When Joe Crowley assumed the presidency of the University of Nevada, Reno in 1978, prospects for the state’s land-grant institution were not promising. Faculty morale was low. Campus growth was stagnant. Enrollment had leveled off. Then-president Max Milam, an outsider from Arkansas, had been summarily dismissed by the Board of Regents after less than four years on the job. In stepped Crowley, the 44-year-old chairman of the university’s political science department. He was a respected figure on campus, having served as the chairman of the faculty senate. Quietly, determinedly, Crowley knew he was up to the task.
His first priority? To get to know his institution. What was it about UNR that made it unique? What could Crowley use to convince the state in the weeks, months and years to come that an investment in the university was an investment in the state’s future? Looking back on those first few days, even Crowley admits the task was formidable. “I was just overwhelmed,” he says. “I knew a fair number of people and had a fairly good working knowledge of the campus. But the hardest thing I had to learn was how much I still needed to know about this institution.”
Twenty-two years later, as Crowley prepares to finally step down from the presidency on Dec. 31, few would argue that no one knows more about the essence of the University of Nevada, Reno than Joe Crowley. “Joe has articulated the vision that UNR is the state’s land-grant institution,” says vice president for advancement Paul Page. “I know when I came here 30 years ago this was a friendly campus, but in some ways it had lost its identity. We were teaching here, but what else was going on? Public and community service was not being stressed. Research was not being stressed. Diversity was not high on the list of priorities. People support success, and Joe realized this very early on in his presidency. Because of Joe’s leadership, we’re a good university, a moving university. Joe’s made it clear that we can’t let up … and because of that sense of mission, people perceive us as quality.”
Crowley’s presidency has been historic, on many different levels. His longevity is unsurpassed in the institution’s history. In the fall semester of 1998, Crowley passed one of the seminal figures in the state’s higher education history – Walter E. Clark, who served as Nevada president from 1917-38 – as the longest-serving chief executive in university history. The history-making event, in typical low-key Crowley fashion, was hardly mentioned on campus. Instead, the hard-working chief executive – who has lived in the same middle-class university neighborhood, in the same home, for more than 25 years – kept plowing forward.
In fact, Crowley’s announcement on May 31 that he would be stepping down from the presidency caught many campus observers by surprise. He will return to teaching and writing, and plans to spend more time with his wife of 39 years, Joy, as well as the couple’s four children and six grandchildren. At age 67, many people simply assumed that the nation’s longest-serving president at a single principal public university had many more years left in him. He probably still does. But Crowley says he knew the time was right. “I’m an academic person, a social scientist of sorts,” he says. “But I also believe in the gut. I’ve just had this growing feeling inside that the time (to step down) is right.”
In addition to his longevity, Crowley’s legacy rides on many tangible accomplishments. Nevada has never been more prosperous or respected than it is today.
- Enrollment on campus has increased from 7,500 students in 1978-79 – Crowley’s first year as president – to 12,500 in 1999-2000.
- Budgeted faculty stood at 1,211 in 1978; today, it has increased more than 35 percent to more than 1,800.
- Research, which was slowly creeping into the low seven figures in the 1970s, reached an all-time high of $87 million in 1999-2000.
- Fund-raising, which hit a then-high-water mark in 1983 with $3.7 million, brought in $124.5 million with the university’s Century Campaign from 1990-95, and now exceeds $28 million annually.
- Though the campus is essentially land-locked on a bluff above downtown Reno, Crowley has managed to expand facilities and buildings on campus at an unheard-of rate. Fifty percent of the university’s facilities have been acquired or built during Crowley’s tenure.
“The University of Nevada is unrecognizable today compared to what it was like when Joe started,” says Board of Regents chairwoman Jill Derby. “The whole university has gone to a new level with him at the helm.” Adds geography professor and former faculty senate chairman Chris Exline: “I hate to perpetuate the stereotype of my profession, but it would be really interesting to get a campus map 20 years ago and compare it with a campus map today. And that’s just the bricks-and-mortar part of what Joe has done.”
According to history professor James Hulse, whose book The University of Nevada: A Centennial History is considered the definitive work on the institution’s growth and development, Crowley’s influence has been indelible. “Joe and his people have made a convincing case that this was a place they could invest in, and the last 12 or 13 years have been some of the most productive in the university’s history,” Hulse says.
Crowley’s understated, yet warm personality, Hulse adds, has been one of the prime reasons. Crowley, a native of Iowa, has many of the values associated with America’s Heartland. For example, he prides himself on being a good listener. Every conversation he has is characterized by quiet civility and respect – whether he is conversing with U.S. Sen. Harry Reid or a member of the university’s Buildings and Grounds department.
“Joe is an accountable individual,” says Hulse, who is quick to note that he has on more than one occasion stomped in a huff over to Crowley’s office in the Clark Building, only to be disarmed by Crowley’s wry sense of humor. “I know sometimes I’ve gone over to his office angry or annoyed, and he provides a kind of safety valve. He’s a good listener, and a reasonable facilitator.”
Richard Lapchick, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University, worked closely with Crowley during Crowley’s presidency of the NCAA in 1993-95. Lapchick says Crowley’s influence on intercollegiate athletics has been profound, for it was during Crowley’s presidency that the Association enacted numerous far-reaching reforms, all of which made the Association more accountable by putting power in the hands of university presidents. “Joe helped lay this important groundwork, and of course didn’t demand any credit for having done so,” Lapchick says. “But that’s typical of my friend. He prefers to quietly get things done.”
As the clock has finally begun to tick on the final days of Crowley’s presidency, rest assured his term will not have a typical lame-duck ending. Crowley and his family attended a recent summer gathering on the historic university Quadrangle – the Pack Picnic, a night when close to 1,000 Nevada alumni gathered on a pleasant, cool night to munch watermelon while listening to the Reno Municipal Band play show tunes. On a prodigious blanket, Crowley grandchildren swarmed happily all over their grandfather. Crowley laughed and rolled under the children’s weight and managed – adroitly – to keep his glasses from falling off.
Nearby, two Nevada alums observed the scene. “It looks like Crowley’s taking it easy now that he’s stepping down,” said Robert Nelson, a 1982 graduate in engineering.
“Not at all,” Nelson’s friend and fellow alum, Carl Jenkins, said. “This is part of his job, too. In 22 years, that guy has never taken a day off. The minute he leaves this place, it will never be the same again.”
The Joe Crowley file:
July 9, 1933 born in Oelwein, Iowa.
1959 Received bachelor’s degree in political science from University of Iowa
1961 Married the former Joy Reitz
1963 Received master’s degree in social science from Fresno State University
1966 Joined University of Nevada, Reno political science faculty as a one-semester, $3,500-per-year temporary replacement
1967 Received doctorate in political science from University of Washington
1967 Given full-time contract at UNR as political science professor
1972 George McGovern delegate to Democratic National Convention
1976-78 Chairman, UNR political science department
Feb. 24, 1978 Appointed acting UNR president
March 23, 1979 Appointed full-time UNR president
1989 Named Outstanding Alumnus of the Year at Fresno State
1993-95 President of NCAA
1994 University of Iowa Distinguished Alumni award winner
1994 Wrote the book “No Equal in the World: An Interpretation of the Academic Presidency”
1998 Received Honor of Merit from the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics
May 31, 2000 Announced at press conference that he would be stepping down as president effective Dec. 31.