Mr. Smith steps down
Howard Rosenberg took a 12-year flyer in politics. Now he reports on what it was like.
Howard Rosenberg’s New England accent is less pronounced than many, but he still has problems with some words. A short A, for instance, hangs him up. Can’t comes out cawn’t.
So, naturally, that was a problem for him when he moved to Nevawda.
For a very long time, he resisted even trying to change. Then came a day at a Nevada Board of Regents meeting. Rosenberg was a member of the board, and by then he had been in Reno for two or three decades.
“At the board, Dr. [Jane] Nichols had a group come up to give us a report on some stuff that we really needed to consider. And the man that was part of this two-person team, every other word out of his mouth was Nevawda this and Nevawda that. And it jarred me, every time I heard it.”
“So when, you know, we had a break, she [Nichols] walked over … I said, ‘Is that what it sounds like?’ She said, ‘Yeeeess.’ I said, ‘From now on it will be Nevadda.’ ”
In the environs of a regents meeting, he decided to stop resisting changing his pronunciation of Nevada. It was not the only time he found himself changing as a result of being a regent.Fight to serve
Rosenberg came to the University of Nevada, Reno on a temporary gig in the 1970s, replacing a professor who was on sabbatical. He had every intention of going right back to Boston when it was over. But the professor never returned from sabbatical, and Rosenberg found himself falling in love with Nevada. He stayed.
He is an art professor and became well-known on campus for his cinema classes.
He developed an intense loyalty to students, championing their needs at every turn. The students came first, even when it meant sacrificing some of his own plans.
He is a person of strong opinions, including about those who governed the campus system and the students, and in 1996, he decided to run for the Board of Regents, which runs higher education in the state.
It was a novel idea. He was not the first professor to run for the job, but he was the first to win.
His election was a breeze, which came as a surprise to the rich and powerful. A faculty leader was overheard one day telling someone on the phone that Rosenberg’s candidacy was hopeless—“I don’t know why he’s running.” Rosenberg’s opponent was an influential alumnus married to a casino lobbyist. She later attributed her defeat to the fact that Rosenberg had once done movie reviews on Reno television and thus had high name recognition. But the real reason, political consultants said, was that he made one spartan television spot, just him in a classroom talking straight into the camera. By the standards of political advertisements, it was primitive, but his sincerity as he talked movingly about the students came across loud and clear. It was the best TV commercial of Nevada’s political year, and while his opponent’s supporters were surprised at Rosenberg’s win, political pros saw it coming a mile away.
When he won, he invoked the name of his friend Frank Capra. It was like being in a Capra movie to win the regent post, he said.
But once elected, he ran into a bigger obstacle. Nevada higher education chancellor Richard Jarvis filed a complaint against him with the Nevada Ethics Commission to try to stop him, a faculty member, from serving on the Board of Regents (“Ousting Rosenberg,” RN&R, Nov. 27, 1996). Jarvis was the point man, but there were suspicions of a wider group behind the effort, particularly because Rosenberg had called for an independent probe of university finances and other reforms. At any rate, after highly publicized hearings, the commission ruled in Rosenberg’s favor, with commission chair Mary Boetsch saying of his critics, “I smell a rat.”
After the commission’s ruling, Rosenberg got in his car and phoned ahead to Jarvis’s secretary that he was on his way. He walked into the chancellor’s office and said, “It’s over. … You and I are going to work together.” He later said, “I didn’t want to know” exactly who was behind the ethics complaint.
The fuss over the ethics commission meant that he arrived at his first regents meeting saddled by Jarvis and company with A Reputation. He had not started the ethics fight, but even before it, he had an image of someone flamboyant who did not suffer fools gladly. But he said his fellow regents were terrific to him, going out of their way to welcome him and treat him like any other regent.
“I was always made to feel important to the discussion,” he said after his retirement from the board. “I mean, even the people who were dead set against my setting the precedent that I set [a faculty member serving as a regent], once the decision was made, it was fine: ‘Now, let’s get him educated.’ ”The regent as student
Few people have the certainty that they are right that Rosenberg has—or at least convey that impression. He sometimes feels so strongly that he does not frame arguments in nuanced terms, nor does he ever seem to have uncertainty about any topic. That is a better quality in an executive than on a legislative body. On a nine-person board—it was enlarged to 13 during his service—Rosenberg’s qualities can come across as arrogance and belligerence.
