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Western Classic
Nevada's James Rogers is a non-traditional chancellor with a shoot-from-the-hip style

By Kathy Witkowsky
Las Vegas

Every weekday morning before he goes to breakfast at the Four Seasons Hotel, Nevada System of Higher Education Chancellor James E. Rogers stops by his private auto museum, where he keeps his collection of 275 classic and antique cars.

Rogers doesn't actually drive any of the vehicles, which are worth an estimated $15 million. An unpretentious man who prefers suspenders to ties, and short sleeves to suitcoats, his regular vehicle of choice is a 2005 Chevy pickup truck. But he likes to admire the cars' graceful lines and to talk shop with the museum supervisor who oversees the purchases and the 13 employees who restore the vehicles.

"It's good to have hobbies," said the 68-year-old Rogers, who prefers to be called Jim. Rogers, who made his fortune as owner, chairman and CEO of Sunbelt Communications Company, which owns 16 television stations in five western states, has plenty of hobbies: In addition to his collection of antique cars, he has amassed substantial collections of western art, saddles, and original movie posters. Rogers is such a huge film fan-he's especially fond of westerns-that he founded a film museum in Lone Pine, California.

 
Jim Rogers, chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education, takes pride in his collection of 275 classic and antique automobiles.
(Photo by Axel Koester for CrossTalk)
 
Rogers' interest in those things, though, pales in comparison to his passion for higher education. Trained as an accountant and a lawyer (he earned his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Arizona and a master of laws from the University of Southern California), he is a vigorous supporter of higher education.

"I think it's the best financial investment you can make. And I don't know why the public doesn't understand that," said Rogers, who said he has donated or pledged $250 million—the bulk of his current net worth—to institutions in several states, including $145 million to the University of Arizona, $65 million to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), and $28 million to Idaho State University. He also has raised millions of additional dollars by heading capital campaigns for all three.

But Jim Rogers wanted to give more. As chancellor for the past two and a half years, he has been devoting his business acumen, political clout and force of personality to try to improve the Nevada higher education system. And he's been doing it for free.

The system faces daunting challenges: a skyrocketing state population; poorly prepared students; and an economy that lures them away from higher education with relatively high-paying jobs in the gaming and service industries.

Only 28 percent of the state's 18-to-24-year-olds are enrolled in college. To increase participation, in 2000 the state began offering so-called Millennium Scholarships of up to $10,000 to any Nevada high school graduate who had a 3.0 grade point average (the standard was raised to 3.1 in 2005, and in 2006 it increased to 3.25). But even many of the Millennium scholars are not capable of college-level work: This year, 28 percent of first-time, full-time freshmen recipients of Millennium Scholarships had to take at least one remedial course, and just under half of the scholarship recipients who enrolled six years ago have graduated.

Overall, the system's six-year graduation rate is 41.5 percent, according to system officials. Nevada charges relatively low tuition for in-state students: $2,526 annually at its two universities, and considerably less at its other institutions. But only about a quarter of the aid the state awards to college students is need-based, leaving many of them struggling to pay for their education.

When Rogers first was appointed interim chancellor in May 2004 (he was chosen for the permanent post a year later), the system's Board of Regents was mired in lawsuits and suffered from a widespread lack of public respect.

"We didn't want to be throwing our money down a rat hole," Rogers said (referring to himself and his wife, Beverly). That is how he explained the decision to take his philanthropy to a new level by volunteering to work as chancellor for a dollar a year. Besides, he added, "I don't have anything to lose."

His initial buck-a-year proposal turned out to be illegal; instead, Rogers donates his $23,660 salary, the minimum required by law, to two student emergency funds at UNLV and University of Nevada, Reno (UNR).

He also picks up all of his business-related expenses, including the tab for his daily breakfast meetings at the Four Seasons Hotel; his secretary's salary; and the use of his private plane to fly himself, his staff and sometimes regents on system business, if a commercial flight isn't available or convenient. In addition, he contributes $65,000 toward the total $400,000 salary paid to the president of UNR; and during the last legislative session, he paid half the salaries for the system's two lobbyists.

Rather than attend national meetings or symposiums, Rogers sponsors his own. Every summer, he invites dozens of university and college presidents, higher education administrators, businesspeople and regents from Nevada and around the country, along with staff from both his system office and his broadcasting company, to join him on an all-expenses-paid trip to the coast of British Columbia. For four days, participants stay at an exclusive fishing and wilderness resort where they can share ideas about higher education and brainstorm about how they might better collaborate.

