Sandoval on being named president of the University of Nevada, Reno: ‘It is coming home’

Governor Brian Sandoval poses for a portrait in front of a painting of past UNR President Joe Crowley after accepting the position of President of the University of Nevada, Reno on Sept. 17, 2020. Sandoval revealed that he took Political Science 101 from Crowley as a young student at UNR.

Brian Sandoval was in almost the exact same spot where he sat 39 years ago on Thursday.

A Bishop Manogue High School graduate, Sandoval was a freshman taking political science 101 from Joe Crowley, who would go on to be the longest serving president of UNR.

Sandoval sat in the middle of the large lecture hall, an intimidated 18-year-old taking a class from the university’s president. 

It was Sandoval before the titles of state legislator, Nevada Gaming Commission chairman, state attorney general and federal judge were part of his resume.  

And it was before he became a household name in Nevada as a popular two-term governor.

Read more: Sandoval says he has no regrets after two terms as Nevada’s governor

Now, he’s back at the university in what he says is his dream job, accepting a new challenge not far from that lecture hall decades later.  

He will take over as the 17th president of the University of Nevada, Reno on Oct. 5.

“It’s coming home,” said Sandoval, who has long been rumored to be interested in the job, long before President Marc Johnson announced he was stepping down to teach a year ago. 

In 1980: Brian Sandoval (now Nevada governor) as a Manogue junior in 1980.

“Everything I have been able to accomplish in my life has come back to here,” Sandoval says, calling UNR the “North Star” of all of his accomplishments and relationships.

Sandoval was easily given the nod for the post in a unanimous vote after three days of rigorous campus interviews. He was one of four finalists from more than 100 applicants.

Read more: What we know, and don’t know, about the future first lady of Nevada

Not bad for a guy who got a B in Crowley’s political science class.  

Sandoval is confident the foundation laid by his predecessors will allow him to continue the progress being made on growing UNR’s academic rankings, increasing enrollment, keeping students and staff safe amid COVID-19 and tackling the racial issues that have affected the university.

Of the four finalists, Sandoval was the only one who didn’t rise through academic channels, but it’s hard to argue he isn’t well versed in navigating a financial crisis.

Sandoval isn’t modest in asserting his qualifications make him the right person for the job. He often refers to taking over the state in 2010 during the recession when unemployment rates were above 14 percent and the state would soon lead in foreclosures.  He’s worked with the university system in almost every job up to this point, including as governor where he created the budget for the Nevada System of Higher Education.   

“At this time and point that we are in, I am the right person at the right time to lead this university,” he says confidently.  “Of course, I am going to build a very strong team around me.”

He says the team won’t be from his days in politics but he will look for strong academic leaders to surround himself with, aiming to increase rankings and the amount of research at his alma matter.

It was just minutes after being named UNR’s president that Sandoval stood next to the portrait of that same professor whose class he sat in decades ago. He was named the president of UNR in a building named for Crowley.  

Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval and First Lady Lauralyn McCarthy stand at attention during the singing of the National Anthem at a Wolf Pack basketball game on Dec. 15, 2018.

Former UNR President: Joe Crowley, UNR’s longest serving president, dead at 84

“I admired him so much,” Sandoval says about Crowley, who died in 2017. “I hope that President Crowley would be proud of me.”

Governor Brian Sandoval hugs his wife Lauralyn McCarthy Sandoval after accepting the position of President of the University of Nevada, Reno on Sept. 17, 2020. Sandoval's daughter Marissa, right, looks on.

The Reno Gazette Journal talked to Sandoval over the past week and listened in on campus forums and a press conference. Here are his thoughts on his challenges, goals, memories, the friendly rivalry with UNLV and more:

First thing you plan to do as UNR president:

I am going to go around campus. I think it is really important to go on a listening tour to sit with the students, sit with the faculty, sit with the staff and learn even more about this campus. I have already put together a schedule to do that.

How can you navigate the tough times ahead?

In my life I have had the opportunity to have several leadership positions. Similar to now, we were in budget crisis when I became governor, so I felt like I was the right person at the right time to lead this university through a budget crisis, through a pandemic and a time of social injustice.

