Rogers v. Regents

The state’s regents and their chancellor keep wrangling—and they keep giving in

The arena: Nevada’s Board of Regents meeting in March 2006

The arena: Nevada’s Board of Regents meeting in March 2006

Photo By Dennis Myers

As the time neared for the Nevada Board of Regents to hear the annual evaluation of its recalcitrant chancellor, James Rogers, board chair Bret Whipple called a break in the meeting. During the break, regent Steve Sisolak approached Whipple.

“You know, this is a personnel session, not a personal session,” Sisolak told him.

Whipple took the comment to heart, and when the regents went back into session, he told the group, “I’m not going to tolerate any type of emotion—this is, obviously, an emotional issue that could come up; tends to fill the papers more than I’d like to see, but it’s there, and I’m not going to accept any type of emotion with regard to this.”

No one could remember the last time such a warning had been needed at a regents meeting, but then, the regents had never had a chancellor like Rogers before. It wasn’t like they hadn’t been warned.

Will students registering for classes this month end the year with the same chancellor they started with? The decision is an ongoing one in the Nevada system of higher education.

When newscasts reported on May 7, 2004, that the regents had accepted Rogers’ offer to serve for free as chancellor, a wave of disbelief swept through Las Vegas, where Rogers lives and owns a television station. Everyone knew of Rogers’ offer, but those familiar with his work style never dreamed it would be accepted.

After all, “Jim Rogers stories” seemed to be a part of Las Vegas lore, like “Harry Claiborne stories” and “Hank Greenspun stories.” But Rogers stories seldom incorporated the color or affection that stories about other Las Vegas icons include. They all seemed to be about his fiery temper, his alleged abuse of his workers and associates: The producer who, working alone on a night shift holding the news operation together by herself, was fired (and then reinstated) because she had dinner brought in so she wouldn’t have to leave her desk. Or the reporters, north and south (Rogers also owns Reno’s KRNV), who were fired for having untidy desks.

“The stories are legion,” says one former employee. “And they’re all true.”

Regent Jack Schofield, who calls himself an old family friend of Rogers', said the chancellor has always been this way. “Many years ago, he blew his cool at me,” he said, describing Rogers’ teen years, “and I agonized over it for weeks and months ’til I got it out of my system, and I realized that’s his characteristic. But he means well in anything that he does that way.”

In 2000, Las Vegas City Life devoted a cover story to Rogers that detailed his volatile behavior. Some of his former employees warned the regents of his incendiary nature.

So the regents knew of Rogers’ reputation when they hired him. What was most mystifying was that the regents’ own reputations were very much at issue then. State constitutional amendments were circulating to make the board appointive instead of elective. At a time when the regents needed everything to go well, they chose a chancellor with a well-documented record of being difficult to work with.

Nevada higher education chancellor Jim Rogers, left, chats with Clark County Community College Dean Carlos Campos during a break in the first day of the June 21-22 Board of Regents meeting, at which Rogers himself was one of the main issues.

Photo By Dennis Myers

Terms of debate
It is an indication of how polarizing Rogers is that his supporters and critics can’t even agree on the premises to debate:

• Some regents say one of his failings is micromanaging. Other regents say not micromanaging is one of his strengths.

• His backers credit him with making the best of a bad session of the Nevada Legislature for higher education in 2007. Critics say it was Vice Chancellor Dan Klaich, not Rogers, who kept pulling the campuses’ irons out of the fire. (Rogers’ official evaluation, by an independent firm, failed to quiz legislators on Rogers’ lobbying and instead asked campus leaders, most of who were not at the legislature regularly.)

• Some of those interviewed for Rogers’ annual evaluation claimed that “since he, himself, is a member of the media, he is given greater currency than other public officials might enjoy.” His critics said being a television station owner doesn’t make him a “member of the media” and that working journalists cover him not because he has a good relationship with them but because, like many loose cannons, he makes outrageous statements in public.

What is more certain are the sources of regent tension with Rogers. Time after time, he has done things that embarrassed them. Many of those actions reveal terrible political judgment.

Rogers astounded the political world by getting involved in regent election campaigns while serving as chancellor, contributing through his corporations. He gave one candidate 20 thousand dollars. That would be a huge amount in a governor’s race. In a regent’s race, it was extraordinary. And it went to a candidate who lost.

In 2005, he launched an undeclared candidacy for governor, apparently not realizing that everything he said thereafter would be colored by the political implications. He cast observations about like confetti, including a description of Jim Gibbons as “not very bright.” Then Rogers withdrew from the race, and Gibbons won and took charge of recommending the higher education budget to the legislature.

