Tactical Retreat

Amid faculty criticism, West Point superintendent withdraws after UNLV regent panel picks him as choice for president.
May 17, 2006

By most measures, William J. Lennox Jr.'s academic credentials are the sort that professors at a place like the University of Nevada at Las Vegas would relish in a new president: English Ph.D. from Princeton, sitting chief executive at a nationally respected university with a student body stronger than UNLV's, and federal ties that could help in the competition for research funds.

But one central aspect of Lennox's background -- the fact that the title "Lieutenant General" appears before his name -- alienated some faculty members and others at UNLV, generating criticism that may have influenced Lennox's decision to withdraw Saturday after a search committee had recommended him for the UNLV presidency last week. Lennox would have been the second leader of a military institution to take the reins of a public university within a year; the State University of New York named John R. Ryan, former superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy and of SUNY's Maritime College, as its chancellor last winter.

In a prepared statement, Lennox, who is retiring this year after five years as superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy, said only this: "I'm withdrawing my name from consideration of the presidency of UNLV, and I'm doing this for personal reasons. The community and all at the university have been superb. I view UNLV as a great university on the rise, and wish them the best of luck." Through a West Point spokesman, he declined to comment further.

But several officials involved in the search to replace Carol S. Harter, UNLV's president for 11 years, said they believed that faculty criticism about Lennox's military background, along with faculty and alumni dissatisfaction that the regents' panel nominated Lennox even though a campus advisory committee ranked him third of three finalists, had almost certainly played a role in the lieutenant general's decision to withdraw.

In a search process that board leaders said was condensed with the hope of ending before the end of the academic year this month, both the six-member regent panel and a 30-person advisory committee of professors, administrators, alumni and students had chosen as their three finalists Lennox and two other men: David Ashley, vice chancellor and provost at the University of California's fledgling campus at Merced, and Marvin Krislov, vice president and general counsel at the University of Michigan, who is best known as the primary architect of the university's Supreme Court defense of its affirmative action policies.

But last Wednesday, after the three finalists had spent a day on the UNLV campus meeting with administrators, professors, staff members and students, both panels took straw polls, said Steve Sisolak, a regent who oversaw the search process, with differing results. Krislov and Ashley essentially tied in the tally taken by the advisory committee, with Lennox a relatively distant third, while the regents' panel ranked Lennox slightly above Ashley, with Krislov third.

A divisive discussion ensued, in which some faculty members and alumni leaders complained that their opinions weren't being given enough weight and some others raised questions about certain aspects of Lennox's background, touching on such issues as the war in Iraq and the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy of discrimination against gay service members. There was significant discussion of the "fit" between Lennox and the institution.

Because he sensed that the "frustration on the part of some faculty" was "about to boil over," Sisolak called for a vote of the six-member regent panel, which endorsed the hiring of Lennox by a tally of 6-0. In a public comment session that followed the vote, Sisolak said, faculty and alumni complaints and criticism of Lennox and the board intensified. "As angry and mean-spirited as some of those people were," said Sisolak, "I wouldn't be surprised" if their comments discouraged Lennox from taking the job -- a significant loss for UNLV, he added.

"We were thrilled that a man of Bill Lennox's caliber would consider becoming president of UNLV," said Sisolak, an advertising consultant. "He would have driven the university to a higher level, and been an agent for change."

Sisolak and other regents who supported Lennox "found positives in his military background," he said. "I can separate the lieutenant general from President George Bush and 'don't ask, don't tell,' but I don't know that everybody could. I just don't know how much of that baggage he carried."

Faculty leaders said concerns about Lennox's military background had played a role, but that dissatisfaction with the process loomed larger. Bill Robinson, vice chair of the UNLV Faculty Senate, said that "there are certainly some parts of the faculty who have fear of a general," and expressed concerns about the fact that Lennox's prior administrative experience is at an institution, West Point, that does not have a system of faculty tenure. (Lennox's supporters note that he was the only one of the three candidates who said during interviews that he would add a faculty member to his cabinet.)

"But the general feeling in the faculty," said Robinson, an assistant professor of economics, "was less about not wanting [Lennox] and more about really wanting the other two folks." Krislov, he said, was seen as a "community builder," while Ashley "comes across as a research guru kind of person, and a lot of faculty found that to be attractive, because their goal is to be at the [University of California] level.

A board meeting scheduled for tomorrow at which the regents had planned to endorse the selection of Lennox has been scuttled, replaced by a meeting Thursday at which the search committee will either nominate one of the two remaining candidates or, conceivably, start the search anew. Ashley, the Merced provost, told the Las Vegas Review Journal Monday that he would accept the position if offered. Krislov was traveling, the newspaper said, and could not be reached.


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