Hasta la vista
University of Nevada, Reno President John Lilley is leaving Nevada to become president of Baylor University at Waco, Texas. It’s a little difficult to predict what his legacy for UNR will be—whether his plans for growth will take seed, whether his hopes for raising standards for university students will make the grade. However, it would be difficult to claim that he left the university worse off than he found it.
Lilley isn’t what you’d call a popular guy. Many members of the faculty consider him dictatorial. Still, in his four years, the 14th president of UNR developed a reputation for independence and unpredictability—sometimes at the expense of his own interests. For example, last year, when film director Michael Moore was scheduled to speak at the campus, some right-wing donors thought they had Lilley by the short hairs and threatened to withhold $100,000 in donations if he didn’t force the student government to violate Moore’s contract.
“Universities have, historically, been a bastion for free speech, upholding the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States,” he wrote at the time. “Indeed, universities champion the free exchange of ideas and encourage students and faculty to explore and even question what may be long-held beliefs.”
The fact that most observers can’t determine his friends—except for a few peers like UNR Provost John Frederick—is one of the things that will likely earn Lilley respect in years to come at UNR.
Among his more controversial efforts was the reorganization of the university, splitting up the colleges of arts and sciences and putting the mine school into the college of engineering, and while the shake-up caused disruption among faculty and resulted in some lingering animosity toward Lilley’s administration, it’s hard to argue the change didn’t make sense. (There are further separations that should occur. For example, isn’t it time to move public-relations from the journalism school to the business school?)
Lilley’s endorsement of the university’s treatment of animals (he was later forced to order an investigation) will be a persistent black eye for the school. Indeed, his reputation for punishing people who didn’t agree with his methods put a four-year chill on the energetic academic dialogue that he claimed to support during the Moore flap. On the other hand, the people who brought the animal-abuse issue to the public eye and held it there are still on staff.
Perhaps Lilley will be viewed as a transitional president in years to come. He came in, pissed off a bunch of people, started the university down a necessary path, and left—leaving the university with the inertia to soar under a new president who can be popular because much of the dirty work has been done.
Lilley’s first day at Baylor is Jan. 2, and we’d like to wish him the best of luck at his new post—his father-knows-best style and history with Baylor will surely serve him well in Texas. But mostly, we hope UNR’s new president will continue the fight to raise the standards at our state’s premier university.