Photo By David Robert At a news conference at Morrill Hall, Joe Crowley said he’ll return to the UNR president’s office if appointed by regents.

Joe Crowley’s decision to become a candidate for interim president of the University of Nevada, Reno blew other candidates out of the race, but raised troubling questions for some people on campus.

Crowley, who served as UNR president from 1978 to 2001, has been nominated by a Board of Regents search committee as its choice for the temporary position. But some officials and faculty members say putting Crowley in the job would set up the same dynamic that existed when he stepped down in 2001, a dynamic that produced the choice of John Lilley as Crowley’s successor. Lilley, who became president in April 2001, is departing UNR to become president of Baylor University.

“As for Joe Crowley,” regent Howard Rosenberg said, “while he can certainly do the job as interim, particularly where a good deal of repair work between UNR and sister institutions needs to be done, I’m afraid his appointment is still taking a step back in that it will set up the same dynamic which operated four years ago when he left in the first place, and the new incoming president is still going to have to fight the inevitable comparison between him- or herself and Joe Crowley.”

One faculty member said, “John Lilley was hired as a hatchet man because he followed Joe Crowley, who had a relatively benign administration. Lilley carried that role way too far, but it was what he was hired for, and putting Crowley back in place could make it all happen again.”

Crowley said he has heard the talk.

“Without saying anything about myself, I think if somebody serves 20, 23 years in a job, it does make for a challenge for finding a successor and for the successor himself or herself. But, you know, I’ve been out of the business for five years. … This is a 6- or 7-month appointment. There aren’t going to be any startling new initiatives. I’ll just be doing mainly what is already on the agenda. … I don’t think it’s a big problem. I can appreciate why people would feel that way, but I think the opportunity to find a good successor to John is one that can be realized.”

The regents will receive, along with the nomination of Crowley, a recommendation that he be paid $204,750. That will be slightly more than Crowley received when he stepped down in 2001 and substantially less than Lilley is paid.

Crowley, or any interim president, will take office on a campus where a recent faculty survey described a terrible morale problem: “A large number of respondents cited a climate of intimidation, fear and powerlessness among university faculty and staff. Some described their work environment as hostile and expressed concern for a lack of the rule of law on campus.

“Communication was cited by numerous respondents as an issue of concern. Respondents repeatedly stated that the administration does not really listen to faculty input. Attempts at listening are considered to be merely for show.

“Some faculty expressed a sense that there is little honesty displayed in communications that come from the administration. … There is a widespread perception that numerous recent firings of women in leading administrative positions were more tied to the fact that they were women than to performance issues.”

But the concern that a Crowley interim presidency will produce another Lilley type may not come true, if the situation at Baylor is an indicator. Paradoxically, Lilley was hired there because, Baylor Board of Regents chair Will Davis said, “His collaborative approach has allowed him to lead the campuses he served through periods of dramatic growth and enhancement.” He described Lilley as a consensus builder, a characterization that prompted perplexity at UNR.

Lilley fills a vacancy created when Baylor president Robert Sloan, who had twice received a vote of “no confidence” from the faculty, was moved upstairs to be chancellor. Expectations that the next president would be a healer were met with Lilley’s appointment, and the conflict between the Baylor regents’ description of Lilley and his record at UNR has drawn attention from Texas journalists.

Waco’s KWTX posted the UNR morale survey on its Web site.

The Waco Tribune Herald asked Lilley about the UNR morale report, and he gave an extended answer:

“All such reports have a context, though, and the committee asked me about that context, the regents asked me about that context. And I’ve talked with the faculty on the advisory committee about it. And I will be meeting thoroughly with the faculty senate to reassure them. When you read that report, when it’s directed at you personally, it’s not any fun.

“And people say, ‘Oh, well, presidents are tough, they’re accustomed to criticism.’ Well, of course, we are. But sometimes you feel it’s unfair … we’re people, too. We have our feelings. But in this case, the faculty senate took wonderful control of this issue. I said right away, publicly and in print—I said, ‘I don’t care if it’s just one person who feels unappreciated, or whatever feeling there is, that concerns me.’ And I want to make sure that everyone is in an environment where they feel like they can do their very best work.

“What the faculty [at Baylor] will learn about me is when there is an issue, I take it straight-up. I’m a straight talker. And together, if we have problems—and we will, all universities have problems, all social structures have problems—we will take them on. And we will talk through them. And when it comes my time to make a decision, then I’ll make the decision. But it won’t be in isolation. It will be based on lots of conversations and things.”

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...