Weeks after chancellor’s complaint, investigation underway as calls for two regents to step aside stall
Three weeks after the chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education leveled serious allegations against the top two members of the Board of Regents, little has changed.
In a wide-reaching hostile work environment complaint, Chancellor Melody Rose accused Board Chair Cathy McAdoo and Vice Chair Patrick Carter of working to undermine her authority and force her out of her position after just one year.
After that complaint became public earlier this month, sources confirmed that the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) had retained a third-party law firm, Kamer Zucker Abbott, to lead an independent investigation of Rose’s claims. However, several requests for comment directed to the firm have not been returned.
One week later, on Oct. 15, McAdoo and Carter issued a joint statement saying the Board of Regents “takes all complaints seriously and is committed to having a thorough investigation conducted.”
The statement added that, while the investigation continues, “the Board cannot offer any further comment at this time.”
Similar silence has followed from the chancellor’s office, where Rose has returned to work after taking a pre-scheduled two-week vacation earlier this month. When asked, a spokesperson for the chancellor referred to an earlier statement that the system “does not comment on personnel matters.”
All the while, two scheduled board meetings have been canceled and a third was postponed, leaving no public meeting of the Board of Regents and the chancellor until a regularly scheduled quarterly meeting on Dec. 2 and 3.
Few regents have spoken publicly about the matter, though at least one has made his position clear. Regent John T. Moran has twice called for the removal or resignation of McAdoo and Carter, according to emails first reported this month by the Las Vegas Sun.
Speaking to The Nevada Independent, Moran said he made the call to remove board leaders “out of an abundance of caution” and to “avoid the appearance of impropriety” as the investigation continues.
Weeks after Moran’s original request, however, there appears to be little to no appetite — public or private — to act on his call. No special meetings for the regents have been scheduled or agendized, and two meetings were postponed indefinitely.
Regent Amy Carvalho, who also has called for a special meeting to address the issue but has not gone as far as Moran in calling for the board’s leadership to step aside, told The Independent in an email that the board has not met the minimum requirement of five regents agreeing to call a special meeting.
“I look forward to the resolution of this situation,” Carvalho wrote. “The primary focus of the Board of Regents should always be graduating our students and the successful operation of the public higher education system in Nevada.”
Another regent, Jason Geddes, spoke to The Nevada Independent but only said he encouraged “everybody to wait and see what the independent investigation says about the complaint.”
“Allegations are allegations, and accusations are accusations,” Geddes said. “When you have somebody review everything and make a recommendation, that’s the time for action, not before.”
Even if a special meeting is called, it is unclear when it could occur or who — if anybody — would step down as a result. Processes to remove chancellors or presidents exist, but board bylaws do not address the possibility of removing board chairs mid-term.
And though five regents are required to call a special meeting of the board, only three are needed to add an agenda item to an existing meeting, such as the scheduled December gathering. If and when regents may add an item addressing either the chancellor or the board leaders — or what the state of the investigation will be at that time — remains unclear.
On Wednesday, regents met behind closed doors for a video briefing with the independent legal counsel leading the investigation. Details of the briefing were not immediately available, and a request for comment sent to a lawyer for the firm, Scott Abbott, was not returned.
Critics seize on details of complaint
Despite the uncertainty surrounding next steps, two well-defined camps have formed in the days and weeks since the chancellor’s claims became public: Those who back the chancellor, and those who do not.
Among the former are a number of powerful higher education donors, including several with a long history of frustration with regents.
Kris Engelstad McGarry, a philanthropist and a trustee of the Engelstad Foundation, was among those at the center of the 2018 fight over the continued employment of then-UNLV President Len Jessup.
At the time, the Engelstad Foundation gave $14 million to UNLV’s fledgling medical school on the promise that Jessup would remain employed as UNLV’s president. When tensions emerged between Jessup, then-chancellor Thom Reilly and regents over a performance review, that donation was revoked.
An investigation by Kamer Zucker Abbott, the same firm involved in the current matter, found that the “egregious” agreement may have violated ethics laws. Jessup left the university within months in a publicly acrimonious split, saying he departed in part because of “personal and professional attacks” from regents.
