Lilley’s charge

The community’s expecting plenty from the man hired to be president of the University of Nevada, Reno

Of the many clichés being swished around the university administration, one, more than any other, throbs like an aching tooth in need of attention.

Take it to the next level.

That’s what everyone wants to see at the University of Nevada, Reno. That’s why the Board of Regents hired John Lilley, head of Penn State Erie (a college one-third the size of UNR), to be the president.

Lilley wants to take it to the next level.

I’ve heard this at least 20 times. It’s in almost every news story about Lilley. It’s in a quote by Lilley at the top of UNR’s newly redesigned Web site: “The agenda is taking the university to the next level … the demanding reality is that all of us make it happen in every action every day.”

“I know it’s getting a bit old to say it, but I really think he can take us to the next level,” says Howard Rosenberg, the UNR art professor who moonlights as a regent for the academic mother ship—the University and Community College System of Nevada. Rosenberg isn’t usually given to clichés, so his comment is a testament to the tenacity of the concept.

Personally, I like the video game connotations of “next level.” You know. You beat puzzles, gather points and advance through a series of obstacles. Then you face what my kids used to call the Super Guy (a la Super Nintendo’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). After you beat the Super Guy, you progress to the next, more challenging level. Harder puzzles. Tougher Super Guys.

What does the next level mean for UNR? It depends on whom you ask. But one prominent observer, who didn’t want his name used, says he’s not coping well with the lingo.

“If I hear ‘the next level’ again, I think I’m going to puke,” he says.

OK, this comment smacks of some poorly suppressed bitterness. I have to weigh his comments against those of trusted others who say that change is good. Though some say there was “widespread satisfaction” with the former administration (oh, the wonders of revisionism), most agree it was time for change. An arcane cavity was spreading decay.

These folks say bring on the drill.

After a long selection process, interviews and a few narrowing-downs of the selection group, Lilley was offered a tidy salary of $199,000 per year plus perks—more than the UCCSN system chancellor, more than the UNLV president hired seven years ago.

Lilley told the Erie Times-News that he hadn’t expected to be asked to fill the Reno position. Lilley said that he’d bet his assistant 25 cents that he wouldn’t get the job. He lost.

Lilley left Penn State Erie, The Behrend College—its full official name—and came to Reno with his wife, Geraldine. Lilley said he was, at the advice of his wife, looking for an “exit strategy” from the college he’d led for more than two decades.

“She said, ‘If you think you can retire and live in Erie and just let Behrend be … it will just absolutely break your heart,” he told Erie reporter Dana Massing. “This is not a position I sought at all, but maybe in retrospect, it gives me a way to leave Behrend after 21 years and be fully engaged in something else. I’m beginning to treat this like a retirement from Behrend and going on to a second career.”

Lilley seems to have become “fully engaged” in this second career upon arrival at the UNR campus July 1. One of his first challenges was dealing with the inflamed gingivitis of a Fire Science Academy.

After nearly three decades of success in Reno, the Fire Science Academy was moved in 1999 to a new $27 million facility in Elko. But Elko turned out to be a bit far for fire dudes from California to travel. And the academy’s brilliant marketing plan never materialized. The first year in Elko, about 1,700 fewer students attended than expected. Ouch. Operating expenses were $5.2 million that year. Revenues were only $2.1 million. Regents understandably started to stress out about losing $3 million annually. But, wait, there’s more. That wasn’t the only problem at the facility.

The academy, where fire and rescue teams learned techniques of fighting petroleum fires and dealing with hazardous materials, was forced to close about a year ago when workers discovered that the facility had some serious design flaws. These flaws had led to contamination of the soil and groundwater at the facility that’s about 18 miles west of Elko.

Who’d be responsible to pay for the repairs? Who’d pay for the cleanup?


Lawsuits ensued.

When Lilley arrived in July, he was faced with coming up to speed on this project, along with all the many other facets of his new kingdom, like personnel, budgets and fund-raising. Observers say he pored over stacks of papers, working a gazillion hours a day. And then he went to the bargaining table with all parties involved: Clark & Sullivan Constructors Inc., builders of the academy; GMAC Commercial Mortgage; All Star Investments, a Sacramento company; Granite Construction and Stantec Consultants. Retired Washoe County District Judge Jerry Whitehead facilitated the meetings.

