The question no one asked Howard Rosenberg — till now

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.

The good guys won and scored a few laughs in the process down at Reno City Hall last week. In case you just moved to Nevada, the hearing involved whether or not 30-year University of Nevada-Reno art professor Howard Rosenberg should be allowed to retain his tenured faculty position while serving on the university system's board of regents. Rosenberg was elected in an upset last November and took office last month.

Last Thursday, a long lineup of local luminaries stepped to the microphone to endorse Rosenberg. We were also treated to the spectacle of watching Rosenberg's accusers squirm. There's nothing quite as funny as watching the pot calling the kettle black.

University system chancellor Richard Jarvis and longtime government lawyer Donald Klasic wouldn't know a conflict of interest if it came up and bit them on the ass. Klasic adamantly refused to step down from the Rosenberg case, even though he was acting against Rosenberg at the request of just one other regent, Las Vegan Madison Graves II. Klasic placed himself in the position of prosecuting one of his own clients at the behest of another and saw nothing wrong with it.

Exhibiting the moral obtuseness he and the U-Boat commanders have shown throughout this sorry mess, the stochastic Mr. Klasic refused to step aside. Ethics commission chair Mary Boetsch three times asked Klasic if anyone had asked the full board of regents whether or not to proceed against Rosenberg. Thrice, he said no. Perhaps he had brain fade, or maybe he was just guilty of what Winston Churchill called "terminological inexactitude" (a euphemism for "liar" in the British House of Commons, where the word is banned.)

Klasic's memory recovered quickly when Boetsch reminded him of Las Vegas Regent Nancy Price's request for an emergency meeting of the regents to form a position on Rosenberg before he was ever sworn in. Perhaps Ms. Boetsch has a better memory than Klasic. (Or perhaps she got the note I passed to the table.)

The university's brief in the Rosenberg case, prepared at public expense, depended largely on a state law apparently aimed at governing relationships between the system and its vendors. More than one regent in the past used public position for personal profit. Ethics commission member James Guinan, a retired Washoe district judge, termed "absurd" Mr. Klasic's attempt to apply the law in question to Rosenberg.

Former state assembly speaker Bill Bilyeu (R-Elko), representing Rosenberg, prepared a killer brief backing up his motion to disqualify Klasic for representing one client against another. Judge Guinan provided the only vote in favor. In a typical Nevada contradiction, the ethics commission has never formulated rules governing its own proceedings, and was thus pretty much free to accept or reject any argument at whim. Perhaps the majority wanted to avoid delay caused by Chancellor Jarvis needing to find a new lawyer.

Longtime U-Boat lawyer Klasic was the perfect match for the (UNR Pres. Joe) Crowley-Graves-Jarvis axis in the Rosenberg affair. In his filing against Rosenberg, Klasic noted how Prof. Rosenberg's bosses might feel undue pressure evaluating a regent's teaching performance. Apparently, Klasic did not feel that the same pressure might apply elsewhere, such as on the boss of the chancellor's wife. Mrs. Jarvis holds a highly paid position at the Desert Research Institute, part of the university system. Mr. Jarvis is the boss of his wife's boss.

Mr. Klasic presented evidence defending Mrs. Jarvis on that issue before the ethics commission in December, all the while disclaiming that he was representing her. Together, the Jarvises knock down the better part of a quarter-million a year from the U-system. Yet Jarvis, ever the bureaucratic puppet of the powerful, attempted to destroy Rosenberg on the same grounds where he and his wife pocket a pretty profit.

Next time you run into Chancellor Jarvis or lawyer Klasic, ask them if the bite marks on their asses have healed.

SCALIA WALKS AMONG US: Friday morning, the commission voted 3-2 that Rosenberg could serve. Guinan was joined by former Nye County sheriff Joni Wines and former assemblyman Scott Scherer (R-Las Vegas). Attorney Scherer may file a separate opinion, expressing his view that the commission did not have jurisdiction and that Rosenberg's employment contract pre-dated his election by many years.

An observer could tell from her facial takes and nods that vice-chair Helen Chisholm of Las Vegas would follow the lead of chairman Boetsch. Lawyer Boetsch became Antonin Scalia in this case. She ran a hardassed meeting, and has a great sense of humor. She asked one of the best questions of the day about the existence of any "disabling statutes" specifically prohibiting professors from serving as regents. (There are none.)

However, she is the polar opposite of Don Klasic. Where the elastic Klasic is a legal Humpty Dumpty (who said "when I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more, nor less"), Boetsch is Antonino Scalia.

My paisano on the U.S. Supreme Court is considered the most inflexible conservative in decades. The reason lies in his goofy insistence that words should be taken at face value. Forget about looking into the intent of the founding fathers, just review the Constitution strictly on its face. Never mind about 208 years of legal decisions and changing circumstances, the words stand as the inflexible standard. (I wish he'd read annotated Shakespeare to see how the meanings of words change over time.)

Given several of her statements, Boetsch pulled a Scalia, right down to saying if you've gotta gripe, take it up with the legislature. (Nino can be counted on passing the buck to congress at every opportunity.) That's why Boetsch ruled against Rosenberg. Chisholm just played follow the leader.

THE UNTOUCHABLE QUESTION: Howard Rosenberg's statement to the commission was one of the most powerful speeches I've ever witnessed. "What is happening with this to me is unfair, it's wrong," he said. "I do know the signal we're sending our students is a bad one, a very bad one...laws affect lives."

In one of his first acts as a regent in January, Rosenberg was asked to rule on extending the contract of his oppressor, Richard Jarvis. Rosenberg only makes about $70,000 a year after three decades of teaching. Jarvis and his wife are getting rich after just three years. Jarvis wants Rosenberg impoverished for winning an election.

Incredibly, Rosenberg voted to extend Jarvis' contract. No reporter in Nevada asked why, until now. I guess we were all dumbfounded. I was in shock for two weeks.

The January 31 closed-door meeting was filled with anger. Chairman Graves and fellow LV Regent Shelley Berkley viciously attacked Nancy Price, taking attention away from Jarvis. Rosenberg defended Price and called for calm.

Then he voted to retain Jarvis. "It floored them," Rosenberg said. "For me to have voted against him would have been wrong. Based upon what this man was hired to do, as I see it, he has done the job. He has inherited a nightmare. For the first time, we've told someone that he has the responsibility and the authority. While I realize the performance is flawed, he has indicated strategies and methods to bring it into alignment...On a strictly objective basis, based on how you evaluate, I couldn't vote against him...It must not be a personal situation. We deal with business...By deed, we are teaching our students, and we will teach them properly."

His longtime colleagues have been proven correct. Regent Rosenberg is one magnificent teacher.

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 3/2/97.
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