But to the relief of many, that persona of certainty was a façade. This was, after all, a film critic who had sometimes told viewers that his opinions were valuable mainly to himself, advising them not to take his reviews too much to heart and to make up their own minds. Regents soon learned Rosenberg’s seeming belligerence could give way to a willingness to listen and learn.
“He was like any other new regent,” said regent Dorothy Gallagher, an Elko County rancher and regent for 22 years. “They get on the board, they don’t have a clue what they’ve gotten into. And I think most of them are surprised. Some of them don’t get over being surprised.”
“He just didn’t know how it worked, but he was a fast learner, and he soon found out what he could do,” said Gallagher. She said he slowly evolved. “I watched him develop into an outstanding regent.”
One of the first things he learned was to shut up. More than that, when he did speak, he needed to be more circumspect. A circumspect Howard Rosenberg is almost a contradiction in terms.
“Painful. The biggest and I think the strongest thing for me is, all my life I’ve been able to say anything I want whenever I want about whatever I want … and if they didn’t like it, so what? It doubled back on Howard Rosenberg. And the more outrageous the better because I was Howard Rosenberg. But when you’re a member of the board like that and you say something that ticks people off, it doesn’t just double back on you, it doubles back on the board and ultimately on the kids. So you’ve got to find a way of saying what you mean to say—because you’ve got to be true to yourself—but in a way that will try not to alienate the entire world in the process. I don’t know that I was wholly successful, but I think over a period of 12 years … I did learn. And I learned from awful good people. You know, that board was loaded, and still is, with some really good people.”[page]
The fact that his know-it-all persona and the troublemaker image Jarvis had given him made other board members leery of him may have been a blessing in disguise. It made it easier to rise above expectations. One of his first votes made an impression on his colleagues on the board—he voted to renew Jarvis’s contract.
“[Low expectations] helped tremendously because the world knew I was an idiot coming on the board. So I didn’t have to worry about making myself look like an idiot,” he said. “They already had that established. So I think that I was rather fortunate because every time I came up with something that was semi-intelligent, it surprised people. And … it isn’t even a question of intelligence. It’s a question of putting it into context. Jill Derby on the board was forever saying, “Wait a minute, let’s put this in context.” And it finally dawned on me what she was saying is, ‘Think of the ramifications. It’s how it’s come about, but what will happen if we do this?’ ”
This was a lesson he could link to his own classrooms. As a faculty member, he related.
“Well, that’s what artists do. I’ve been training my kids to do that for years. Alternate scenario—you do this, this’ll happen. You do this, something else will happen. And sometimes, you have to scrap it and start all over again. … So as I began to get that through my head and be able to put it in my own terms, I could understand it a hell of a lot better.”
That, in turn, led to better communication with his fellow regents. Rosenberg’s regent service made him more self-aware so that he understands better now how his personal demeanor comes across to others.
“If you know Howard Rosenberg and you watch him being argumentative, you know where it’s coming from,” he said. “If you just look at the argument, you don’t. So Howard Rosenberg could be … a real ass who’s simply out to make people as miserable as possible.” (Emphasis added.)
His fixed star remained the students, whom he inevitably calls “the kids.” While he can be a rigorous instructor, the students nevertheless inhabit a shielded part of the Rosenberg universe. During an interview for this report at a restaurant across the street from the campus, a harried waitress who was also a student did not face Rosenberg’s ire over what he considered substandard food. “Thank you, dear,” he said gently each time she tended the table. One suspects that an adult, non-student waitress or waiter would not have gotten off quite so easily from this professional critic.
And the viewpoints of students also enjoyed an edge with him when it came to his votes on the board. Regents once voted on a “technology fee” to beef up the computer infrastructure of higher education in Nevada because the legislature had not provided enough funding for Nevada to stay abreast of advances in technology. Rosenberg, believing that this was a state expense just like desks and buildings, voted against it. When the matter came up for reconsideration, the head of the Graduate Students Association stood and addressed Rosenberg. He remembers her argument as something like this:
“Regent Rosenberg, please, we know how you feel. We appreciate your feelings in the matter, but we need this stuff. Without it we’re not going to be worth what we should be worth when we get out into the workforce. Please, we want you to vote for this.”