Just before the 2007 legislative session, Rogers hired Tessa Hafen as a lobbyist. She was just coming off a narrow U.S. House race, and feelings were still raw. She had no state legislative experience. Worse, Rogers laid no groundwork for the appointment, springing it on the regents. When Regent James Dean Leavitt questioned it, Rogers yelled at him on the phone and then publicly threatened to resign if Leavitt became regents chair.

Then on Jan. 14, Rogers did resign. A Las Vegas editor ran a column headed “I warned you about Jim Rogers.” A Las Vegas Review-Journal editorial quoted a Clash lyric: “If I go, there will be trouble. And if I stay, there will be double.”

Rogers had picked his moment well. The Nevada Legislature would go into session in just days, and he knew the regents could not do without him. An agreement was reached, and he withdrew the resignation.

During that legislature most regents learned (by hearing it from reporters) that Rogers, who consistently had said he supported an elected board of regents, was lobbying for an appointed board.

That’s also how most of them found out about the university chancellor’s April call for a state income tax.

From left, Regents Thalia Dondero, Steve Sisolak and Howard Rosenberg shortly before the annual evaluation of Chancellor Rogers was presented in June.

Photo By Dennis Myers

When anger surfaces
In addition to his political adventures, his critics say Rogers has continued his private business practices as chancellor. In November 2006, for instance, Rogers arrived late at a meeting on his own pet project, a health sciences initiative. Something about the discussion set Rogers off. Several participants say he erupted in a room filled with some of the state’s leading physicians and a couple of regents. Rogers said, “Blew up at them? Well, I don’t think so. You know, I have a very strong personality. All right? And I get upset pretty damn quick.”

A firm was hired to conduct a search for someone to head Rogers’ health initiative. After a few weeks of dealing with Rogers, the firm withdrew and gave back some of the fee. “They fired us,” quipped one regent.

Some regents worry that if Rogers is blowing up at them, his bosses, then he’s probably doing it with system employees. Rogers said, “I’ve never abused anybody in my life.”

Rogers does not welcome the idea that people might be afraid of him and doesn’t understand why they don’t want their names used.

“Find somebody that can tell you that they called me to task and that I retaliated,” he said. “You just find somebody. I’ve never seen it. Maybe they exist, but I haven’t seen it.”

At regent meetings, he has chastised his superiors. “He uses the term ‘micromanagement’ like a weapon,” says a campus official who regularly attends regent meetings. “Anyone who asks valid questions about campus operations is accused of micromanaging.”

Nevertheless, the regents have supported Rogers unfailingly. They complied with a Rogers demand and gave him the authority to fire university presidents and hire people for new posts he was empowered to create. Soon, three university presidents were gone, and an empire of new positions was growing.

The concern was more than just Rogers abusing the firing power. The change could easily mean Rogers now gets less reliable information. What is the likelihood that appointees will give unfavorable information to an anger-prone executive with a reputation for browbeating and firing his workers?

“They really did a disservice to Rogers in going along with him on that one,” said a state legislator.

By June 2007, there were those who believed a reckoning was due when Rogers’ evaluation was scheduled for a regents meeting.

In a self-evaluation before that meeting, Rogers wrote that he had made up with Gov. Gibbons and had improved press relations. He suggested that he had eliminated turf battles among campus presidents. And he called again for higher taxes. His comments on the regents tended to evaluate them as much as evaluate his own relations with them ("I have generally been pleased."). In a section headed “My style of management,” he wrote, “I have learned much about the people in the System with whom I work. They have learned much about me. I am a very simple person who believes in simple solutions to what too many people believe are complicated problems. To date, I believe my problem-solving talents are and have been very effective. I expect to make mistakes and expect others will make mistakes. I can tolerate and work to cure those mistakes. However, I cannot and will not work with anyone whom I believe hides mistakes or is in any way dishonest. I have zero tolerance for those who do not tell the truth or those who act in their own interest rather than the interest of the System. I believe that those in the System and in the community recognize my position on this.”

Vice Chancellor Dan Klaich, attending a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee the last week of the 2007 Nevada Legislature.

Photo By Dennis Myers

The evaluation itself was conducted by Clarity Advisors to Management and presented to the board by Clarity president Carl Rowe. It contained results of interviews with regents, campus presidents and the state higher education “cabinet.” Respondents were questioned about Rogers in seven areas—new initiatives, future objectives, reactions to Rogers’ self-evaluation, and relations with the regents, presidents, legislature and media. The responses were predictable. Rogers had his supporters and his critics. More important than the content of the evaluation itself was a warning from Clarity that the higher education system had become more divided since Rogers’ last evaluation, showing the need “for some kind of conflict resolution intervention.”

