Guest op-ed: Remediating the chancellor

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“Until most of our campus population is vaccinated, we must do everything we can to stop COVID. This means immediately requiring that all members of the Southern Nevada NSHE community wear masks.” (UNLV photo)

Last December, The Lincy Institute at UNLV held a forum where we presented research examining the funding of public higher education in Nevada using data provided by the Legislative Counsel Bureau.  The analysis finds that after the implementation of the funding formula in 2013, the share of the Nevada System of Higher Education’s (NSHE) operational budget decreased for every institution besides one, the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR).

For anyone familiar with higher education in Nevada, this should not come as a shock.  The formula’s creation under former NSHE Chancellor and one-time UNR student body president Dan Klaich was corrupt.  After reporting by the Review Journal’s Bethany Barnes revealed NSHE’s machinations—including falsely submitting the work of a consultant justifying the formula to a legislative committee—the Board of Regents paid out Klaich’s contract and he retired, but the corrupt formula remains.

To date, no higher education official, elected or appointed, has publicly addressed the disparities perpetuated by the formula’s implementation.

No member of the Board of Regents has responded.

Not a word from the presidents of Nevada’s public higher education institutions.

Chancellor Thom Reilly has not commented directly.

In a recent interview with Nevada Current reporter April Corbin, the chancellor, however, did offer some related thoughts.  In the interview, Reilly dismissed concerns about funding disparities as “a tired discussion” and that it was his hope that people “stop comparing UNR to UNLV and arguing that the latter is shortchanged.”  He went on to defend the formula by denying it has any “systemic flaws.”

Given Reilly’s recent bizarre assertion that the UNR-administered branch of Clark County Cooperative Extension provides excellent remedial education, it appears that the chancellor is still learning as he goes.  Therefore, he might not understand that the formula’s performance undermines his stated goal of increasing NSHE’s dismal undergraduate graduation rates particularly for minority students.

However, unlike the hard-fought effort to add budgetary weights for targeted student populations such as English Learners to Nevada’s K-12 funding formula, the chancellor has failed to propose similar investments in the academic resources needed to assist graduation for at-risk and underrepresented students.

In a May 2018 report issued by The Lincy Institute we analyze the lack of higher education reform during the 2017 legislative session.  One of our report’s short-term recommendations was to add a small bump to the weighted student credit hours (the formula’s multiplier) earned by first generation college students and Pell Grant recipients to support campuses’ efforts to assist with these students’ success.

Our guess as to why the chancellor has not taken this idea is to do so would result in more resources going to institutions serving such communities (UNLV, CSN, NSC) and fewer resources to schools that do not (UNR).

In fact, NSHE has invested the most infrastructure promoting student success at UNR, the campus with the state’s highest retention and graduation rates, and where more than ten percent of the undergraduates are Californians attending via the Western University Exchange (WUE).  Of course, UNR’s undergraduate demographics favor stronger performance given that the school serves fewer disadvantaged students, students who are the first in their family to go to college, or students who work full-time jobs.  Still, the State of Nevada funds a UNR student recruitment office in Summerlin that is tasked with recruiting Clark County’s best and brightest to the northern branch of the state university.

Not satisfied, NSHE saw fit to further enhance UNR’s retention efforts by funding construction of the William N. Pennington Student Achievement Center.  Interestingly, the cost of the Pennington Center closely parallels that of UNLV’s Hospitality Hall, about $45 million.  The buildings’ financing, however, differed.  For Hospitality Hall—a building that directly supports the state’s core economic sector—UNLV needed to secure donors to provide half the funding.  State funds covered the vast majority of the Pennington Center.

This is not an isolated example.  While students attending the southern institutions face crowded campuses, over-extended support staff, and enrollment wait lists, UNR is in the midst of a building explosion. If you don’t believe us, just ask UNR President Marc Johnson, who regularly boasts about all the on-campus construction including the Gateway District Project requiring the controversial demolition of historical houses and the campus’s seventh engineering building funded with $41.5 million in state money.

Meanwhile, renowned UNLV robotics professor Paul Oh operates his research facility in the back of a “99 Cents Store” off of Flamingo Avenue.

Some argue that if students from Clark County want to attend a campus with such resources and amenities, then they can go to UNR.  Unfortunately, even with assistance from the Millennium Scholarship, this is not feasible for many disadvantaged and first-time college students who lack the support systems to live hundreds of miles from their families and the means to pay for room and board.

Moreover, the share of students who begin their undergraduate education at UNR before transferring to UNLV is staggering suggesting that the campus is either unwelcoming or that these students are unable to sustain the costs of attending UNR.  For many students UNLV is the only option for a university education.

While the chancellor dismisses the equity concerns related to the lives and futures of these Nevadans as a “tired discussion,” we see it as a civil rights issue. One that is exacerbated by the fact that it is tax revenue that is stripped out of Southern Nevada that funds much of the largesse that NSHE disproportionally showers on UNR.

