With the selection of former Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval as the University’s 17th president on Thursday by the Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents, the question of what a Sandoval presidency will look like is at the forefront for many at the University.
An intensive interview process ran almost all week for the four finalists for the position to succeed President Marc Johnson, who announced last year he would be returning to the faculty after a decade of leading the University.
The process included all-day Zoom interviews and forums with campus constituency groups early in the week. Then, an in-person 90-minute interview session was held for each candidate with the 32-member ad hoc president search committee in the Glick Ballrooms on Wednesday.
A recommendation was then forwarded to the 13-member Board of Regents for a vote on Thursday. Sandoval’s name emerged as a unanimous Board of Regents choice.
The other three finalists were: Jennifer Evans-Cowley, the provost and vice president of Academic Affairs at the University of North Texas; Jonathan Koppell, the dean of the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions at Arizona State University; Chaden Djalali, professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Ohio University where he previously was executive vice president and provost.
Sandoval’s appointment to succeed Johnson, the institution’s 16th president, was historic. Sandoval became the first person of Hispanic origin to ever be chosen president in the institution’s 146-year history. With an undergraduate degree in English earned from the University in 1986, Sandoval became the first University graduate ever selected as president. At age 57, the former two-term governor is the youngest University president in more than four decades, since 45-year-old Joe Crowley, a professor in the Department of Political Science, was confirmed as president in 1979 following a year previous as interim president.
“As a 1986 graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno, this is a place that is very special to me,” Sandoval said during his introductory press conference on Thursday afternoon in the Great Room of the Joe Crowley Student Union. He was joined there by his wife, Lauralyn, who is a University graduate and who played tennis for the Wolf Pack in the 1990s, as well as his daughter, Marisa, a student at Reno High School. “I’ve always felt that everything that I’ve been able to accomplish in my life, and the friends that I’ve made and the relationships that I have, there was one North Star for all of those things – it was this campus.”
Throughout the week, in his words to numerous questions that were posed in a variety of settings, some clear themes emerged in what the presidency of Brian Sandoval will look like. Below are some of those themes, using information and comments made by Sandoval during Wednesday’s interview with the ad hoc president search committee.
Diversity, equity and inclusion
“Diversity, equity and inclusion have always been close to my heart growing up in an Hispanic household,” Sandoval said. “I think the future of this University lies in having a campus of diversity, equity and inclusion. … I assure you that would be one of my largest or biggest priorities.”
Sandoval said he has read the campus climate study, the results of which were released last fall. He said his priority is to meet with the campus’ Diversity and Inclusion Officer, Eloisa Gordon-Mora, as well as the various committees and groups on campus charged with developing diversity, equity and inclusion policies and programs. He said recruiting and retaining faculty members who come from diverse groups or from diverse backgrounds – and in particular understanding their needs and aspirations so that these individuals will feel valued and heard – will be part of the overall effort.
“I want students who come here from diverse backgrounds to feel connected, to feel safe, to feel listened to,” he said. He said people from diverse groups need to feel welcome: “That they’re going to be valued, rewarded and recognized.”
Leading through COVID and budget cuts
As a former two-term governor, Sandoval said he has experience in dealing with emergency events, as well as with budgetary shortfalls. When he became governor in 2011, the state was in the midst of the Great Recession, Nevada’s greatest economic challenge since the Great Depression.
“We were confronted with what was then one of the most difficult times in our state’s history,” he said. “We came together in what I like to call the ‘Nevada Family’ to navigate through that crisis.”
Sandoval said making many of the budget reductions in 2011, particularly to higher education, were “decisions that really I will say cut into my soul.” From the cuts of 2011, however, soon came a unified Nevada economic development plan in 2012 to rebuild from the recessionary period.
“Working together, we made the shared sacrifices and I made the commitment that this campus and all of the campuses would be stronger for it,” Sandoval said. He said he wasn’t afraid, in 2015, to support the largest tax increase in the history of the state because “there was a reason for that: To improve education in our state.”
Sandoval said as more budget reductions more than likely still loom for the University in the face of the COVID crisis, he will take the approach that budget reductions across the board will not be the answer. He said he favors something more strategic, where university strengths will not be diminished and where student success will continue to be an institutional priority. He said he wants to position the University in a way where the budget reductions will not diminish the University’s ability to quickly rebound from the time of COVID.
“I’ve been through this,” he said. “In 2011 I had to encounter a budget crisis unlike any other in state history. There were devastating decisions that had to be made. At the same time, I made a commitment, then as I believe now, that we will get through this and times will get better.”
A president who believes in students
Sandoval was clear on his goals for all students.
“I want this to be a place where students will feel connected and safe,” he said. “Where they will know they can become whoever and whatever they want to be.”
At one point during his interview, he held up two books written by University faculty, “Access For All: Expanding Opportunities And Programs To Support Successful Student Outcomes” by Melisa Choroszy and Theodor Meek and “Success For All: Programs To Support Students Throughout Their College Experience,” By Choroszy, Meek, James Beattie and Reema Naik.
