Only embrace the tar baby when DNA proves it's yours

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.

First, the good news: Howard Rosenberg has been sworn in rather than sworn at by his fellow university regents and bureaucrats.

The bad news: nothing else has changed. Rosenberg's first official act was to lead the assembled multitudes in the pledge of allegiance. Alliances broke down from there.

The January 30-31 meeting of the board of regents was scheduled for unusually late in the month. The timing reflected the vain hope that the Nevada Ethics Commission could be railroaded into quickly granting political cover for the university bureaucracy's attempt- paid for with your tax dollars - to keep Rosenberg from assuming the office he won last November.

On January 19, this column published proof that university chancellor Richard Jarvis intentionally lied to a legislative committee last December 18. In writing, Mr. Jarvis stated that "external audits have not found any significant weaknesses over the last decade of audits."

He presented that fabrication to legislative auditors who had just hoisted him from the yardarm for running a financial whorehouse and refusing to cooperate with investigators. I reported how Mr. Jarvis since October had concealed another embarrassing financial report, this one from Coopers & Lybrand, the world class accounting firm.

Smoking gun. Chancellor lied to cover his ass. Do the honorable thing and resign. Case closed. Right?

Hell no.

The freakin' regents are seriously considering giving this guy a fat raise and extending his contract. They may have done so by the time this column hits the streets.

Zounds. They actually believe the piano player in the cathouse who swore to the cops he didn't know what was going on upstairs. When the first embarrassing audit came out, Jarvis immediately announced a fixup plan which would only cost five or six million dollars of your money. That's not a solution, that's an excuse.

"This has been festering for 15 years," said one of the Barbwire's reliable inside whistleblowers. (Most choose to remain anonymous or the U-Boat commanders will sink their careers.) "They say they'll do something, but they never do anything. Nothing ever changes. All the stuff presented at the (audit committee) meeting, they knew how to fix. They knew they were wrong. You've got textbooks that teach financial accountability to universities (but) with no structure and no rules, you can do whatever you want...They did the same (before)...You just go to the legislature and ask for a new system, say you need more money," the insider said.

Alas and alack, the guys who have turned our university into a house of ill repute are very educated men. "In public administration classes, they also teach how to avoid giving policy makers information they need to make sound policy decisions."

That's exactly what happened at last week's regents meeting down in Gomorrah South. The majority seemed compelled to defend their maladministration by giving Jarvis a slap on the back and a bonus to boot. For the past four months, I've reported on a university system so upside down that it resorts to unauthorized borrowing and deficit spending.

No matter how many audits come down, no matter how much scandal I print, there never seems to be enough evidence that somebody screwed up. No matter how many millions turn up missing for years, it's never anybody's fault. As I have written several times, the key to becoming a successful CEO these days is to know the right response to the following: "Boss, we've got a problem."

The average person would say "let's take care of it." Bad idea.

The right answer: "Problem? I can't see anything."

The modern CEO, whether a governor, president or chancellor, knows that the minute the boss recognizes a problem, he has validated its existence and credibility. The smart thing to do is ignore it and hope it goes away. Perhaps some poor underling will both solve it and take the blame. Meanwhile,the boss can act like Claude Raines who walks into Rick's Casablanca casino and exclaims, "I am shocked, shocked to find gambling going on here."

Jerry Brown managed the state of California like that to rave reviews for eight years. He learned it from his predecessor, Ronald Reagan. Jimmy Carter learned the trick from both of them. Things only fall apart when you actually have to do something. Jerry Brown was undone by the Mediterranean fruit fly. Jimmy Carter made the mistake of letting David Rockefeller and Henry Kissinger persuade him to let the Shah of Iran into the country, precipitating the 1979 hostage crisis. Reagan lucked out and cruised through 16 years in public office watching old movies and occasionally sending troops overseas to kill brown people.

The above style now even has a name, management by crisis. Jerry Brown spent most of his time as governor writing press releases. His staffers soon learned that the only time he could be persuaded to act was when disaster was at hand They always had media statements locked and loaded, ready to fire.

When Proposition 13, the Jarvis-Gann property tax initiative, got so hot it could not be denied, Brown changed positions. From trashing it one day, he embraced it the next and turned it to his political advantage. Like a media-savvy Brer Rabbit, he learned to embrace the tar baby only after the DNA test has proven you're the father. The rest of the time, let it fester and stick other people with the dirty work.

And so last Thursday, Cassandra the Prophetess sallied forth into the wilds of Gomorrah South and called for the resignation of Sir Richard the Lyinhearted. North Las Vegas Regent Nancy Price has sounded the alarm for more than four years, during which the U-Boat has been slowly sinking in a sea of red ink, mismanagement, corruption and cronyism.

Her fellow regents, never giving an inch, apparently did not agree. Las Vegan Shelley Berkley, the attorney for the Sands Hotel who last year had to fire her own father along with other resort employees during a remodeling purge, said this: "I will not defend the indefensible. It's no secret there have been accountability problems, and I think the chancellor has now presented us with a set of real solutions."

Translation: the DNA test came back positive, so he has been forced to kiss the tar baby to look like a good father.

"Shame on you, Nancy," Berkley said in front of Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Natalie Patton. "You don't give a rat's ass about higher education in Nevada. For some reason you are trying to damage the chancellor and the system."

In other words, let the piano player keep his job. Besides, we're the ones running this cathouse.

"It concerns me that one individual can disregard the facts and continue to wage a one-person war against a competent and qualified administrator who has provided stability and progress to Nevada's system of higher education," Berkley added, wiping the tar from her lips.

One person? What are we, chopped liver?

"I ran for regent because I wanted to be a voice on the board for students," Price said. "I was tired of watching the board rubber-stamp policies and programs that really brought few benefits to students. A CEO with his record would not be retained in a business environment," Price added.

The board of regents is reacting like a kidnap victim, taking the side of its abuser. In deep denial, they need psychiatric, not legislative, help.

The fight to save the university has only just begun, sportsfans.

Be well. Raise hell.


© Andrew Barbano
Andrew Barbano is a Reno-based syndicated columnist and 28-year Nevadan.
Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Sparks Tribune since 1988. This column originally published 2/2/97.
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