“I don't know that [the regents] have functioned for a while,” McGarry said in an interview. “I don't know that this complaint — it's kind of the icing on the cake. They have been a non-functioning group for as long as I can remember; they've been a self-serving group for as long as I can remember.”
McGarry said she “applauded” those who wanted to give up personal time to be a regent, but added that “we're seeing a lot of people on power trips,” and “a lot of backdoor deals” that “don't signify what it's like to be a champion of education.”
McGarry also called on McAdoo and Carter to resign.
The cross-section of the chancellor’s defenders also includes prominent backers of Question 1, a narrowly failed 2020 ballot question that would have removed the Board of Regents from the state Constitution.
The Vegas Chamber issued a statement Tuesday echoing Moran and calling on McAdoo and Carter to “step aside” while the investigation continues.
“If the allegations are proven to be true,” the statement read, “these Regents should be held accountable and resign immediately. It is time for true governance and culture reform of NSHE and the Board of Regents for the sake of all Nevadans and the future of our state.”
The chamber’s statement and subsequent call for reform come after questions have swirled for years over a potential overhaul of the higher education system’s structure. After Question 1 failed in 2020, Gov. Steve Sisolak announced in his State of the State address that he would seek to carve out a separate governance structure for the state’s community colleges in an effort to streamline workforce development efforts.
The effort was eventually channeled into a study committee tasked with evaluating the “alignment” of workforce efforts, community colleges and how the entire higher education system is funded and governed.
Some legislators have continued efforts to remove regents from the Constitution with the help of Question 1’s original backers, who worked to adjust the language of a new measure, SJR7, that could make it to the ballot in 2024.
Questions, pushback on some of the chancellor’s claims
But the chancellor is not without her critics, and some have pushed back on key parts of her 21-page complaint.
Among Rose’s central allegations was one of deep-rooted institutional sexism, an “old boy’s club” at NSHE exemplified in a sizable pay disparity between her salary ($437,000) and the salaries of UNR President Brian Sandoval and UNLV President Keith Whitfield (both are paid $500,000).
However, past NSHE chancellors also received less than university presidents, and Rose’s contract exceeds that of both her predecessors. The previous chancellor, Thom Reilly, was paid a base salary of $425,000, while his predecessor, Dan Klaich, received a base salary of $303,000.
The question of equitable pay has emerged in an environment where executive pay rates at NSHE have been the subject of heavy criticism, including from prominent Question 1 backers who have long argued that chancellors have been historically overpaid.
In an op-ed in the Las Vegas Sun published last year, Question 1 co-architect and former state. Sen. Joyce Woodhouse and former Western Nevada College President Chet Burton argued that regents “saw fit to pay sizable six-figure salaries to two chancellors for a number of months, all during a time when student fees have continued to rise.”
Separately, Rose’s complaint included an allegation about the acquisition of Sierra Nevada University’s (SNU) campus by UNR earlier this year.
In June, UNR announced the gift from SNU in a surprise press release that came with no prior hints that such a transfer was being discussed.
In her complaint, Rose alleges that top regents, at the direction of former regent and then-SNU representative Rick Trachok, deliberately withheld information from her about ongoing negotiations, in large part to minimize her role and exclude her from the process.
Describing the process as a “shocking series of secret decisions,” Rose said the incident undermined her authority and granted the campuses — in this case UNR — “permission to circumvent protocol.”
Trachok said in an email to The Nevada Independent that he was retained by SNU to “explore potential opportunities” for the college, among them being acquired by UNR, and said any secrecy came at the direction of SNU’s request for “absolute confidentiality.”
“My client was very sensitive about any disclosure,” Trachok wrote. “Premature disclosure could have been detrimental to SNU. I was instructed that our discussions with anyone other than the SNU executive committee were strictly confidential.”
Trachok — who now lectures at the UC Berkeley School of Law — also said he never accepted payment for his work on the negotiations between SNU and UNR, nor did he violate the cooling-off period stipulated by the board’s code.
Regents gave UNR the green light to proceed with the gift during a meeting in July, and the process is now under the review of federal regulators and the regional accreditation authorities.
Decisions, agendas left in limbo
As the fallout from the chancellor’s memo has played out through public silence and postponed meetings, concerns that some policy and personnel decisions may be left by the wayside have simmered.