Rowe spoke of the growing polarization, emphasizing “the very broad rift there is between those who are highly laudatory of the chancellor and those who are detractors. … [C]ertainly when the board makes policy and deals with the chancellor and we have a lot at stake, when there are those very serious differences of opinion, they’ve got to intrude sometimes, even if they’re not in the open.”

Most of the regents, who had received the evaluation in advance, did not have prepared responses, instead speaking off the cuff. The leadoff comments came from board chair Whipple and came down squarely on all sides of the question.

In a triumph of on-the-other-handing, Whipple kept saying things like this: “And as many positive attributes as he brings to the system—and I can tell you right now, I just said, there’s not a perfect person—having said that, there’s not another person I’d rather have in charge. Well, you’re not perfect. There’s not another person I’d rather have in charge because as much, as far as you can take this, I think the regents recognize the positive attributes and the fact that you can really help us to achieve greater things. At the same time, [when] too much power consolidates in one person, it can go the other direction, as well, very, very quickly.”

One faculty member leaned to a friend and asked, “Is he for or against?” and the friend replied, “Yes.” The thrust of his statement, to the extent it could be discerned, seemed to be that government operates differently from business, and Rogers needed to adapt.

That set a pattern for most of the 13 regents’ statements—they expressed misgivings about Rogers and then expressed hope that he would change. Two of them, Cedric Crear and Jason Geddes, showed interest in conflict resolution. Regent Dorothy Gallagher said things would get better if regents took their grievances directly to Rogers. Regent Mark Alden said Rogers “is the CEO, and he has to be in charge.”

Leavitt, who had felt the chancellor’s wrath directly and had called for his resignation, gave an unexpectedly graceful response, pledging support for Rogers: “It’s not you that needs to change, it’s both of us. We need to work together. … I’m going to try and do that. I’m going to try and do a better job of supporting you. … Contrary to what you do think, as much as I disagree with you at times philosophically, I admire much of what you do—in fact, I admire most of what you do … and I don’t think we need to draw any lines in the sand. … I think if I can choose to work with you, I think everyone else on this board can.”

Two regents, both critics of Rogers, had prepared written statements. Regent Ron Knecht didn’t read his but put it in the record. It excoriated Rogers for dangling financial contributions and then withdrawing them to manipulate the higher education system, interfering in the health sciences director search process, not attending campus commencements, not apologizing to Leavitt, interfering in issues beyond his authority and micromanaging. (As if to make one of Knecht’s points for him, Rogers later withdrew a $3 million contribution and blamed it on Knecht’s comments.)

Rosenberg, the only regent who voted against hiring Rogers in 2004, read his statement, which was as critical of the board as of Rogers: “The board should have recognized that Mr. Rogers’ well-known reputation as a person of somewhat mercurial temperament—a my-way-or-the-highway management style—had a basis in fact. … Whoever the chancellor is, he or she must balance the needs and personalities of the constituent member presidents, at the same time balancing and enduring the interests and quirks of individual members of the board of regents. To do so successfully requires leadership and coordination, two skills which seem totally at odds with Chancellor Rogers’ style of absolute autocracy. To the contrary, the chancellor has engaged in continual manipulation and micromanagement: intervening, telephoning or writing nasty letters to individual targets—means, provosts, athletic directors, presidents, or members of the board of regents.”

The proposal for intervention and conflict resolution has gone nowhere. One regent points out that mediation won’t work if people must be forced into it.

Rogers thinks all the fuss is caused by people reacting to his style rather than the real him.

“I mean, I don’t like to destroy any relationships. There’s nothing in it for me in that. So I’m not out to hurt anybody’s feelings. But it’s—there are two sides to this thing. One is that I feel from time to time people are getting into my business, and then when I react to it, they seem to think that, ‘Oh my gosh, you know, he shouldn’t have reacted to it, and the issue is not whether he was right or wrong, but the issue was how kindly he made the remarks.’ Now that’s a general overview. I don’t know how to give it to you any better.” (Italics indicate emphasis Rogers himself placed on the word.)

Three weeks after the evaluation, Rogers jumped into another political can of worms. He endorsed Hillary Clinton for president and signed on as her Nevada co-chair. If a different candidate becomes president, Nevada may have trouble getting Washington on the phone for a few years—and federal funding is basic to the survival of Nevada’s higher education system.

Some regents are just weary of the whole thing. One who is a Rogers supporter, for the moment at least, says Rogers ran for office for all the right reasons—doing some fulfilling volunteer work for the community. Instead, he finds himself in constant struggles over all the wrong issues. One gets the feeling he won’t run again.