By Ron Knecht
Over a year ago, Don Carlson, former Western Nevada College sociology professor, graduated from good friend to guru, coach and consigliere – a great guy and a God-send for his political skills.
I asked Don whom he thought my political role model was and he guessed right: Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn. Coburn has cancer, is retiring two years early and was recently the subject of a 60 Minutes profile.
While generous to some folks (especially Barack Obama) in reflecting on his service, Coburn was clear-eyed and candid. Especially about the failings of Congress and his colleagues.
So, as I step away in a few days from being a regent to become state controller – and especially following recent kind farewell remarks by fellow regents to me and two other departing regents (remarks I regret having to miss) – my own reflections.
First, I’m deeply grateful to the people of the Sierra Front for twice electing me regent. It’s an honor and an opportunity for important service. Second, while being candid about the short-comings of regents and others in the Nevada System of Higher Education, I salute and thank all of them for their service. Especially the small regents’ staff.
My main disappointment is that too few regents and others in the system show by their actions that they truly get the most important point. That point is one I’ve raised before: The duty of regents and all public officials and public employees is a fiduciary duty to the voters and taxpayers, as such, and thus to the broad public interest.
It’s not a duty to an institution or group of them (universities or community colleges), to any interest group (faculty, administration or even students), region, particular service (medical education, the arts, etc.), and certainly not to ancillary ventures (athletics). The public interest requires one to set aside one’s own favorite things and to balance the social value of each proposed choice against its social cost and the other things that selecting it will cause us to forego.
The public interest requires us to promote 1) economic growth to maximize the size of the pie and 2) fairness via the rule of law, liberty and individual (not group) rights, secure property rights and economic freedom. It requires us to set aside being advocates for particular interests because important decisions always involve finding balance points among competing interests. Being an advocate compromises the candor, objectivity and judgment balancing requires.
Even being an advocate for “education” undermines integrity in balancing. Invariably, being an advocate for education (or health care, or some demographic group, etc.) in practice means being an advocate for the provider bureaucracy that delivers that service or the client group receiving it. All such causes, provider bureaucracies and client groups are, by human nature, special interests that will be as predatory upon the voters, taxpayers and broad public interest as they’re allowed to be by regents, legislators, governors – even controllers.
Most regents and other people in the system fall short on promoting the public interest instead of their own interests or favored things. Some even aspire to be and succeed at being those low political creatures: go-along-to-get-along establishment “players” and defenders of the status quo.
I’d be remiss not to mention regents who’ve been special to me: current colleagues Allison Stephens and James Dean Leavitt; former chairman Bret Whipple; Cedric Crear who started service the same day as I did; and Jack Schofield and Robert Blakely whose terms end this month.
I gave good, but insufficient efforts as a regent. I’ll try to do better as controller. Thanks again for the opportunity. Merry Christmas.
Ron Knecht is an economist, law school graduate, higher education regent and Nevada Controller-elect.