What Lilley learned about Nevada from this process is something he’s counting on for future successes.

“The attorneys from the opposing sides made it clear from the start that they were all UNR alumni,” Lilley says. This shared institutional love helped smooth the bargaining process. “So we were friendly adversaries at the beginning of the process. By the end of it, we were friends.”

Making buddies is one of the keys, Lilley says, to building a great university, to taking an institution to the next level.

“I often say that it takes great friends and great faculty to make a great university,” Lilley explains. “I will have my eye on great faculty, and I will have my eye on making great friends.”

This will be important. Getting recalcitrant patients to sit back and open (their wallets) wide may be a tall order for the best of new dentists. Especially since some university friends weren’t thrilled when the UCCSN Board of Regents decided to select someone from outside the Nevada university system to head UNR. Then, many were upset all over again when the regents chose to hire Lilley over a 14-member advisory panel’s recommendation of Michael Tanner, former vice chancellor at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

A representative of the Redfield Foundation—a major donor to UNR—told reporters the selection was “appalling.” UNR Foundation supporter Andrea Pelter told the RN&R last week that she was disappointed with the way the regents handled the searches for both the UNR president and the dean of the medical school. And she’s concerned about the changes being made by the new leadership.

“The heavy-handed tactics of both, in reducing administrators, faculty and staff, are alarming,” Pelter said.

Yet there’s reason for optimism in the fund-raising realm. At the end of July, a $100,000 Hawkins Foundation grant was announced. The money will be used for state-of-the-art computing resources at the collaborative Redfield Campus. Also, UNR boasts that it generated a record-setting $102 million from 308 sponsored research projects during the past fiscal year. That’s about three times as much annually as a decade ago.

Lilley says that ultimately, appreciation and support for the university will overcome any smaller complaints about leadership.

“People really love this university,” Lilley says. “There might have been people who would have preferred a different president. That’s just a matter of choice. But I’d be very surprised if these people don’t love the university more than any different candidate.”

At Penn State Erie, Lilley helped secure $30 million in government funding for a Research and Economic Development Center on campus. He led the campus in setting aside some 200 acres for corporate or industrial research and development. Dubbed Knowledge Park, the area includes a high-tech conference center, variable bandwidth data lines courtesy of Verizon and a child-care center that was scheduled to open this summer.

"[The park space is] reserved to enable knowledge-based organizations to locate close to and take full advantage of the college’s intellectual and physical resources,” says an online prospectus for the park.

Lilley says that, as a land grant institution, the university needs to be responsive to the demands of its community. A strategic plan to be crafted after gleaning input from faculty, staff, students and others will guide UNR’s future development, he says. It will help determine everything from where to put new funds to the reallocation of existing funds to the allocation of space and, in fact, to “every facet of the university.”

“By May 2002, everyone will know exactly where we’re headed,” Lilley says. “It starts by asking, ‘What does this region need from this university?’ For some programs, that region may be worldwide or statewide or local. Being a land grant university means reaching out and making a difference.”

The changes Lilley has made so far have earned him the kind of respect that will make his job easier in the coming years, says Paul Neill, associate professor of physics and UNR Faculty Senate chairman.

“My sense is that everyone is delighted with all the changes that have taken place on campus,” Neill says. “Lilley has resolved several issues that have been a thorn in our side.”

The appointment of John Frederick, chemistry department chair, as interim executive vice president and provost pleases many faculty members. Having a provost is a new concept for UNR. It means Fredrick will be the leader of his equals—the other vice presidents of the university. Frederick will oversee the crafting of the strategic plan, and Neill is confident that Frederick is the right man for the job.

“He’ll contribute to the positive change on campus,” Neill says.

Appointing someone “from the ranks"—in this case, the chemistry department—to serve as provost may signal that Lilley is both trying to reach out to a younger generation of faculty members and, at the same time, continue the pattern set by former president Joe Crowley, says political science professor Richard Siegel.

