— French saying
The Board of Regents has a penchant for naming second-raters president of the University of Nevada, Reno.
The regents last weekend selected mediocrity Marc Johnson, interim president, to succeed the late Milton Glick as UNR president.
The “national” selection process was a joke, a mere façade for picking a mediocrity lacking in vision, imagination, cultural knowledge and scholarly inclination.
It was a done deal. It also came with a threat.
The Las Vegas Sun revealed that Gerald Smith, director of the Nell J. Redfield Foundation, wrote a letter to the regents recommending Johnson with this warning:
“Should the Regents select a stranger to fill the vacancy there can be no assurance that current funding discussions will continue or that the projects currently being considered for funding will receive support in the future.”
Regent Mark Doubrava of Las Vegas said the letter was not just threatening but reflected a process that “appeared almost orchestrated” to anoint Johnson.
Sun columnist Patrick Coolican, who told of the threat, concluded that he was not surprised because “Nevada’s public institutions get pushed around by private interests all the time.”
The Redfield name is plastered all over UNR because the foundation has given it $40 million over three decades.
Johnson is an earnest man. But he is a plodder, devoid of the intellect needed by a college president.
The so-called search committee spurned Rachel Croson of the University of Texas, Dallas. Two committee members described her as “a rising superstar” but said they didn’t want her to use “UNR as her first leadership experience.”
In other words, she was unrepresentative of the status quo.
Regent chair Jason Geddes, after declaring Joe Crowley the best president he had ever seen at UNR, called Johnson his “Joe Crowley.”
The Geddes declaration is pure provincialism. Johnson equals Crowley in dullness. Crowley used to speak to the faculty for more than an hour, the boredom on every face ill concealed.
Similarly, Johnson gave a speech last June at the ceremony honoring emeriti professors. It was a redolent of Johnson’s agricultural college mentality before he came to UNR as provost in 2010.
Here was a group of professors who devoted 30, 40 or more years to UNR. Yet Johnson gave them a pep talk.
He extolled the glories of UNR, boasted that the enrollment had soared to an all-time high, called UNR among the 500 best universities in the world and urged the retiring professors to hurry to buy season tickets for UNR football.
If Johnson had an ounce of imagination he might have singled out for special mention a few of the star academics. Thusly:
“Dick Davies leaves a legacy as one of the best sports historians in the nation…Jim Bernardi inculcated a love of theater in scores of UNR students…
“Len Weinberg of the political science department is one of the country’s foremost authorities on terrorism…Jim Taranik was synonymous with the mining school, stressing research that gained international renown.”
Johnson might have concluded with a paraphrase of the Henry Adams wisdom: “Teachers affect eternity. They can never tell where their influence stops.”
Alas, all of this was beyond Johnson’s ken.
And then there was Crowley, president from 1979 to 2000.
He is typical of the academic incest prevailing at UNR. Presidents are often selected from inside the university. It was no different with Crowley.
The Faculty Senate named him interim president even though he was unqualified.
A search committee thought so little of Crowley that he never made their short list of candidates. Indeed, one campus wag called him “Number 93.”
Nevertheless, regent chair Bob Cashell vigorously pushed Crowley. He maneuvered to reject other finalists and then brought Crowley into the finalist pool.
Cashell and Crowley won. UNR and Nevada lost.
Crowley, a consummate politician, often picked mediocrities as deans and to other key university positions and then clung to them despite justified complaints.
Med school debt and the financial bleeding of the Fire Science Academy tarnished the Crowley era.
Yet, like a communist regime that glorifies its leaders, the academy grounds had a Crowley street and a huge portrait of Crowley dominating one wall of the administration building.
One acerbic newspaper columnist called Crowley “a C president.” He was.
The more things change at UNR the more they remain the same. Cronyism rules, epitomizing what Zola called the “triumph of mediocrity.”
Jake Highton teaches journalism at UNR. He can be contacted at email@example.com.