In his interview, the chancellor also championed the benefits of Nevada’s “unique” higher education governance/administrative amalgamation. There is little doubt that the system benefits the chancellor.

With the power to issue gag orders to stop presidents from speaking out against NSHE priorities that might hurt their institutions to a compliant Board of Regents that voted away much of its authority, on a day to day basis, it is the chancellor who holds sway over NSHE.

Bestow the chancellor with an annual salary north of $425k—some 40 percent more than his predecessors—and upon retirement, lifetime annual PERS payouts in the hundreds of thousands, and there is little wonder why Reilly, unlike Jesus Jara, the new superintendent of the Clark County School District, is not seen as an agent of change.

To wit, Jara recently released a report highlighting significant discrepancies within the state’s largest school district. Days later he fired the district’s Chief Operating Officer and Chief Human Resources Officer.

Compare this to Reilly’s response to the exodus of senior NSHE staff on his watch.  After Reilly forced out NSHE Chief Financial Officer Chet Burton following Burton’s report on how the current funding structure diminishes the capacity of the community colleges, Reilly hired UNR alum Andrew Clinger to oversee the system’s finances.  You may recall that Clinger recently was “separated” by the City of Reno in the wake of accusations of sexual harassment.

Later in the interview, Reilly held up the example of the NSHE partnership with MGM as an example of the strengths of Nevada’s unitary structure.  Under the arrangement, MGM agrees to fund the costs of its employees pursuing postsecondary education opportunities through online courses. Reilly claimed “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.”

This is a lie.  We should know.  The idea actually was conceived by one of us (Bill Brown, UNLV Director of Brookings Mountain West) based upon a partnership model that Arizona State University (ASU) developed with Starbucks.  After pitching the idea to former UNLV President Len Jessup, Jessup took the idea to MGM and its CEO Jim Murren, who enthusiastically supported a partnership with UNLV.

After the Nevada Current story appeared, we asked Jessup about the origins of the MGM online partnership and Jessup confirmed that he and Jim Murren had originally agreed that it would be a partnership between MGM, the state’s largest employer, and UNLV, the state’s largest and most advanced university in online education.  He said that it was originally an agreement with UNLV only, and that both he and Murren saw that it would be immensely beneficial to MGM employees based on UNLV’s expertise and quality across a variety of programs, particularly in hospitality management.  He added that both sides were excited about the agreement and work was underway to launch it as a UNLV only agreement.

Notice that ASU, in the model that UNLV aimed to replicate, formed a successful stand-alone partnership with Starbucks and was not forced by the Arizona Commission for Postsecondary Education (the Arizona equivalent of NSHE) to extend it to other institutions.  Indeed, the very example that Reilly cites as proof that Nevada needs a large, highly bureaucratized, system administrative office for partnerships such as the one with MGM suggests the very opposite.

To justify the superiority of NSHE, Reilly even went so far in his Current interview to criticize neighboring Arizona, which uses an appointed board to govern its universities and devolves governance of its community college to localities, by implying that that state’s higher education leaders are envious of how higher education operates in Nevada.

Nothing is further from the truth.  While UNLV and UNR recently rose to the top 130 research universities in the nation, both ASU and the University of Arizona are among the top 30 such institutions in the United States.  Both schools also deliver higher levels of student success to undergraduate populations similar to Nevada’s.  Arizona’s community colleges are hubs of innovation and workforce development that directly collaborate with local industries and employers.  For instance, Chandler-Gilbert Community College partnered with Intel to create the “Intel Ultimate Engineering Experience” that prepares students for careers in advanced manufacturing.

Last week, we had the opportunity to meet with Michael Crow, the president of ASU, and asked him how ASU would fare under NSHE.  He responded that it would be impossible for ASU to succeed under our state’s “weird governance structure.”

Why Reilly thinks the opposite is a mystery.  After all, he is still a tenured professor on leave from ASU.  While at ASU, Reilly also administered the Morrison Institute (ASU quickly hired a new director upon Reilly’s leave of absence), a public policy center within the ASU School of Public Affairs, College of Public Programs that seeks to provide “high quality” and “objective research” to inform policy debates in the state.

From our perspective, ASU exemplifies what colleges and universities can achieve when campus presidents are free to lead their schools without the threat of a non-expert bureaucrat usurping their authority and taking and claiming credit for their innovations or fearing for their jobs if they advocate for their schools and students.

A “tired discussion”?  A corrupt funding formula with no “systematic flaws”?  A higher education structure that is the “envy” of other states?  Please.  We only can imagine what nonsense the chancellor will espouse next.

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Robert Lang
Robert Lang

Robert Lang is Lincy Endowed Chair in Urban Affairs, Executive Director of The Lincy Institute, Executive Director of Brookings Mountain West, and Professor, School of Public Policy & Leadership, UNLV

William E. Brown, Jr.
William E. Brown, Jr.

William Brown, is the UNLV director of Brookings Mountain West.

David Damore
David Damore

David Damore is Professor and Chair, Political Science, at UNLV.