The Nevada System of Higher Education today announced former Nevada Governor and University of Nevada, Reno, alumnus Brian Sandoval as the institution’s new president.
The ad hoc UNR President Search Committee on Wednesday recommended Sandoval be appointed to the job.
The search process, which was delayed in April as a result of the pandemic, has gone on for nearly a year since current UNR President Marc Johnson announced plans to step down. The final campus interviews were held Monday and Tuesday.
Sandoval was among four finalists for the position. The others were Chaden Djalali, a physics and astronomy professor and former Executive Vice President and Provost of Ohio University, Athens; Jennifer Evans-Cowley, provost and vice president of academic affairs at the University of North Texas; and Jonathan Koppell, the dean of the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions at Arizona State University.
Approval of Sandoval and salary and contract terms were discussed by the Nevada System of Education Board of Regents on Thursday afternoon. Sandoval, who served two terms as Nevada’s governor and was most recently the president of global gaming development for MGM, told UNR staff during his interview with them Monday afternoon that he believes his knowledge of the state’s budgetary process, plus his optimism, made him a strong candidate for the position, despite his limited experience working in higher education.
“I was affectionately called Governor Sunny when I was the governor—because, even in the most difficult times, I see the best in everybody,” he said.
He also noted that he could stay with UNR as “long as you will have me,” indicating that he’d happily remain there until such a time as he’s ready to retire.
State funding for higher education is something other candidates discussed during their interviews, too. During Koppell’s interview with UNR’s Faculty Senate, he said, “I think that the case to be made to legislators and to those who would invest in the university is that the return on that investment is incredibly high, and I think that’s the way it needs to be thought of—that the graduates of these programs are the ones who are going to grow the Nevada economy. They are the ones who are going to be the creators, the community leaders, and that this is going to pay off in the long run.”
Public comment draws mixed responses
Public comment read aloud during the NSHE Board of Regents meeting prior to the decision included both praise and criticisms for Sandoval and the other candidates.
Commenter Deena Behnke wrote, “Given the unprecedented time in which we are living, Brian Sandoval is clearly the safest and an excellent choice for UNR president. His deep knowledge and connections within the state will clearly be a critical access in guiding us through this time with the least possible damage to the university.
“He’s extremely well respected and liked by a wide constituency, and I’m not particularly concerned about his lack of academic experience and credentials. I have no doubt he will select strong people to complement his deficiencies in academia. And I’m a strong believer that outsiders often bring dynamic change and growth to organizations.
“However, after hearing from all candidates…I think the bold choice would be Jonathan Koppell.”
Behnke concluded her comment by saying that the choice needed to be made between a “relative unknown” in Nevada—Koppell—or Sandoval and said perhaps, “given the high stakes, this might be the time to choose conservatively.”
Commenter Terri Rodefer wrote to express disapproval of Sandoval.
“I am in complete disbelief that the board of regents would even consider a politician who has absolutely no experience whatsoever to lead this university, especially at this critical time,” Rodefer wrote. “I hope you can put aside whatever political favors you may believe you’re paying off and do what is right for the university at this time.
“You can clearly see there is only one candidate who is far above anyone else. She is the right candidate. She is the right selection…Do the right thing, Dr. [Jennifer] Evans-Cowley is the right person. There is no other choice.”
Regent disclosures raise concerns
After public comment, regents made disclosures regarding their professional interactions with Sandoval, including campaign contributions they made to races he ran for Nevada’s governorship and for the state attorney general’s office. Chair Mark Doubrava, as well as regents Cathy McAdoo, Amy Carvalho and Rick Trachok all made disclosures. Legal counsel for NSHE, Joe Reynolds, noted that pecuniary interest—money matters—would make it such that a regent would need to abstain from voting. The four regents all expressed that they had no financial stake in the matter of Sandoval’s appointment.
Melody Rose, the new chancellor of NSHE, reiterated for regents how the recommendation for Sandoval came to be. She noted that search firm WittKieffer submitted 107 total applications and ultimately narrowed the list down to 21 candidates for further consideration, which was ultimately narrowed to the final four.
Just before the vote, Doubrava thanked the search committee and the people who advised it. He said he watched the committee meeting that happened Wednesday and was impressed by the candidates the search firm had found. He thanked the search firm and chancellor Rose as well.
Dominique Hall, president of UNR’s Associated Students of the University of Nevada, also spoke before the vote. She said she believed the four regents who gave disclosures prior to the vote were out of line in voting at all.
Will Carrasco, president of UNR’s Graduate Student Association, echoed Hall’s sentiments to some degree, saying it was distressing to see that Sandoval appeared to have been selected for the position early in the process.
Four-year contract approved
The regents unanimously approved Sandoval’s appointment. He will be making $500,000 per fiscal year and also have a yearly $8,000 car allowance and $18,000 housing allowance. His term will end on Oct. 4, 2024. While the salary is higher than previous UNR President Marc Johnson’s salary, regents noted that it was the same as what was approved for new University of Nevada, Las Vegas, president Keith Whitfield.
Following these votes, Sandoval addressed the regents, saying, “First and foremost, from the bottom of my heart I want to thank all of you for your support…I’ve listened to what you have to say and really look forward to working with all of you as the president of the University of Nevada, Reno.”
“I look forward to leading this university for at least the next four years,” Sandoval said, adding that he appreciated criticisms that had been expressed of his appointment and that he would work to meet the duties and obligations of the office.
Amy Pason, faculty senate chair at UNR, ended the agenda item approving Sandoval’s appointment with her remarks. She noted that it was uncharted territory to have a person without academic leadership experience leading the university.
“However, we have seen that Governor Sandoval has taken the time to do his homework—to talk to the different constituencies at our university,” she said. “And as faculty, as educators, we are open to learning and understanding new things. And we hope Governor Sandoval, President Sandoval, will continue to learn from us as well in the process. I look forward to working with President Sandoval as faculty senate chair…And I look forward to working with you, especially as we get into what will be a challenging legislative session.”
Jeri Chadwell came to Reno from rural Nevada in 2004 to study anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. In 2012, she returned to the university for a master’s degree in journalism. She is the former associate and news editor of the Reno News & Review and is a recipient of first-place Nevada Press Association awards for investigative and business reporting. Jeri is passionate about Nevada’s history, politics and communities.