There are a lot of issues, but I do believe our best days are ahead and I’m really excited about what we can do here.

Lauralyn McCarthy, right, and Governor Brian Sandoval sit together during the University of Nevada, Reno commencement ceremony on Saturday morning, May 19, 2018.

Do you think you will bring anyone over from your political days to the university:

I haven’t even thought about that but unlikely.  It’s just a different skill set you are going to need up here. I want the absolute best people, and it’s really important given I don’t have an academic background that I bring a real strong academic team up there to continue this great mission of this university.

Governor Brian Sandoval speaks during a press conference after accepting the position of President of the University of Nevada, Reno on Sept. 17, 2020.

On a Colin Kaepernick statue on campus:

I think he is somebody already that history is really going to appreciate the courage he showed.

With regards to a statue on campus, I think the first thing that has to happen is to have a conversation with Colin.  I don’t know if anybody has talked to Colin himself. That is a conversation I would like to have with him.

 I think he is somebody we should welcome back to campus. Colin is somebody I appreciate and respect.

UNR working to bring Kaepernick to campus, put up more images of star athlete

As I walk the campus, there are some other things we need to think about. There is not a statue of woman… We don’t have a statue of a Native American…or an Asian.

On leaving a legacy: 

In four years, or hopefully many more years, the legacy I would want to see is to make this one of the finest institutions in the West if not the nation.

The place of athletics at UNR:

I’ve been coming to the Wolf Pack football and basketball games since I was a little boy. Athletics is an important part of the student experience. … What I don’t want to happen is for there to be any feeling that the money going to athletics is taking away from academics. I think the two can complement each other.”

On the COVID-19 pandemic, Sandoval credited UNR for already having a strong plan in place:

There is a 60-page plan that has been followed very closely. …At the heart of it all is the safety and security of students. As we move on we will have to watch it very closely.

Everyone who comes on this campus knows they have a responsibility to protect the Pack.

Read more: UNR president: Having a party in era of COVID-19 could get you expelled

Anything you would change about UNR: 

It’s not change, it’s strengthening.  I want to add buildings. I want to build a new business building. I want to increase enrollment and retain our faculty.  I want to have more diversity among our student body and faculty.

Handling racial tensions on campus: 

That isn’t something that hasn’t been addressed. There is a diversity officer and campuswide plan. I want to sit down with groups on campus and listen to their concerns and address those. This is not a new issue but is one that is going to be a priority for me and was for the previous administrations.

What do you think about the Mountain West playing this season:

It depends. There are a lot of things. First and foremost is safety of the student athletes and we have to be convinced they are going to be safe and fans are going to be safe. There is a lot to look in to do that.”

Read more: Mountain West return gaining traction. Here are the big issues for Wolf Pack, conference

What are you going to hang in your office?

Probably my UNR diploma. It is something I am really proud of. … And a picture of my wifey.

Your thoughts on UNR’s fraternities and sororities:

I think Greek life is a component of a university experience but there are rules that need to be followed.  

I am someone who was a member of a fraternity.  Some of my best friends I still have are people I met in that regard. It is something I think needs to be discussed, and with the leadership of the fraternities and sororities and what needs to be done to see if they can be reinstated.

My experience was a good one and I am hopeful that students that attend here can have a quality experience.

On becoming a University town:  

It is an exciting prospect as we continue to expand to downtown This is a university town. In my mind every car should have decal on it and every business should have a Wolf Pack sign.

Did you ever do anything stupid in college? 

I think we all did. I don’t think I did anything I regret. I had a great experience here. As I’ve said everything I have been able to accomplish in my life has come back to here

Are you going to making any wagers with the new president of UNLV?

Absolutely. Certainly, a friendly rivalry is always great

It is an outstanding university. That is what this state needs is two great universities.

Friendly competition is great but at the same time there is a lot of opportunity to work together especially in the age of COVID.

On wearing UNLV sweatshirt? 

You have to be true to your school, right? I am a Wolf Pack fan to the core.

Siobhan McAndrew tells stories about the people of Northern Nevada and covers education in Washoe County. Read her journalism right here. Consider supporting her work by subscribing to the Reno Gazette Journal