Rogers to stay active after retirement

So, is Jim Rogers going to go away now?

He’s retiring at the end of this month after five years at the top of the state’s higher education system. Nearly 2,000 days of ranting, lecturing, declaring. It’s all over.

Right?

Not exactly.

“I will do everything I can to make sure we end up with a new governor,” he said the other day over lunch.

Rogers, 70 and a cancer survivor, said many things over that hour. He went so far as to call one Las Vegas legislator a “menace.”

As he has in the past, he swore that he would not run for office himself. But he said he would use his millions, his friends and his big mouth to help shape the state into a better place.

“I don’t want a day job,” he said.

Though he has angered nearly everyone connected to him, higher education and politics in Nevada at some point over the last five years, he receives near universal praise as someone who got things done and always spoke his mind.

“He is the most positive thing, the most important, significant, positive thing that happened to higher education in the history of this state. And I mean that,” said John Filler, the president of the faculty senate at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and an early skeptic of Rogers.

Rogers, who owns a chain of television stations, including the local NBC affiliate, KVBC-TV, volunteered in 2004 to become chancellor when then-chancellor Jane Nichols was stepping down.

He pledged to work for no money — he actually gets a federally mandated salary of about $23,000, which he donates back to the system — and said he would leave when he felt the job was done.

He had been a longtime financial supporter of higher education causes — he has given $275 million to various colleges and universities — but had never worked in any official capacity within the university system.

In short, Rogers was a businessman who wanted to run a billion-dollar government operation as if it were a business.

This led to skepticism, particularly from faculty.

“Personally, I did not like him,” said Sondra Cosgrove, the outgoing president of the faculty senate at the College of Southern Nevada, the state’s largest institution. She said there was similar resistance among many faculty members.

Despite that, Rogers was hired on by a near-unanimous vote of the system’s 13-member Board of Regents.

That board was a collection of disparate members whose infighting sometimes boiled over into public spats.

The board’s frequent flouting of the state’s open meeting law had become so legendary that one of its own members, Mark Alden, a Las Vegas accountant, sued the board for the violations.

Infighting, too, was common not only within the system — north vs. south, as is usual in Nevada — but between higher education and the K-12 school systems.

Especially when it came to money.

The fighting will never go away — not on the board, within the system or between the agencies — but observers say it is nowhere near what it used to be.

Much of that is because of Rogers.

“It became obvious we had to become partners and we had to develop a seamless approach between K-12 and higher education,” said Walt Rulffes, who became superintendent of the Clark County School District in 2006 after serving as a deputy superintendent.

He said one of his first tasks when he took over was to sit down with Rogers. The two men agreed that the systems they govern were dependent upon each other; K-12 needed a good higher ed system because that’s where it gets its teachers, while higher ed needed a good K-12 system because that’s where its students come from.

Their goal: To stop competing against one another for state budget dollars.

“We took a joint approach to support each other for funding,” Rulffes said. “We recognize the need for higher education to be successful for us to have a good K-12 system.”

Rogers put it more succinctly: “That’s a war nobody wins.”

He counted among his successes the relationship between higher ed and K-12, as well as the emerging health sciences system, a more cohesive Board of Regents, establishing credibility with legislators and a quality relationship with student body presidents.

“All in all,” he said, “I feel pretty good about things.”

Others back him up in that feeling.

David Waterhouse, who just finished up as student president at CSN, said he has only praise for Rogers.

“I feel great to have been able to work with him,” he said.

Alden, the regent who sued his own board several years ago, credited Rogers with bringing stability to the system.

“Jim knows how to make tough decisions,” he said. “If we asked a question, he got the answer.

“And,” he added, “we’re not treated like crap.”

Michael Wixom, who is finishing up his second and final term as chairman of the Board of Regents, praised Rogers’ outspoken manner, which is nearly the opposite of the soft-spoken Wixom’s.

“I think Jim raised the profile not only of higher education, but of education in general,” he said.

Rogers raised his own profile as well, particularly over the last year.

When it became clear last year that Nevada was in deep trouble financially because of the recession, it was generally assumed that state agencies would all face large budget cuts.

Rogers went on the attack, producing weekly “memos” that he sent to regents, politicians and the press about how cuts would impact the higher ed system.

But when Gov. Jim Gibbons presented his budget in January with 36 percent cuts to the system, Rogers went ballistic.

He pounded on the governor repeatedly, once going so far that the board was forced to reprimand him in public.

Cosgrove, the CSN professor who didn’t particularly like Rogers at first, changed her tune.

“He has convinced Nevadans that higher education is important to the state,” she said.

She said it used to be standard for individual schools to fight one another when it came time for legislators to pass the budget. Rogers wouldn’t allow it.

“He was the first one who kind of held the line and said, ‘That’s not going to fly anymore,'” she said.

Filler, the UNLV professor and former Rogers skeptic, said he frequently disagreed with Rogers.

He and several other past faculty senate chairmen from UNLV even wrote a letter to the Review-Journal three years ago taking the chancellor to task for what they saw as his bullying ways.

“We are horrified that his autocratic management style has apparently become a reality for our educational institutions,” they wrote.

But after this year’s budget fight, in which the system is in effect suffering a 10 percent cut instead of the proposed 36 percent cut, Filler has changed his mind on the chancellor.

“He really pushed the limits,” he said of Rogers. “So yeah, it comes as a major turnaround for me. You don’t always agree with him, but you always know where he stands and I really respect that.”

Rogers feels no remorse for any of it.

He wishes he had done a few things better than he did, that he were able to secure more money for the health sciences system, that he’d been able to develop more scholarship programs, that research had taken off more at the two universities than it did.

But he does not apologize for those shortcomings.

Nor will he go away quietly while his successor, likely to be Executive Vice Chancellor Dan Klaich, takes over.

Rogers said he will host an interview show on his TV station and will talk about important political issues.

He will do whatever he can to defeat Gov. Gibbons, including spending money to help support whomever has a good chance of beating the governor, whether it be a Republican or a Democrat.

He’s also got his sights set on at least one state senator, Barbara Cegavske, R-Las Vegas.

“I think she’s a menace,” he said of the senator, singling her out because she was the only Southern Nevada legislator to vote against the budget and the tax increases that fund it.

“I think she’s dangerous. She’s unqualified.”

He said he’ll also work with the health sciences system to help it improve.

He will encourage lawmakers to rethink the state’s tax structure, and will lobby for local support for the community colleges.

He has plans to work with universities in Idaho, where he owns a home and some TV stations.

His biggest fear, he has always said, is telling stories that are decades old because the new ones aren’t any good.

He is certain he will continue to have some good stories to tell.

Contact reporter Richard Lake at rlake @reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0307.

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