Rosenberg looked at the lineup of student government officers from the various campuses at their table and said, “You all feel the same way? You want to pay more?”
They all nodded. “Well, OK, if that’s what you want, kids, I change my vote.”
By the time he came up for reelection in 2002, Rosenberg was highly regarded and unassailable in the campaign. He ran without opposition for another six-year term.The faculty issue
It was never far from anyone’s mind, least of all his, that he was a faculty member, but once he was on the board it was as much asset as liability. His fellow regents say that the experience Rosenberg brought to the board as a faculty member was useful to them. For instance, he asked questions other regents did not ask.
“Howard would recuse himself [from voting] from time to time, but his perspective was enormously helpful,” said board chair Michael Wixom. “Howard brought a perspective of the campus that we wouldn’t have otherwise had and a perspective of faculty and a perspective of students and in that regard, he kept us focused on student issues.”
Gallagher believes the faculty issue was always close to the surface of Rosenberg’s thinking. “It was a hard thing, I think, for him to step over from being a faculty member to being a board member.”
He was, after all, breaking new ground, and if he botched the job, it might be a long time before the regents got the faculty viewpoint back on the board.
That the issue was on his mind could be seen in his restraint from time to time, and not just on votes where he might have a conflict of interest. The logical progression on the board is for the vice chair to move up to chair, but though Rosenberg was in that position a couple of times, he declined it, feeling that it would push the envelope too far. He believes that whether a faculty member on the board works depends on the character of the person elected. “The thing that you need to recognize is ethics are an intrinsic part of what we do,” he said. He has no second thoughts about the value of a faculty regent.
“A faculty member brings a dimension that nobody else can have,” he said. “You can empathize from now ’til Christmas. When you’re in a classroom with your kids, seeing what they have and don’t have, you really begin to understand what it is we need to pay attention to.”
Rosenberg is reluctant to name specific projects that happened during his tenure, such as the creation of Nevada State College in Henderson, as part of his legacy as a regent. This is partly because he did not specialize as some public officials do, but also because he believes the work of the regents is genuinely a group effort.
He came in as an outspoken advocate of the Open Meeting Law, and remains one, but found it a difficult barrier to collegial discussions among small groups of regents or individual regents in hallways or over lunches for fear of being accused of reaching a consensus outside the regular meetings.
He has regrets, one of which is that he did not work out a better relationship with the current chancellor, Jim Rogers, which he attributes to Rogers being a Howard Rosenberg: “The chancellor has unmined possibilities. Had I been smart enough, clever enough, street-smart enough to be able to work a relationship with him, that might have been more helpful than it was confrontational at times.”
Rosenberg was not able to run for reelection. He and some others were adjudged after a court battle to be term-limited at 12 years. Among other things, the Nevada Supreme Court said term limits should have been challenged in court earlier, when they were approved by voters. That finding surprised lawyers who said there was no live controversy to be litigated until 12 years passed, and some officeholder was prevented from running. Rosenberg has no interest in running for anything else.
In assessing the effect of the economic downturn on the higher education system, he returns to Frank Capra, recalling Capra’s little-known 1932 film American Madness, a tale that foreshadowed the themes of his more famous It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: exalting the bankers who champion little guys over bankers who engage in predatory behavior.
“It predicts all of this,” Rosenberg says. “And it also predicts the way we get out of it.”
Whatever civilizing effect his regents service has had on him stops at one doorstep—the governor’s office. This reporter has known Rosenberg for about four decades and has seen him irate over plenty of things. But mention Jim Gibbons to him, and he exhibits a depth of anger that has never been apparent before. His eyes narrow, he grips a drink glass tightly, his voice rises. It’s not all that surprising. Rosenberg spent 12 years building up higher education in Nevada, and Gibbons in January announced plans to reduce it by more than a third. Rosenberg’s anger is earned. When a Las Vegas reporter once remarked to him, “You’ve given your whole life to the university,” he replied, “The university has given me my whole life.”
“There’s a lot of things that Jim Gibbons is, but he is not stupid, and this kind of nonsense is absurd. … He hasn’t shown me a goddamned thing.”
But his voice is calm when asked what he wants people to say about his service as a regent: “He cared about the students.”