Dale Erquiaga appointed chancellor for Nevada college system

Dale Erquiaga testifies during a hearing at the Legislative Building in Carson City on May 29, ...

The Board of Regents on Thursday appointed former state superintendent of public instruction Dale Erquiaga as the new acting chancellor for the Nevada System of Higher Education.

Erquiaga, who served as Nevada’s state superintendent of public instruction from 2013 to 2015 and now heads a state research and policy think tank, was approved for an 18-month contract with a base salary of $300,000.

“He is a Nevadan. He knows school. He knows students. He knows Carson City,” Regent Joseph Arrascada said. “At this point, for the next 18 months, this is the leadership this body needs. This is something we have not had in a while.”

But some regents and community leaders raised concerns Thursday about the lack of transparency surrounding the appointment and who was consulted for input throughout the process.

In a letter to the Board of Regents sent Thursday morning, leaders from the Clark County Education Association, four Las Vegas-area chambers of commerce, the Nevada AFL-CIO and Council for a Better Nevada called for Erquiaga’s appointment to be postponed and for the Nevada System of Higher Education to release the full list of names that were submitted for consideration.

The group wrote that the public appointment process had been disregarded and neglected “to the detriment of our higher education community.”

“Transparency is necessary, not an optional strategy,” they wrote.

John Moran, who was one of two regents who voted no on the appointment, said he believed Erquiaga would make a fine acting chancellor but echoed the concerns around transparency.

“There could have been other candidates considered that weren’t brought to my attention,” Moran said. “I’m understanding from constituencies that there were candidates that were not considered or never made it to the table for consideration.”

Ties to former governor

Erquiaga also served as the chief strategy officer to former Gov. Brian Sandoval, who is now president of the University of Nevada, Reno.

Sandoval’s relationship with Erquiaga would have become a non sequitur if there had been a fair appointment process, according to Maureen Schafer, executive director for Council for a Better Nevada and one of the co-signers of Thursday’s letter.

“Because of the secretive process that took place and the non-consideration of other candidates, Brian’s now been tainted as someone who was a party to this single candidate process,” she said. “It’s unfortunate. He’s one of our top public officials over many decades. Now because we have such a poor governance process, he’s unable to defend himself in this.”

At the start of Thursday’s discussion about Erquiaga’s appointment, Board Chair Cathy McAdoo acknowledged the concerns.

“As imperfect as these provisions may be, I followed the criteria in the code, and I’m bringing to you today a candidate who I believe is best prepared to lead this system until a permanent chancellor is selected,” McAdoo said.

‘Fairly simple process’

Jimmy Martinez, the board’s general counsel, said McAdoo followed all protocols required for the appointment process, specifically, meeting with university presidents and faculty senate chairs to gather feedback on the appointment before bringing her recommendation to the other regents.

“It’s a fairly simple process,” Martinez said. “I know there’s concerns with the process in that it’s perhaps oversimplified or not as inclusive as it could be.”

McAdoo said she held conversations with university presidents, faculty senate chairs and students and compiled a list of skills and knowledge that were noted as critical for a successful candidate. These included legislative experience, an understanding of the state’s policy and budget processes, an ability to manage and adhere to a budget, and a “Nevadan who understands Nevada” and the unique challenges that the state faces when it comes to education.

“I believe I have identified in Mr. Erquiaga an individual who is best suited to lead this system at this point in time, and he possesses many of these critical skills that we seek that each of you voiced to me that you seek,” she said.

At the start of the meeting, McAdoo also moved Erquiaga’s appointment, which was initially scheduled as the last item on the agenda Friday, up for discussion on Thursday.

Lois Tarkanian, the other regent who voted no on Erquiaga’s appointment, questioned the schedule change.

“There are people in the Las Vegas community that want to question and come and talk but won’t be able to because the time of this meeting has been changed,” she said. “Why did we change the time?”

Vice Chair Patrick Carter questioned whether there would be a “cloud” over the proceedings because the board moved the agenda item forward one day.

“We can proceed as we are going. The public had its opportunity for public comment at the beginning,” Deputy Attorney General Harry Ward said.

Erquiaga, who addressed the board following his appointment, said he understood all of the regents’ comments and concerns.

“I will work for and with all of you just the same,” he said.

Controversial year

Erquiaga’s appointment comes after the contentious resignation of the system’s last chancellor, Melody Rose, who walked away with $610,000 in severance earlier this year, the third chancellor to depart the higher education system in five years.

McAdoo made a reference to the system’s controversial year in her comments to the board ahead of the vote.

“It is not lost on me that this is a difficult decision given all that we as a board have experienced this past year,” McAdoo said. “I understand the concerns that many of you have, and no one has agonized over this recommendation more than I have.”

But for Schafer, the appointment went beyond Erquiaga, whom she called reasonably competent, and was indicative of a larger pattern of governance that she said was eroding public trust and an abdication of the board’s duty to find the best candidate for the job.

“How do you choose a leader? You don’t just have one person arbitrarily put a name on an agenda,” she said. “It’s not about Dale. It’s about the process.”

Following his appointment, Erquiaga said it had been almost 41 years since he stepped foot on the UNR campus as a freshman in 1981.

Speaking to students, Erquiaga said his life story was one of opportunities placed before him, and that Nevada students deserved every opportunity that the Nevada System of Higher Education could provide for them.

“Someone said to me that my life has come full circle today,” Erquiaga said.

Contact Lorraine Longhi at 480-243-4086 or llonghi@reviewjournal.com. Follow her @lolonghi on Twitter.