The public destruction of David Ashley’s career ended Friday afternoon with an elevator ride, down three floors.
He had been removed as UNLV’s president moments earlier by an overwhelming majority of the Board of Regents. He rode red-faced, and he looked devastated.
What’s next? he was asked.
“I’m not sure,” was all he said.
Ashley, who took over as president of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas three years ago, was demoted to the faculty on an 11-0 vote after a marathon meeting of the board that was intended as Ashley’s official performance evaluation. One position of the 13-member board is vacant, and Regent Michael Wixom did not vote.
The board’s choices were thus: renew Ashley’s contract, which expires next year; not renew it and keep him on as president for another year; not renew it and demote him; or fire him outright.
Higher education Chancellor Dan Klaich, who had recommended that the board not renew Ashley’s contract, said the executive vice president and provost, Neal Smatresk, immediately became acting president, following protocol. Ashley, 58, will be paid his current salary, $246,000 a year, and is a tenured professor now.
Klaich said the search for an interim president will begin next week with consultations with the faculty, alumni and other groups. It is unclear when the search for a permanent president will begin.
Ashley endured more than six hours of mostly negative testimony Friday in a meeting open to the public. He was called ineffective, a “C-plus student,” disengaged, the “smartest guy in the room” and a lousy schmoozer.
Perhaps that was his greatest weakness, it seemed, the fact that he’s not much of a people person. Ashley is an engineer whom everyone acknowledged is brilliant in his field. But he received harsh criticism for not returning calls from important higher education officials, for skipping alumni events that he probably shouldn’t have skipped, and for not being as visible on and off campus as he should have been.
Ashley acknowledged this weakness several times, and he pledged to fix it. He said it was an easy fix, a couple of phone calls, a better system for scheduling his engagements, better public relations for what he does do that no one seems to know about.
Promises weren’t enough.
When board Chairman James Dean Leavitt finally called for a motion to renew the president’s contract, the rotunda at Desert Research Institute went deafeningly quiet.
Seconds went by before Regent Jack Schofield spoke up and made the motion. It failed 10-1, Schofield the president’s only supporter.
Regent Ron Knecht, “with regret,” moved for this: the immediate removal of Ashley as president; that he be reassigned to the faculty, as per his contract; that arrangements be made to move Ashley’s office; and that a transition plan be put into effect.
That’s the motion that passed 11-0, which was immediately followed by Leavitt declaring the meeting over, which was followed by the red-faced elevator ride.
The meeting began on a much different note. Ashley showed up early, smiling. He joked with a faculty member who said her husband was vacationing in Europe.
“Wish I was with him,” the president said.
The crowd was relatively small, about 75 people, mostly system or university employees.
The first person to testify was John Welty, president of California State University, Fresno. He wrote the official evaluation of Ashley’s presidency. This evaluation already had been criticized by several regents and other higher ed officials for being incomplete.
Officials piled on more criticism Friday. Indeed, several regents eviscerated the evaluation.
Regent Cedric Crear, who chaired the board’s evaluation committee, said it seemed the evaluation included only positive comments. When word got out that it was going to be a glowing evaluation, Crear said, people started calling him with complaints.
“Many, many, many, many people have come forward and alleged that what they said was not included in the evaluation,” Crear said. “It was so many that it raised a flag to say, ‘Hey. Is this accurate?’ “
He criticized the evaluation’s conclusion that Ashley was an “effective closer” when it came to fundraising, a contention that was also much criticized by others at the hearing.
“I haven’t heard that from anyone,” Crear said. “I’ve heard quite the opposite, frankly.”
Welty, who had acknowledged that he and Ashley knew each other when they both served at California universities, defended himself, to a degree. He said he did his best, that the evaluation was a summary only, that he did not include every comment from the 59 people he interviewed over two days in April and May.
Regent Kevin Page jumped in. Page was a longtime member and a former president of the UNLV Alumni Association. He became a regent several months ago.
He wondered why the evaluation did not address concerns that then-Chancellor Jim Rogers, Ashley’s boss, wrote about in a June memo to board members. In that memo, Rogers recommended that Ashley be fired for, among other things, failing to stop his wife from treating UNLV employees harshly, not attending necessary events and not developing connections with important people.
“None of that is addressed,” Page said.
Page said he, too, had been contacted by many people who said their complaints about Ashley were not in the evaluation.
“It was way too many people,” Page said. “It wasn’t one or two that fell through the cracks.”
More criticism of and questions about the evaluation followed: Regent Bill Cobb, Regent Mark Alden, Regent Robert Blakely, Regent Ray Rawson, Knecht. It went on and on, for more than a half hour.
Several students spoke up for Ashley, saying he was responsive to their concerns and that he worked well with them.
But representatives from the Alumni Association were harsh. Jim Radigan, a past president, said Ashley did not do a good job in developing relationships with important alums.
“He either doesn’t care or doesn’t value it as a priority on his list,” he said.
Current association president Jeff Knight recommended that Ashley be replaced.
“For the amount of money we pay our president, I think we need to get a better return on our investment,” he said.
Later on, Ashley said it was the first time he had heard that his relationship with the association was not good.
Ashley was also criticized, particularly by Knecht, for a controversial hate crimes policy at UNLV.
Several faculty senate members spoke, some in mild support, some not. A survey taken in November and December of the faculty seemed to indicate support for Ashley, with 72 percent in some way supporting the renewal of his contract.
But current senate chair John Filler said that’s not true anymore. He said he hadn’t received a single call or e-mail urging him to speak in support of Ashley. He recommended that Ashley be replaced.
Soon, talk turned to Ashley’s wife, Bonnie, though regents were cautioned by their lawyers that they couldn’t talk about her too much, in too many specifics, because she was not there and had not been properly served notice that she would be the subject of discussion. The system’s lawyer said a process server tried to notify her, but she never answered the door at her home. She later e-mailed the lawyer to say she would sign no form acknowledging the receipt of such notice.
So everyone was careful, tiptoeing around the issue, calling it “the spousal issue,” without mentioning Bonnie Ashley often.
Rogers, who retired as chancellor June 30, was more subdued than he usually is. He detailed his case against Ashley, focusing much of his attention on the spousal issue.
Bonnie Ashley has been criticized by Rogers and others for treating some of her husband’s senior staffers harshly. David Ashley has been criticized for not doing anything about it.
Ashley has frequently said his wife’s alleged behavior should have nothing to do with his job performance, and he said it again Friday.
“I don’t believe my evaluation is the evaluation of my spouse,” he said.
Rogers called Welty’s evaluation “a whitewash,” and said it did not reflect reality.
In the end, Rogers said, he tried to talk Ashley into quitting. Ashley acknowledged this, too, though he disagreed on the specifics of how those conversations went. Rogers said he told Ashley quitting would save his reputation, but that Ashley refused to consider it.
A final issue came up before the vote: Ashley’s lobbying of the Legislature this past session on behalf of UNLV, apparently against the wishes of the board, Rogers and Klaich. The philosophy since Rogers took over in 2004 is that the system always works together as a team.
Rawson, himself a longtime senator until 2004, said Ashley’s reputation with the other college presidents around the state fell after the legislative session because of how he handled lobbying.
Klaich ended the day, for the most part, by recommending that the board replace Ashley. He said he had been through two previous, very public dismissals of UNLV presidents, but this one was far different.
In those past controversies, he said, he had been inundated with phone calls lobbying for or against the president.
This time? Nobody seemed to care.
“I’ve heard nothing here,” he said, “and I think that silence is deafening.”
Contact reporter Richard Lake at rlake@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0307.