“These books literally describe the programming that is going on at this campus,” Sandoval said. “If I’m selected as president, it will be a very major priority that we continue this program to assist at-risk students and our students of color, that again, we are letting them know that everything is possible.”
Sandoval said as president, his goal will be to “go where the students are.”
“I will pledge as president to go the homes and visit with the families and promote the value of a college education,” he said. “I believe all students are valuable and deserve to follow their dreams.”
He termed student interaction and awareness of student concerns a “daily goal.”
“I want to be out there with the students on a daily basis,” he said, adding that he also wants to communicate daily with faculty and classified staff. “I plan on immediately, on day one, to go on a listening tour, because this isn’t going to be the vision of one person – it’s the vision of all us.”
Supporting the faculty; shared governance
Sandoval admitted that he was unconventional candidate in the sense that he was not a professional academic. However, he also noted that he considered the work of faculty – both academic and administrative – to be at the heart of the University’s mission. He also noted several times throughout his presentation that he felt staff were also vitally important to the work and operation of the institution. Sandoval stressed the need to recruit and retain diverse faculty, to create more endowed professorships and chairs, to increase the ways the University supports academic faculty’s teaching, research and engagement efforts.
In terms of shared governance, one of the bedrocks of the University’s history, Sandoval said, “I’m someone who I feel has lived it in terms of my experience in public service. As governor, I always felt I worked extremely hard in working with all of my constituencies. I’m keenly aware that there is a faculty senate and that it’s important.”
He said “accessibility and transparency” have always guided him in shared governance contexts.
Regarding the challenges ahead for the University, most particularly budget decisions and dealing with COVID, he said, “Shared governance is going to be more important than ever.”
Growing the University
Sandoval said the University will have to increasingly cultivate a variety of revenue streams post-COVID.
He outlined several areas where he thought this could be possible: Philanthropy/fundraising; research; enrollment; distance/online learning.
He said the University’s president needs to be the “Fundraiser-in-Chief.”
“I’ve had the opportunity to raise money,” he said. “I’m very comfortable in terms of fundraising and asking for money.”
He said fundraising would be used in a variety of ways: more endowed professorships and chairs, increasing scholarships for students, meeting the needs of a growing campus through capital improvement, such as the new business building and the life sciences building that are proposed for the University Gateway.
He praised the work of the University’s researchers. He said their work has been so extraordinary that he sees the potential for continued growth: “We obviously have to expand research and the funds that come with it. It is my understanding that we have over 1,300 applications for grants as we speak. We’re going to have to be more aggressive in this regard.”
He said he hoped to leverage the “unique resource” that the University of Nevada, Reno Innevation Center and the Nevada Center for Applied Research provides the University. He listed a number of companies, ranging from Google to Panasonic to Block Chain to Switch who have presences in northern Nevada and provide “potential research opportunities” for faculty and graduate students and employment for the University’s graduates.
Growing enrollment, he said, would provide the University with more revenue: “I think that’s a great opportunity for us.”
Sandoval noted that one of the “problemtunities” – a term he often used as governor with his staff when challenges faced the state – of the COVID-19 crisis for the University and for higher education in general has been the shift since March to new learning modalities.
“We’ve learned a lot with distance learning recently with the onset of the pandemic,” he said. “It’s created a new culture. I believe the future of this campus, if we’re going to compete, is going to include a distance learning component.”
Sandoval said that by nature, “I’m really competitive. I’d like to bring that competitiveness, that passion, that hard work ethic to this campus to help make it be the best it can possibly be.”
His long-term goals for the campus reflect it. In addition to supporting diversity, equity and inclusion, Sandoval spoke of improving student access, retention and achievement, enhancing faculty accomplishments and growing the University’s research portfolio.
He said campus environment, particularly in the context of diversity, equity and inclusion, was of critical importance to him: “To create a campus environment for students, faculty and staff and visitors that is second to none.”
He said he wants the University to achieve the status of becoming a “Hispanic Serving Institution” – a designation that would mean the University reaches key student thresholds that include having 25 percent of all undergraduate students who are of Hispanic background.
He said the University’s Carnegie R1 “Very High Research” classification among another 130 other universities, achieved in 2019, was “a status I want to jealously guard and improve.”
Working in parallel with this goal is a larger, more long-term goal: To become one of the 65 institutions who are members of the Association of American Universities (AAU) – an elite group whose members are considered on the leading edge of innovation, scholarship and solutions in higher education. Sandoval termed AAU membership a “ten-year goal” that would only come as the University improves its classification as a Carnegie R1 institution.
“I think it’s something that is within reach for us,” he said. “It would truly transform all of us and this state in terms of research and innovation.”
Sandoval said connection with the community will be a must. He noted that the recent agreement between the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine and Renown Health for a proposed long-term partnership to enhance Nevada’s medical education system, expand clinical research capacity in northern Nevada and create a world-class health care network was the type of transformational partnership that many other areas of the University could provide to meet community needs. He pointed to Wolf Pack athletics as another way way to build unity and enthusiasm between the campus and the community it serves.
A “dream job” at “a place that is as sacred to me as anywhere.”
What will a Brian Sandoval presidency look like?
His tenure as the University’s 17th president begins on Oct. 5.