Thom Reilly knows there are many lenses a person can use to view the higher-education system here in Nevada. One brings into focus a north-south divide, in which the older research university nearest the state capitol is favored over the younger, scrappier institution located down south. The Nevada System of Higher Education chancellor flatly rejects that perspective.
“Mine is this: Get them graduated,” says Reilly. “For me everything is about student outcomes.”
Earlier this month, NSHE spokespersons declined to respond to criticism doled out by scholars who argue too much authority is concentrated with NSHE, the system favors UNR at UNLV’s expense, and NSHE needs reined in.
Several days later, however, Reilly did sit down for an interview and defended Nevada’s higher education governing structure. He also outlined NSHE’s plans for 2019.
On one system
Earlier this year, NSHE announced a major partnership with MGM Resorts International. Beginning in February, the latter will pay tuition for any of its employees enrolled in online programs at any of the former’s institutions. That includes the University of Nevada Las Vegas, the University of Nevada Reno, Nevada State College, Great Basin College, Western Nevada College, the College of Southern Nevada, and Truckee Meadows Community College.
Reilly says the partnership wouldn’t have happened between just MGM and one individual college or university. The selling point was in packaging more than half a dozen schools with various offerings.
Critics have pointed out that the structure of higher education in Nevada is unique for packaging oversight of research universities alongside community and state colleges. They see this as negative. But Reilly says other states envy Nevada’s structure because it allows for easier collaboration and gives the entire system a larger voice. He points to the MGM partnership as proof of that.
“People envy a system that can look at things holistically,” he said.
Divorcing the community colleges from the universities will only hurt the former, argues Reilly. He says states like Arizona with that structure typically see funding cut at community colleges. Community colleges already have a difficult time fundraising because large private donors gravitate toward projects at the more prestigious state universities.
Reilly say he’s seen no data suggesting that breaking apart NSHE would improve student outcomes, which he stressed is the idea that permeates all his decisions as chancellor.
On priorities for 2019
Each NSHE institution is putting together goals to be reached by 2025. With that comes setting performance benchmarks that can be tracked and measured between now and then. The schools have also chosen “aspirational institutions” — peer schools in other states whose outcomes they hope to match. (Example: Arizona State University, for UNLV.)
Many of these details will be discussed at an upcoming “Student Success Summit” Jan. 18. Reilly hopes the collaborative effort helps the NSHE institutions learn from each other and “scale up” individual successes. He also hopes it inspires people to stop comparing UNR to UNLV and arguing that the latter is shortchanged.
“That’s a tired discussion,” adds Reilly. “I’m not hearing that (discussion) from legislators.”
NSHE is also working on unveiling additional partnerships and collaboration with the Clark County School District. Reilly and college presidents will be on hand during CCSD Superintendent Jesus Jara’s State of Schools address scheduled for Jan. 11.
Reilly says there are ample opportunities for CCSD and CSN in particular to collaborate on and promote programming that creates career pathways that don’t involve traditional four-year degrees at universities. He points to an existing HVAC program as something that isn’t been utilized to its full potential.
As for what he expects from the legislative session, Reilly says he is open. He expects discussion on changing the makeup of the Board of Regents. Governor-Elect Steve Sisolak, a former regent himself, has stated he believes the 13-member board is too large.
Reilly also says he is hoping an interim study will be approved to examine the effectiveness of the current funding formula. He says the formula should periodically be reviewed to find areas that can be improved, but denies there are any systemic flaws within it.
On graduation rates (and that funding formula)
“A little bit of college doesn’t help you,” argues Reilly. “Actually, you’re probably even worse off because you may have debt.”
Current performance-based metrics that affect school funding are fine by Reilly because he believes improving the graduation rate needs to be prioritized. He doesn’t accept the argument that some schools have “harder-to-graduate” student populations and should be held to different (read: lower) standards than others.
“We can’t just say ‘because we have black, poor, Hispanic students we can’t graduate them at the same rate,’” he says. “We need to be prepared for that.”
Schools have found interventions and specialized programming that works for student populations with barriers, such as first-generation students who come from families who don’t have experience with financial aid or other aspects of higher education. Those efforts, Reilly says, just need to be scaled and they need to be prioritized, not just at the institution’s administrative level but down to the faculty level.
“We know something works,” adds Reilly. “It needs to be at the forefront of our minds.”
On the UNLV president search
UNLV is currently without a permanent president, following the controversial departure of former President Len Jessup. Reilly says he will put the search process in motion in early February, which means the search itself would likely happen in the fall of 2019.
Reilly says NSHE conducted a “check-in” with faculty, staff, students and donors about the president search and found the consensus to be that a national search should be conducted but that Acting President Marta Meana should apply for the permanent position.
Meana has been acting president since July 1.
As for the criticism that the chancellor position holds too much power, Reilly scoffs.
“What a radical concept. We hold people accountable. That’s the flip side. Why is that such a negative thing?”
Reilly says the process of reviewing presidents is open and transparent, and that while he can make a recommendation any decision is ultimately with the Board of Regents. Jessup wasn’t fired, though his supporters say he and other past presidents at UNLV have been pushed out the door.
Reilly added that the majority of NSHE institutions have not criticized the system.
“CSN, UNR, TMCC. Why have they all functioned just fine? I think it’s a good, transparent process.”