On the scale of unappealing government jobs these days, one of the least attractive would have to be chancellor of Nevada’s higher education system.
James Rogers, a Las Vegas television executive who served for five tumultuous years as chancellor, has stepped down and the Nevada Board of Regents has appointed Reno lawyer Dan Klaich to replace him.
Rogers was the classic bull in a china shop, making enemies at every turn. Klaich is the kind of good-natured guy who gets elected to class offices, which he did.
He may need all of those people skills.
Morale among administrators and faculty is low. Students are restive. Both groups are reacting to Gov. Jim Gibbons’ foiled attempt to cut higher education by one-third and to cut the Reno and Las Vegas university campuses by one-half. And while legislators stopped Gibbons’ extreme plans, what did happen during the legislative session was bad enough. There was just so much lawmakers could do during a recession.
On Monday, Klaich was having lunch with William Raggio, the Nevada Senate powerhouse from Washoe County.
Twelve Klaiches and six Raggios have graduated from Reno High, and Dan Klaich was in the same Class of ’68 with the senator’s niece Edith and also knew his daughter Leslie at the school. It’s the kind of interlocking old boy network that both men have often navigated, and it is now being employed to try to put the higher education system back on a healthier road.
Afterward, Raggio said he believes Klaich brings the right set of skills to the chancellor’s job.
“I would have been surprised if they had looked elsewhere,” Raggio said.
James Dean Leavitt, who chairs the Nevada Board of Regents that governs higher education in the state, says the man and the job are a terrific match.
“The skills that he brings is, first, that he is an exceptional people person,” Leavitt said. “Those skills are things like listening, presenting himself, kindness, generosity of spirit, restraint. And in addition, he’s also got the experience. … He had the benefit of working with a very non-traditional chancellor [Rogers] as well as a very traditional chancellor, Jane Nichols.”
Klaich is an attorney, but that scarcely hints at his experience. In fact, he hasn’t practiced law in years. He has sort of ambled through other callings. He spent a few years as head of a company marketing an experimental fuel called A-55.
In 1983, he was appointed a Nevada regent, was elected on his own, and became board chair, then left for other things. At the time of his appointment as chancellor, he was Rogers’ vice chancellor.
Where other chancellors have had plans or personal agendas related to the Nevada system’s growth and expansion, Klaich accepts that he is going to have to pursue more limited goals in a recession.
“I don’t think it’s time to look for new innovative projects,” he said. “We need to focus on our core missions and try to do a better job getting Nevada students into the system and then graduating them and into the workforce. There’s nothing wrong with succeeding at our basic mission.”
That may or may not be well received on campuses, but it’s music to many state leaders’ ears, including Raggio, who relates the function of a university to the economic health of the state.
“We can make them rank favorably with peer institutions because those are the kind of rankings that will aid economic development in the state and will attract investors and capital to Nevada.”
Raggio said that while Klaich is rebuilding within the system, he hopes the system can recover some of its momentum in the next legislative session in 2011.
“I would like to see higher education restored,” Raggio said.
“Something a lot of people don’t understand, we [legislators] don’t micromanage the budgets of the higher ed system,” he said. “That’s more for the regents. We look at the mission of the whole, each of the institutions that comprise higher education. We get enough input to determine whether they’re effective, whether they’re serving the needs of the state.”
That process is determined by a lot of things, and one of them is the system’s face to the community. Klaich says that part needs work.
“I don’t think we get out our message as well as we could,” he said.
There’s always a gap between town and gown, of course, but Klaich and the lawmakers are now faced with a right-wing group that is deeply opposed to government and taxes and that, because of new forms of communication, are getting their message out better than ever before.
“I think we’ve got to concentrate on the budget and on extending the scope of why people believe in higher education,” Klaich said.
He says he is willing to have dialogue with those on the far right who want to hold down education spending, but that it has to be a dialogue in which no one comes to the table certain of their rightness and unwilling to listen to other views.
“To the extent that they are saying, ‘We need to spend tax dollars more wisely and constructively than in the past,’ that’s a constructive conversation to have. But a dialogue is only a dialogue with two sides coming to the table in good faith. Anyone who wants to have that kind of a dialogue, I’m absolutely willing to engage.”
While no one knows whether Gov. Gibbons will still be in office in 2011, the higher education system is nevertheless reaching out to the governor to try to repair some of the wounds of the past year or so, and Klaich is seen as exactly the person to honcho the effort.
“In the last 10 days as regents chairman, I’ve reached out to the governor’s office,” Leavitt said. “It’s certainly the chancellor’s responsibility, mine and the board’s to educate the governor to the value of higher education.”
One of those who believes Klaich brings needed skills to the chancellor’s office is Klaich himself, and hard times don’t discourage him.
“I’d like to have a better economy, more money, but this is probably the best job in the state. I’m a product of Nevada schools and Nevada education, this is my passion, and we don’t get to pick our times. I can’t imagine not taking advantage of this opportunity. Maybe difficult times are better because the things you can do are that much more important.”