Both Nevada and its university open 1997 lost at sea

This is an edition of the University Scandals 96-97 series, selected installments of which were submitted for Pulitzer Prize consideration. Click here to access the archive.

Where so many people have been counting the water rising in feet, I have been counting my blessings. Purely by chance, I live in one of the few areas of Reno where the citizens showed some foresight after the last monster flood in 1955. Northwest Reno residents voted for a special improvement district to construct a series of levees and dikes in anticipation of future disasters. My wife and I often walk past an ignored, graffiti-sprayed commemorative plaque affixed to a huge boulder at the northwest softball fields. Those diamonds sit in the gulch which acts as safety valve for the area.

I want to personally thank the voters who said yes to a tax increase almost forty years ago. In the year I graduated from high school, the project was finished. In the hundred-year floods of 1986 and 1997, my family and I benefited and stand in your debt.

THANX, TWO: Reno CBS affiliate KTVN TV-2 proved that you can do well by doing good. During the flood, the normally Scroogey station management authorized round-the-clock coverage, a tremendous community service which used the public airwaves in the way they were intended.

The frequencies were given away to private interests earlier in this century under the mistaken impression that public taste would pick the best programming. The result has been Jenny Jones, fulfilling Aldous Huxley's 1938 prediction that this magnificent teaching potential would be squandered by the likes of those promoting cigarettes as a health aid.

Once in awhile, the medium gets utilized properly. KTVN's flood coverage was such a time. They really had nothing to lose. Their recent ratings showed them tied at 5:00 p.m. by Rosie O'Donnell on the FOX affiliate. In 1990, then-KTVN news director Don Wells predicted the day that only two TV stations would be left with local news, adding that KTVN would not be one of them.

Times changed and the station got rid of most of its experienced people. TV news thrives on familiar faces. The flood coverage presented a once-in-a-decade chance of having product and staff sampled by new viewers. TV-2 took the chance.

As a former national radio network executive producer, I understand the tremendous demands made upon a small staff asked to deliver wall-to-wall, round-the-clock continuous coverage. CNN does so with about 1,700 workers. Channel 2 might have 35, if they're lucky. They deserve not only our praise, but also a toke.

Generally, only four types of radio and television employees receive excellent compensation: top management, sales staff, engineers and station-franchise anchors, such as Tad Dunbar. Just about everybody else has to look for a roommate or moonlight. KTVN's staffers deserve a rich reward for working themselves into the, mud.

As a 25-year viewer and advertiser, I want Sarkes-Tarzian, Inc., Channel 2's out-of-town owners, to do something for all the people who produced that magnificent flood coverage. Pay them a fat bonus, say, a thousand to five thousand dollars each, including any non-news staffers who jumped in to help. (Even former TV-2 reporter Terry Hardesty, in town for a visit from her new job in Sacramento, volunteered to help out in a pinch. Her standup from the edge of the collapsing Helms gravel pit threatening Interstate 80 was just plain scary.)

Sarkes-Tarzian stands to do well for doing good. Management knows, as I know, that station promotion played at least a silent part in the decision to authorize the pre-emption of everything from soap operas to Dan Rather. The increased visibility of the news staff will pay off in increased ratings and higher spot prices for years to come - if management doesn't screw up again and get rid of its most familiar and qualified people. (Ed Pearce, Larry Wissbeck, Howard Rosenberg and Dennis Myers immediately come to mind.)

So pay your staff a big cash bonus. Get some free publicity out of it. I'll help right here and elsewhere. Let me know.

LOST AT SEA ALBATROSS AWARD: To my old pal FerenÁ Szony, boss of the Reno Hilton. In all his corporate generosity, he publicized rooms for flood victims at $19 a night. That's a rate just about any hotel or motel in town offers in January. What a jerk. Maybe post-disaster, he'll think twice about firing his entire security staff scheduled for January 13.

CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS: By contrast, kudos to hoteliers with a heart. John Farahi of the Atlantis gave free rooms to victims referred by the Red Cross. The hotel also delivered free food to the Pine Middle School shelter.

LOST AT SEA WHILE UP A CREEK DEPT. The flood waters had barely started to recede when UN,R president Joe Crowley mucked matters up. In a Reno Gazette-Journal guest editorial, Joe defended the rectitude of the financial controls at the institution he has headed for almost 20 years. He decried the "audit blasts university" headline leading Mike Henderson's front-page article on the recently released legislative critique of the university system. Crowley called the headline "grossly misleading," although Henderson's article was "fair-minded, thorough and accurate."

Crowley added that "despite what the unfortunate headline suggested, it (the audit) did not find that the University of Nevada, Reno suffers from grave accounting problems."

Nothing could be further from the truth. Over the past three months, Tribune readers have been made well-aware of the chronic, cronyistic, cash-cow cancer afflicting the university system, especially UN,R. The only problem with Henderson's report is that the Kazoo-Journal didn't give him another 5,000 words to do it justice. Get a copy of the audit for yourself and see what I mean. Call legislative auditor Gary Crews at (702) 687-6815 and ask for one. You will break out in a rash when you see what Crowley and his cronies have been doing with your money.

"The real power at the university lies with Crowley," a longtime insider told me last week. "No matter who's had the title of chancellor, Crowley's had the power. He never takes the blame, and somebody else always takes the fall."

Crowley's most egregious assertion was his concluding statement that "a new financial information system will be necessary...but the careless headline notwithstanding, sound management is in place here and has long been a top priority."

Bull feathers. As our able colleagues at the Reno News & Review recently reported, the university system recently refused to join the rest of state government in a standardized records management system, raising fears that embarrassing documents may be destroyed.

Crowley's assertion that UNR got glowing reviews in Henderson's story was refuted by Henderson's own story. "A UNR official, the audit found, inappropriately directed $500,000 in royalty income from a mine to the UNR Foundation rather than the board of regents," Henderson wrote.

The unnamed official was President Joe Crowley. This column broke the story of the misdirected and now-missing Marigold Mine money several months before the audit was published. It's one of a gross of examples of financial impropriety and empire building at our out-of-control higher educational establishment.

THE NO-PLAUDIT BUT STILL-FLAWED AUDIT points out many shortcomings, most of which remain unreported. It shows that the board of regents has relinquished control of that portion of university money appropriated by the legislature, has little control over "self-financing programs" such as bookstores and mines, and no control over the proliferating and legally private foundations - perhaps explaining why Crowley parked the mining money at one. "We estimate that expenditures totaling $235 million were excluded from the budgetary approval process in fiscal years 1995 and 1996," the audit stated.

In other words, the money you donate can easily be shunted to wherever somebody wants to party with it. And Crowley has publicly defended playing games with cash against the specific orders of the regents and the legislature. This hurts the students and explains the administration's ongoing attempts to undo the upset victory of regent-elect Howard Rosenberg, a 29-year professor and passionate advocate for the kids. The audit contains much more embarrassment, to which I will add in weeks to come as the Tribune continues to stand largely alone in breaking the continuing series of university scandals.

Be well. Raise hell.


© Andrew Barbano
Andrew Barbano is a Reno-based syndicated columnist and 28-year Nevadan.
Barbwire by Barbano has appeared in the Sparks Tribune since 1988. This column originally published 1/5/97.
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