operations of the campuses.

"You need a chancellor who is involved in the day-to-day operation, with the ability and courage to give his opinion on what is going on," Rogers said. "You need a Board of Regents that respects that opinion even if they don't agree with it, and honesty between the two is the key to the success."

Even Rogers' strongest supporters on the board agree that Rogers stumbles by not consulting regents on policy decisions, whether calling for an income tax or hiring staff for the health science project.

But that focused ambition emboldens him to fight for higher education when battling legislators, develop partnerships among the state's eight higher ed institutions, and involve K-12 leaders to improve public education across the board.

"All of the things they've said about him are true and thank God," Regent Mark Alden said. "He is a bluster . That is the way he is, but he is getting things done."

Several regents also said their concerns are tempered because Rogers' heart is in the right place.

"He doesn't often bring the board into the decision-making process," Regent Stavros Anthony said, "but I know always in the back of my mind that his intentions are always good, that he is always doing something to improve education."

Adding to the tension are ego and personality differences among Rogers and a few board members.

One of Whipple's concerns was that Rogers had again privately attacked Leavitt in a manner that seemed intent on undermining Leavitt's position as regent, Whipple said.

Regardless of his personal like or dislike for a regent, Rogers must be able work with all 13, Whipple said.

Whipple and Leavitt declined to elaborate on the most recent confrontations. Rogers would only acknowledge having issues with Leavitt, but said that as long as there was open dialogue there shouldn't be any reason for those differences to fester or surface.

It was Rogers' January ultimatum that he would resign as chancellor if Leavitt were elected regents chairman that cracked regent-chancellor relations in the first place.

Most regents, while acknowledging the tension, said they hoped it was no more than the usual bout of egos inherent on a public board, and that June's meeting will actually be a healthy debate that helps the system move forward.

"When you are dealing with a public body that is dealing with public issues, it is not always going to be where we hold hands and sing Kumbaya ," Wixom said. " Vigorous discussion is important."