Last summer, Rogers put Nevada's two new university presidents on a boat and told them to figure out how to cooperate on a new health sciences system, which is aimed at substantially increasing and better coordinating the state's healthcare training and delivery.

"It probably isn't what I would have done, but that's okay," said Milton Glick, president of UNR, formerly the provost and executive vice president at Arizona State University. "We got the job done."

Rogers has other idiosyncrasies. He doesn't know how to use a computer or a Blackberry, and rarely carries a cell phone. Nor does he read any documents longer than one page: "I deal in summaries and in trusted people," he said.

Rogers routinely gives out his home phone number and returns all calls the same day he receives them, but his intolerance for long conversations is legendary.

 
University of Nevada, Reno President Milton Glick says Chancellor Rogers does not interfere with campus administration, as some have charged.
(Photo by Rod Searcey for CrossTalk)
 
"Whenever you have business with Jim you make it very concise, and you talk fast," said Richard Carpenter, president of the Community College of Southern Nevada, which is the state's largest postsecondary institution, with more than 35,000 students. To remind his new colleagues at UNR and UNLV to keep their conversations with Rogers brief, Carpenter sent them each a three-minute egg-timer. "When the sands are out, you're done," he told them.

Rogers readily acknowledges that he doesn't listen to everything that everyone has to say. "I'm very quick to make decisions," he said. "I don't need to know 100 percent about a subject before I decide whether to go forward or not. I rely on my instincts, and I rely upon sampling."

Rogers is also a neatness freak with a flash temper. "A cluttered desk is a cluttered mind," said Rogers, who once swept everything off a television station employee's messy desk and into the garbage.

But people who work with him said Rogers recovers his equilibrium quickly and can acknowledge when he is wrong. He also possesses a keen sense of humor. Last fall, he agreed to be the butt of jokes at a humorous "roast" to raise money for the health sciences system project; Rogers has promised that the system will raise 30 percent of the total $210 million cost. "I laughed so hard I thought I'd fall out of my chair," Rogers recalled. The evening brought in $1.6 million.

To be sure, this is an unusual arrangement. But it appears to be working. Regents, legislators, and business and faculty leaders agreed that despite Rogers' autocratic tendencies, overall he is doing a good job.

"I'm absolutely impressed," said Bret Whipple, a Las Vegas attorney who is chair of the Nevada Board of Regents. "I'd give him an A."

Whipple and many others credit Rogers with pulling together what had been a fractured board and creating a cohesive system out of the state's eight public institutions of higher education, which together enroll about 104,000 students. Rogers also has convinced the board to centralize power in the hands of the chancellor, which historically had been a weak position.

"Jim strengthened the hand of the system and calmed the troubled waters," said Jill Derby, who just stepped down after 18 years as a regent. Initially skeptical that someone from a business background could make a good system leader, she was won over by what she called Rogers' "remarkable" ability to take criticism and incorporate feedback. "I think he's become a powerful spokesman for higher education in Nevada," Derby said.

"I guess if there was any reason to doubt Jim's passion or sincerity, then you could look for a hidden agenda. But everything he does is driven simply by his desire to raise higher education standards," said Bill Martin, president and CEO of Nevada State Bank, and an old friend of Rogers'. "The people I talk to think he's genuinely the right man at the right time to shake up the system and propel it forward."

"He came on board at a time when some strong leadership was needed," said Nevada State Senator Bill Raggio, the majority floor leader and one of the state's most important power brokers. "He is very direct, sometimes abrupt, but certainly effective," Raggio said, adding, "I think he deserves high marks."

Rogers received similarly positive grades—A's and B's, along with some incompletes for ongoing projects—in a recent unofficial report card he asked his staff to prepare. Among the people involved in the grading process was Rogers' predecessor, Jane Nichols, who resigned in 2004 due to health problems that had been exacerbated by the stress of her job. She subsequently agreed to return to the system as vice chancellor for academic and student affairs—the position she held prior to becoming chancellor—because she was so enthused about Rogers' leadership.

"I don't think that there's any question that he has enabled us to move forward on a number of different fronts," said Nichols. As a result, she said, morale in the system is the highest she has ever seen it.

His vision for the system is not much different from hers, Nichols said. But, she explained, "He is much more bold in his vision and is able to communicate with the press and the people in extremely effective ways."

