Nevadans will soon get to weigh in on who the ultimate authority is on higher education.
Appearing before voters on the 2020 general ballot is Question 1, also known as “The Nevada Higher Education Reform, Accountability and Oversight Amendment.” Voting yes removes the Board of Regents from the Nevada Constitution entirely and requires the Nevada Legislature to pass laws concerning the “governance, control, and management” of the state’s higher education system. Voting no maintains the status quo.
Proponents of Question 1 say the change is necessary because the status quo is that the Board of Regents act as “a fourth branch of government,” immune to oversight and accountability by the Nevada Legislature. They argue that no other similar board receives a constitutional carve out, and that the appearance of the Board of Regents in the document is an antiquated relic in desperate need of updating.
As proof, they cite a 1981 lawsuit where the Board of Regents argued that its “unique constitutional status” gives it “virtual autonomy and thus immunity” from certain laws passed by the Nevada Legislature. They also point to high-profile controversies involving past chancellors and regents. “Yes on Question 1” has garnered endorsements from a diverse coalition, including various unions and chambers of commerce.
Perhaps not surprisingly, past chancellors and current regents have a different interpretation of Question 1. They believe the Nevada Legislature already has plenty of oversight in higher education matters — they approve NSHE’s biennium budget, receive reports, and hold interim committees focused on specific higher education issues. Opponents of Question 1 see the effort as the Legislature’s first step toward changing the Board of Regents from a 13-member board elected directly by voters to an appointed or hybrid board.
Former Assemblyman Elliot Anderson (D-Clark), who authored the joint resolution that sparked Question 1, acknowledges its passage does open the door for future action from the Nevada Legislature that could change the board’s structure, but he insists “there is no preconceived plan” to do so.
“This is about allowing (NSHE) to be on par with every other (state) agency,” he says. “The regents are not subject to the law. They get a blank check, or no check. That’s the only tool (the Legislature has) and that’s not a good one to exercise.”
Anderson adds that focusing on the “what ifs…” of what future legislatures might do is a red herring: “It’s a desperate attempt to get out of oversight.”
State Sen. Joyce Woodhouse (D-Clark) agrees. She cosponsored Anderson’s resolution, which passed with bipartisan support in the 2017 and 2019 legislative sessions.
“I’ve been on Senate Finance (Committee) since 2009,” she says. “I’m used to being able to dive into where the funding is. The transparency is not there (for the Board of Regents and NSHE). When we ask questions, a stonewall comes up.”
Woodhouse says she views the Nevada System of Higher Education as a department within the state, similar to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR). She suggests the Board of Regents should be for NSHE more like the State Board of Education is for the state’s K-12 education system. The State Board of Education sets priorities and provides direction to public school districts, but it’s much less hands-on than the Board of Regents. Most notably, the Board of Education does not control the funding for K-12.
But the fear among regents isn’t unfounded. Lawmakers and groups within academia have been calling for a massive restructuring of NSHE and the Board of Regents for years. Those calls have been bolstered by high-profile controversies. In 2016, a Review-Journal investigation alleged NSHE misled legislators regarding its creation and led to the resignation of then-Chancellor Dan Klaich. More recently, millions of dollars of pledged donations for the UNLV medical school were pulled because of tensions between then-Chancellor Thom Reilly and then-President Len Jessup. Recent legislative sessions have seen proposals focused on restructuring the Board of Regents, including one in 2019 that would have it composed of nine elected and four appointed members.
The aforementioned State Board of Education is a hybrid board, with four members elected from each congressional district and nine members appointed by various people or public bodies. It wasn’t always structured this way. Before 2013, it was a fully elected board. Then, it was restructured by the Nevada Legislature — something made possible by the fact the board wasn’t enshrined in the constitution.
“It’s clear that’s the ultimate goal,” said Regent Jason Geddes, who has been on the Board of Regents since 2006, “to remove from the constitution so they can appoint the regents.”
Geddes is concerned voters will miss that context, which is not fully addressed in the eight-page summary provided to voters by the Secretary of State. (One line in the fiscal impact section notes only that “future actions” by the Legislature “cannot be predicted.”) Geddes believes Nevadans would be hesitant to give away their right to elect representatives to the Board of Regents.
The regent says he isn’t opposed to appointed or hybrid boards as a whole, he just sees no “next steps” from the sponsors proponents of Question 1: “They won’t give a simple example. How would changing the board improve graduation rates? How would that happen?”
On the contrary, Geddes adds, the move might hurt by causing instability within a system he says has been steadily improving metrics such as graduation rates and workforce development programming.