“Throughout the Crowley era, when someone was needed to fill a temporary position, they didn’t choose anybody at the same rank or similar rank—the vice president or dean level,” Siegel says. “Lilley has really followed that pattern. … And [Frederick] looks young. To me, it suggests the reaching out to a new generation. To me, it’s personally welcome that he’s reaching out to a class act and someone of that generation.”

To fill the opening left by Paul Page, vice president for advancement, Lilley appointed Bob Eggleston. The position name was changed to vice president for development and alumni relations, and the appointee will serve as executive director rather than president of the University Foundation.

As long-time former president of the University Foundation, Page had been proposed by some as a logical successor to carry on the Crowley legacy. After the selection of Lilley, Page announced his decision to retire. He says that though he considered, like Crowley, heading back to the classroom, he decided that retirement would be the more amenable route.

Page says he has nothing but good feelings for the university, and he’s confident that a leadership change won’t affect fund-raising.

“I’m sure they’ll find some people to continue to raise money,” he says. “Each person that comes in has to build relationships in the community. … I look forward to watching the university continue to prosper.”

Eggleston has a “very good record,” Page says.

“Bob’s an old hand over there,” Siegel says.

A lot of faculty members are uncomfortable with change, Rosenberg says. But they’ll get over it. Lilley’s a stickler for process. For quite some time at the university, procedure had given way to finagling. Old-timers knew how to get something done. Veterans knew who to talk to about any given issue. This, Rosenberg says, put newcomers at a disadvantage.

“Lilley is quite intent on getting things working the way they are supposed to work,” Rosenberg says. “We are going to pay attention to process, allowing everyone to do his job. It is not business as usual. … I think that’s marvelous.”

Rosenberg, like many others, gives Lilley much credit for what he’s accomplished in the short time he’s been here. Future challenges will include dealing with budget shortcomings—"There’s not enough money; there never is,” Rosenberg says—and space problems.

“Enrollment has gone crappers,” Rosenberg says. “We’re begging for a way to get more seats into a room. [In the math department], they’re trying to put a kid into Math 120, and there’s not one open math session.”

But he expects that the president will handle these problems in what’s already being established as a Lilley-esque fashion: “He’s a positive person. He doesn’t want to hear you say, ‘I can’t.’ You can tell him terrible things, and he’ll listen. Then he’ll say, ‘Where do you want to go?'”

As kids flood into classrooms at UNR this coming week, Rosenberg expects that faculty members will be too busy doing what they love doing—"taking care of the kids"—to spend tons of time worrying about the coming changes.

“There are going to be hiccups, naturally,” Rosenberg says. “We’ll get used to him. He’ll get used to us. We need to give him a break. We should wait at least two months before we decide we hate him.”

Nor is Rosenberg, 67, concerned about how long 62-year-old Lilley intends to stay at UNR.

“I have no intention of retiring until they take me out drooling,” Rosenberg says, telling an anecdote about a student who came by Rosenberg’s door, hands on his hips, wondering why the art professor was at his desk on a great summer day.

“I looked at him and said, ‘There’s no place I’d rather be,'” Rosenberg says. “I have fun here. And I get the distinct feeling that [Lilley] feels the same way. … I’m not worried about how long he’s going to be here. I’m worried about not killing him off right away, when we’re going to need him later.”

Lilley says he feels “very happy and very fortunate” to be here in Reno, working so hard that he and his wife only recently got to spend an hour and a half together uninterrupted.

“Every morning, I get up and see the beautiful mountains and say, ‘Wow!'”

He says he doesn’t have any plan for how long he’ll stay at UNR. And he expected that the workload would be heavy, especially in the beginning.

“I’m a recovering work-a-holic,” he says. “I’ve been substantially off the wagon for the past few weeks. Everything has to meet the test of fun. If you’re working this hard and not having fun—what is it worth?”

More of Lilley’s personal philosophy: Every day you can be better. Never be satisfied. Believe in values. Conduct business in a predictable fashion. That’s how it happens.

That’s how a person—or a university—reaches the next level.

“It’s inevitable,” Lilley says.

When Lilley was studying hard for his Fire Science Academy meetings, he’d been working long days. Rosenberg says he ran into Lilley during this time and wondered how the new president was making out.

“I said, ‘Dr. Lilley, are you enjoying this?'”

And Lilley broke into a broad, toothy grin.