 
"There were some real issues as to who was at the helm of the ship," said Bret Whipple, a Las Vegas attorney and chair of the Nevada Board of Regents.
(Photo by Axel Koester for CrossTalk)
 
Rogers has a distinct advantage in the latter category. In November, for instance, Rogers delivered his State of the System address twice: once to a roomful of administrators at the University of Nevada, Reno; and two days later, to a $35 per person breakfast meeting of the Nevada Development Authority, a non-profit economic development organization for southern Nevada.

Although he introduced the speech in person, Rogers had pre-recorded a videotaped version of the speech itself, and it was shown on two movie screens that morning. That evening, as in years past, he had the speech broadcast on his three Nevada television stations.

This year's speech, like his previous two, covered a range of topics. But he opened with a message he has been sounding consistently for years: Nevada will never have a world-class higher education system without the support of the private sector. "The future rise of Nevada's higher education system is solely in the hands of wealthy Nevadans," he said in the speech. "If we do not rise above our present level, it will simply be because the system has been repudiated and ignored by those who have become wealthy in this state."

Rogers also used his State of the System address to emphasize another of his priorities: linking higher education to the K–12 system and coordinating both their educational programs and lobbying efforts. The elementary and secondary schools are being overwhelmed by the state's enormous population growth, which is expected to increase another 47 percent by 2020. During the same time period, the number of high school graduates is projected to more than double.

Rogers wants people to understand that the growth has enormous implications, not just for K–12 but for higher education—and the state's future—as well. So he arranged for the public school superintendents from Washoe County (whose district includes Reno) and Clark County (Las Vegas) to give their State of the System addresses in conjunction with his.

In the past, such collaboration was practically unthinkable, said Clark County School District Superintendent Walt Rulffes. K–12 and higher education officials would not even agree to attend the same meeting. With Rogers at the helm, Rulffes said, "We buried the hatchet on all of that."

Contention was the name of the game when Rogers assumed the position of interim chancellor. The Board of Regents was being sued by the state attorney general for allegedly violating the state's open-meeting law. The suit stemmed from a controversial vote of the board to demote the Community College of Southern Nevada's former president and a high-ranking administrator at the school, both of whom were also suing the board.

And those weren't the only problems the system faced.

The presidents of the two universities had a frosty relationship and were unable to work together. Meetings of the Board of Regents were unpleasant and uncivil, sometimes marked by name-calling.

"He came in under really tough circumstances," said Regent Steve Sisolek. "We were the brunt of a lot of jokes. Terms such as 'dysfunctional' and 'disorganized' were thrown around a lot."

 
Former Nevada Board of Regents member Jill Derby says Chancellor Rogers has become "a powerful spokesman for higher education in Nevada."
(Photo by Rod Searcey for CrossTalk)
 
Rogers was already well known to most of the regents when, in the spring of 2004, he decided he would like to try to turn things around by taking over for Chancellor Jane Nichols. She had recently announced that she planned to resign.

According to Rogers, he first broached the subject with a couple of the regents whom he happened to run into on an airline flight one Friday. By the following Friday's board meeting, Nichols had given Rogers her blessing, and the regents had a proposed contract in hand.

After a brief interview, the regents voted 11 to one (with one regent absent) to appoint Rogers as interim chancellor, starting that morning.

"He came in as a non-traditional chancellor who already had a position of influence and power in Nevada," Nichols said. "It changed the relationship between the Board of Regents and the chancellor."

But it wasn't an easy transition.

"There were some real issues as to who was at the helm of the ship," said Whipple, the regents chair. "He's very powerful. With his strength and power comes control."

Rogers didn't waste any time flexing his muscles. He quickly settled the lawsuits, and took to writing weekly memos that he sent to the press as well as the regents. Four months after he was appointed as interim chancellor, he sent out a memo criticizing the 13-member elected board as too large and "unsophisticated in corporate governance." Several regents, he wrote, had so much "personal hatred and animosity toward each other" that they had crippled the board and were damaging the system. He also appeared to question the wisdom of even having an elected board.

The regents were livid.

"He rode in like a cowboy. Shot first and asked questions later," said Jill Derby, who was vice-chair at the time.

"I was very rough on them," admitted Rogers. But he said that was by design. "First of all, I think they needed somebody to grab them and push and pull them together. And the public needed to know that there was somebody in there who recognized that the credibility of the regents was not what it should be. And so the only way I knew how to go about that was not to be their lackey, and to be openly critical of them."

Not surprisingly, Rogers' blunt, outspoken manner and shoot-from-the-hip style sometimes offends people. "The reason people like him is the same reason that people don't like him," said Community College of Southern Nevada President Richard Carpenter, who counts himself among those who do. "If it's a skunk, he's going to say it stinks."

