You go, Joe

A farewell chat with this prominent member of the good ole boys club

“It’s not so much being in the right place at the right time. It’s getting to the right place and hanging around for a while.”

—Calvin & Hobbes, as quoted in Joe Crowley’s book, The Constant Conversation

At least one state legislator tried to remove him from office. The university student newspaper’s been on his case forever. One faculty member regularly lambastes him in a weekly Sparks Tribune column. He’s been accused of everything from cronyism to weirdness with discretionary funds.

But if he hadn’t been able to cope with critics, Joe Crowley, now the former president of the University of Nevada, Reno, said he wouldn’t have survived more than two decades at his job.

“I’m a fan of criticism,” Crowley said. “Some is constructive and well-considered. Some is not. You have to learn to categorize it. Then you can learn from the one and be entertained by the other. … But I wouldn’t say I wake up every morning thirsting for criticism.”

Last week, Crowley packed up his office and ended his 23-year stint as university president. But the former political science professor, author and leader isn’t really leaving UNR.

After a legislative stint on behalf of Nevada’s Board of Regents and some time off to finish writing another book and brush up on classroom skills, Crowley plans to teach. By this time next year, college sophomores may be signing up for Crowley’s Western Traditions course, “American Constitution and History.” Crowley also hopes for journalism dean William Slater’s permission to develop a senior-level “capstone” course on media and politics.

He’s moving into an office on the first floor of the journalism school.

A few years ago, as an undergrad journalism student at UNR, I decided that the university president symbolized evil and corruption. If he wasn’t an antichrist, then surely our fearless leader was some kind of sub-Satan—a lesser demon with ultimate authority over his dominion.

I spent most of my senior year hiking around campus talking to disgruntled faculty and staff. I talked to lawyers pursuing complaints against the university. A group of faculty members, who dubbed themselves the “Joe Must Go” crowd, assured me that university leadership was corrupt. Hiring decisions were biased. Nay-sayers were subtly run off campus.

After one such story, Crowley summoned me to his office to question their logic. If he were getting rid of critics, he argued, then there wouldn’t be a “Joe Must Go” crowd in the first place.

In 1996, legislative auditors complained that they couldn’t properly review the university systems’ finances because they were denied access to performance evaluation files of institution presidents. The legislative auditors questioned expenditure controls, since huge sums of university money end up as discretionary funds in the hands of institutional presidents. That money may or may not be being spent for legislative priorities, the audit complained.

Just when it seemed that the university would provide me with fodder for years of reporting, I graduated. Years passed. The “Joe Must Go” folks quit calling.

Then Crowley announced he was hanging up his hat. The media went into incredibly nice mode. But that wasn’t surprising.

“There’s been almost no criticism to speak of in the past 10 to 15 years,” Crowley said. “I think people get used to the way you do the job. You become kind of the guy who’s been there forever. And then they say, ‘Can’t you stay a bit longer?’ “

On Friday afternoon in the president’s high-ceilinged office, a long conference table is lined with boxes.

“This is my last official day,” Crowley said. “Though I’m still in a position to do considerable damage until midnight Sunday.”

When asked about successes, the blarney freely flowed. (The Irishman admitted to kissing the stone—twice.)

“I took this job during a time when the university and community were isolated from one another,” he said. “My first priority was to try to break down the walls and empty the moat of alligators.”

The collaboration between academia and Reno didn’t happen overnight, he said. In 1987, the UNR Foundation was established. Advisory boards were re-established for the schools. Crowley wanted the recover the university’s roots as a land-grant institution.

“We’re a people’s university, but like many land-grant institutions, we’d really lost sight of our heritage and our charter,” he said.

To accomplish this took “talking about it regularly.” And it took hiring those who shared that vision, from vice presidents to deans. Crowley credited the efforts of many to expand the university’s graduate program, develop research efforts and woo new funding sources without losing sight of teaching as a priority.

Some of his memorable mess-ups?

“Oh, Lord, got a couple of hours?” Crowley said. “Mistakes? I suppose the biggest mistakes I’ve made are results of being too isolated from the institution and its constituencies. This job is one that drives you to isolation.”

Crowley also said he regretted moving too fast on several recent projects, like the Fire Science Academy, the Redfield Campus on the Mount Rose Highway, the Manogue High School acquisition and the Thunderbird Lodge research center.

“I’d gotten to the point where I thought we could do all these things,” Crowley said. “And each is a valuable project. But you have to look at what’s doable, not just what you want to do. I got to feeling a little heady—'Of course all these good things can happen before I go.’ “

Those are just a couple of examples, he said. “There are lots more small and medium-sized ones.”

Crowley included some heated correspondence in his most-recent book, The Constant Conversation, including a caustic letter of resignation from an unnamed professor in 1994.

“I came to the University of Nevada expecting to teach and conduct research … instead I have been subjected to a pattern of harassment which has prevented me from publishing and has wrongfully resulted in a denial of tenure,” the professor wrote, adding digs against UNR’s atmosphere, working conditions and the caliber of students and staff.

Crowley wrote back: “Your resignation is hereby accepted, with pleasure.”

His word choice didn’t go unnoticed, as indicated by a third letter to Don Klasic, the university’s lawyer at that time.

“It would have never occurred to me to express my pleasure in this way had not Dr. C written a far more insulting letter of resignation,” Crowley wrote in his own defense. “It seems to me that when someone is as lavish in offering insults as C. is in his letter, he should be prepared for a bit of the same in response.”

It’s strangely reassuring to find that the placid president occasionally lashed back.

But that doesn’t mean he’s in favor of having a faculty filled with professors who agree with every move he makes. In the final section of his book, “The Last Word,” he advises his successor to hire “good people,” not necessarily agreeable ones.

"If those around you are there to tell you how wonderful you are, how great your ideas are and how clever your decisions, you should go out to spread this message to the real world," he wrote. "On this trip … you won’t be gone long."