One such decision: the replacement of former special counsel to the regents, Dean Gould. A lawyer for the board and the regents, rather than for the system itself, Gould was widely criticized and later filed a hostile work environment complaint following two public clashes last year with Regent Lisa Levine, including one in which he told Levine: “I don’t want to man-speak, but I will have to if you continue to child-speak so please stop.”
Gould denied wrongdoing at the time, saying instead that Levine’s behavior, including a meeting in which she accused Gould of having “mansplained” board code to her, was “unprofessional and embarrassing.”
Then-Board Chair Mark Doubrava later hired a third-party law firm to investigate. But by December, that investigation had yielded no public results. Doubrava issued a letter to regents noting those meetings “fell below” decorum standards, and Gould left his post on his own volition at the end of the year.
Gould was not immediately replaced through a search process; regents elevated his deputy chief of staff, Keri Nikolajewski, to his former role. By the summer of 2021, however, regents sought to fill the spot with a lawyer and a search finally began.
Soon after, so did the trouble. On Aug. 16, after 25 applicants rolled in (with 15 meeting minimum qualifications), a special ad hoc search committee reviewed six semi-finalists before abruptly canceling and reopening the search amid new discussions over where the chief of staff should be based and the caliber of the available candidates.
In the midst of this was one candidate who was cut from the “minimally qualified” pool, former regent, board chair and practicing lawyer James Dean Leavitt. In a letter to regents in September, Leavitt raised concerns over the involvement of Nikolajewski in the vetting process,
Shortly after Leavitt's lawyer, Christian Gabroy, sent letters on Aug. 13 and 15 pushing for Leavitt to be included in the semi-finalist pool, NSHE General Counsel Joe Reynolds sent a response letter one day later that said “no impropriety” tainted the initial applicant reviews. Reynolds went on to say that Leavitt’s experience on the board “does not entitle him to special treatment or consideration outside the established search criteria.”
However, after Leavitt was excluded from the second search, Gabroy sent another letter to NSHE alleging the same “unreasonable, unprofessional and unlawful conduct” and requesting that the search be vacated once again. A second response from Reynolds included no details other than a confirmation that the meeting Gabroy asked to be canceled had already been postponed and not rescheduled.
It is unclear why board committee staff decided Leavitt did not meet the minimum requirements for the position, which stipulate only that applicants have a law degree, membership in the Nevada bar and seven years of “directly applicable experience.” In a job posting for the position still available on the NSHE website, the position also requires knowledge of state open meeting law and ethics laws.
It is also unclear if Board staff have investigated or reviewed the selection process in the wake of Leavitt's complaints.
“We want answers into what is going on, specifically, in the position of my client meeting the minimum qualifications for the position and answers as to why NSHE believes that he shouldn't be given a fair shot when it's clear as day to us that he meets these minimum qualifications,” Gabroy told The Nevada Independent.
With no public agendas posted, is it unclear what other policies or approvals have been delayed in the course of the investigation. But at least one scheduled discussion has been left in limbo, with more decisions looming in the coming weeks.
Early this month, a Washoe district court ruled in favor of TMCC professor Tom Cardoza, who had sued the college after he was removed from his position as department chair. Cardoza claimed the move was made in retaliation for his support of a colleague who was denied tenure by college officials.
Cardoza was later summoned in a nighttime visit by university police to the now-canceled Oct. 15 regents meeting, as the board was set to consider both an appeal of the case and Cardoza’s “character, alleged misconduct or professional competence.”
Separately, there is also the question of the approaching exit of Western Nevada College President Vincent Solis, who was tapped last week by Brazosport College in Texas as its newest president. According to a press release, Solis is set to take over the post on Jan. 4, but his possible departure has not been addressed publicly by either himself, regents, the chancellor or the system at large.
It remains unclear when either Cardoza’s case or the WNC presidency may be reviewed by regents, if at all, before the next quarterly meeting that begins Dec. 2.
Update: Oct. 28, 2021. This article was updated to include details of a second letter from NSHE Chief General Counsel Joe Reynolds to James Dean Leavitt's lawyer, Christian Gabroy, following the postponement of a search committee meeting scheduled for October.