Rogers soon sent out another memo, clarifying that he did not support the idea of an appointed board.

But he did not back down when it came to advocating for more power, and successfully convinced the regents to give him the authority to fire the system's institutional presidents. Technically, he has not fired any of them, but he did orchestrate the departure of the two university presidents, UNR's John Lilley and UNLV's Carol Harter, both of whom announced last winter that they were stepping down.

The abrupt resignations prompted six former UNLV faculty senate chairs to write a highly critical letter, published in the Las Vegas Sun, saying that they were "horrified that [Rogers'] autocratic management style has apparently become a reality for our educational institutions."

It wasn't that faculty members were particularly sorry to see their presidents go, said Bill Robinson, UNLV faculty senate chair. Rather, he said, the fear was that Rogers would install his own "puppet" presidents and micromanage the institutions.

But, said Robinson, the faculty's fears have proved unfounded. Both of the new presidents—Milton Glick at UNR, and David Ashley at UNLV—are popular with their respective faculties, and both said that Rogers has allowed them to run their institutions.

"He's probably called me fewer than four times—and never once to tell me how to do my job," Glick said.

"He's shown that he recognizes good people and lets them do their jobs. And as long as he does that, nobody's going to worry too much," Robinson said. "We still don't like the method that was employed (to force out the previous university presidents), but pretty much it's hard to find anyone who's unhappy with the end result."

Robinson said that faculty also have been pleased with Rogers' ability to secure cost of living salary increases, and with his staunch advocacy of academic freedom. "We don't think he really takes the time to understand the issues as well as he should, but that's minor compared to the bigger picture, in terms of what he's been able to accomplish," said Robinson.

But a veteran higher education observer pointed out that the same qualities that have made Rogers an effective chancellor—his influence and his generosity—could discourage critics from challenging him.

 
Regent Howard Rosenberg, professor of art at the University of Nevada, Reno, thinks Rogers' blunt style is effective in the business world but not in academe.
(Photo by Rod Searcey for CrossTalk)
 
"It is tough to criticize someone who has pledged millions to higher education and is working for free," said this observer, who requested anonymity. "By all accounts, Rogers has been able to bring new credibility and efficiency to the state's higher education system, but not without raising some questions about his tactics. Few people, however, will criticize him openly, out of admiration for what he has done and fear of what he can do."

For instance, Rogers once temporarily withdrew a $25 million pledge to UNLV because he was frustrated that lawmakers were not sufficiently supporting Nevada State College, in Henderson. That fledgling institution is meant to absorb some of the state's growing population of college students so UNLV and UNR can raise their undergraduate standards and focus on research.

And not only is Rogers a major donor to higher education, he has been a generous supporter of political campaigns, including those of several regents. "If I believe in them, why shouldn't I contribute to them?" Rogers said.

The chancellor also has been an outspoken critic of candidates he dislikes, including the newly elected governor, Jim Gibbons. Rogers, who briefly considered running against Gibbons for the governorship, once publicly derided him as not very bright.

One person who has not been reluctant to criticize Rogers is Regent Howard Rosenberg.

"He is a businessman," said Rosenberg, a professor of art at UNR. "The business model is a model of command. The education model is not." But even Rosenberg acknowledges that Rogers is sincere in his efforts, and "has shaken things up substantially."

"He's trying to do a good job," Rosenberg said, adding, "I think the jury is still out" on whether he is succeeding.

Rogers would agree with that assessment. So far, he said, he has been pleased with the results of his efforts. "I think I've taken out the trash," he said, referring to the internal messes he cleaned up when he was first hired.

 
Jane Nichols, vice chancellor for academic and student affairs, says morale in the system is high now that Rogers has taken over.
(Photo by Rod Searcey for CrossTalk)
 
"Time will tell," Rogers added, in considering whether he can achieve his long-term goals: building a long-overdue health sciences system that will meet the state's growing demand; garnering more financial support from both the public and private sectors; and creating top-notch universities that will attract the state's best high school graduates, many of whom now choose to attend out-of-state institutions.

"It's kind of like leaning against this building and expecting it to move," he said of his efforts. "Sometimes you get so discouraged, you just want to go home and say the hell with it."

But Rogers, who has announced he will step down in the spring of 2009, after five years as chancellor, said, "I like what I'm doing. And it's something we have to do."


Kathy Witkowsky is a freelance reporter in Missoula, Montana, and a frequent contributor to National Public Radio.

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