The Nevada System of Higher Education only cares about itself — and the University of Nevada, Reno.
That was one of the harsh criticisms doled out by scholars and philanthropists last week during a Lincy Institute symposium on reforming higher education in Nevada. Speakers admonished NSHE for excessive administrative bloat and argued the bureaucratic office is stifling growth and success at every institution that isn’t UNR. Scholars are calling for a sweeping overhaul that would reduce NSHE staff by more than two-thirds and eliminate the power the chancellor currently has over university and college presidents.
Fueling the philanthropist outrage and call for reform is the loss of millions of dollars pledged by donors to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas for a medical school building. One major donation — $14 million from The Engelstad Family Foundation — was rescinded in March after tensions between the NSHE Chancellor Thom Reilly and then-university president Len Jessup boiled over, leading the latter to seek new employment out of state. A trustee of the foundation told reporters the donation was “predicated on the fact that leadership did not change.”
Presidents typically play a key role in fundraising for universities and Jessup was largely seen as excelling at that.
Fulfillment Fund CEO Lindy Schumacher, who represents local philanthropists, said the handling of Jessup burned bridges with donors, who remain wary about the structure of higher education in Nevada. Donors feel their money, however intended for a specific use it may be, ends up in the hands of NSHE and the Board of Regents rather than with the university leadership they feel connected to.
“There is no trust in the regents,” said Schumacher, “no trust in the chancellor.”
Schumacher recalled a regent suggesting money donated for the UNLV medical school building be redirected to its proposed engineering building instead — a suggestion the philanthropist says speaks to how hapless and out-of-touch the board is.
UNLV Professor David Damore said the power of the chancellor can be traced largely to “a $1 deal” made between the Board of Regents and the late Jim Rogers in 2005. The local millionaire businessman turned philanthropist offered to be chancellor for a one-buck salary but only if the power of the position were strengthened. More specifically, that meant granting the chancellor the ability to fire presidents of the universities and colleges.
The vote on the issue passed — 12 in favor, one opposed.
“It’s stunning,” Damore said. “Elected officials voted their power away.”
When it comes to reforming higher education in Nevada, gubernatorial buy-in is essential, added Damore. Outgoing Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed all of the higher education reform bills passed by the 2017 Legislature, including one that would have made it easier for UNLV and Desert Research Institute to access federal grant money.
That Sisolak previously served as a regent gives him insight that may lead him to being more open to shaking things up — or, more specifically, not vetoing anything passed by the Legislature. Observers also hope that because Sisolak hails from Southern Nevada, earned his MBA from UNLV, and is the father of two Rebel alumnae, his loyalties will not be to the northern stronghold that is UNR.
Equity issues between the two research universities have been well documented but gone largely unaddressed, with the southern university currently receiving less per pupil funding than its northern counterpart. The Lincy Institute has proposed a “University of Nevada Equity Act” that would fix inequities in resources, give them equal space per capita and fund the schools using the same per-pupil formula.
In most states, universities and community colleges are overseen by separate boards. In Nevada, both types of institutions are overseen by the Board of Regents. This is unique, and not in a good way, says Robert Lang, the executive director of The Lincy Institute.
Lang believes the community and state colleges should be overseen by appointed boards that are more in tune with the specific needs and spirit of their institutions. With that would come separate state budgets and funding formulas.
The current funding formula used in Nevada was created by NSHE with the help of an outside consulting firm in 2011. An investigation by the Review-Journal in 2016 alleged NSHE misled legislators regarding its creation and led to the resignation of then-Chancellor Dan Klaich. The funding formula has been criticized as protecting funding for UNR at the expense of ever other institution, but especially the state’s community colleges.
Another legislative suggestion from the Lincy Institute includes replacing NSHE with a much smaller “Nevada Office of Higher Education” that handles the functions of a state agency and operates out of Carson City. NSHE is currently based in Las Vegas, across from UNLV. Lang says the number of employees could be cut from 240 down to 70 if it stopped “second guessing” and repeating all the work done by its institutions.
“That’s why they’ve grown and grown and grown,” he adds, “ 240 people for seven schools!”
Within this proposed NSHE replacement, the chancellor position would become an executive director position and be on the same level as university presidents, not above them. Lang says this structure is typical among states.
The current administrative budget for NSHE is larger than the budget for many of the institutions it oversees, including Great Basin College, Desert Research Institute and UNLV Boyd School of Law. Money saved on administrative costs could be reallocated to schools, says Lang.
Implementing such changes here in Nevada would not require a constitutional amendment, Lang says. It could happen quickly via the Legislature, so long as they are not afraid of substantial change.
There is concurrently an ongoing legislative effort (AJR 5) to remove the Board of Regents from the Nevada Constitution, “and to authorize the Legislature to provide by statute for the governance, control and management” of the university system. It passed during the 2017 session and will be reconsidered in the upcoming 2019 session. If passed again, it will appear as a statewide question on the 2020 ballot.
The Current reached out to NSHE for a response from Chancellor Reilly to the changes proposed during the Lincy Institute event, but was told he was unavailable because he was busy working on Governor-Elect Sisolak’s Transition Team. NSHE did not respond to a follow-up request for a written statement from the office.