Board of Regents seats up in air with no incumbents running

By: - October 8, 2020 6:45 am
down the street

(Nevada Current file photo)

Nevada’s higher education system expects its recent influx of new faces to continue with three representative seats on the ballot in the November election.

The six candidates vying for positions on the Board of Regents will face off at a time when a ballot initiative could fundamentally shift authority over the system to the state Legislature.

Question 1 on the ballot is an effort to eliminate references to an elected Board of Regents from the state constitution. The move would vest power in the Nevada Legislature to determine the future “governance, control, and management” of the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE).

Currently, the board consists of 13 members who appoint a chancellor. They selected Melody Rose as the system’s new chancellor in June, about a month before appointing Keith Whitfield as president of UNLV and three months before selecting former Gov. Brian Sandoval to lead the University of Nevada Reno. The board is now also tasked with the selection of a president for Nevada State College.

Three board seats — those representing districts 2, 3 and 5 — are up for grabs with no incumbents running in the Nov. 3 general election. 

District 2

Former Las Vegas City Councilwoman Lois Tarkanian entered the District 2 race against former regent Bret Whipple with a hefty war chest.

Las Vegas City Councilwoman Lois Tarkanian, courtesy City of Las Vegas

Tarkanian, who spent 14 years on the Las Vegas City Council and 12 years on the Clark County School Board, retired from her council position last year.

Financial disclosure reports filed with the Secretary of State on expenses and income show she spent more than $17,500 as of June 30, with nearly all of that money paid to campaign consulting business SoCo Strategies. Her most recent disclosure form, showing contributions and expenses through Sept. 30, shows $647.49 remaining in her fund.

Whipple’s financial reports for the disclosure period through June 30 show no monetary contributions or expenses.

Whipple, a lawyer and partner at Justice Law Center, is hoping to make a return to the Board of Regents after having served from 2003 to 2008. During those years, he filled roles including chairman of the board and chair of the technology committee.

Among his chief efforts while a member of the body was the integration of NSHE’s information systems.

Neither Tarkanian nor Whipple responded to repeated requests for comment.

Both emphasized their dedication to the development of the UNLV School of Medicine in interviews with the Las Vegas Review-Journal this summer.

District 3

Byron Brooks

Army veteran and Las Vegas native Byron Brooks became involved in the local education system as his son became part of it.

Along the way, he’s grown more involved in an effort to help others navigate that system.

“The biggest thing for me, and it’s based on my experience with higher education, is that I really feel that resources on a campus … are important to the success of all students,” he said.

Brooks, a candidate for the District 3 race, emphasized internal and external NSHE communication, campus resources and student empowerment as among his priorities if elected.

The candidate, who operates a management organization affiliated with a medspa, said he plans to use his experience as a instructor with the Nevada Coalition for Suicide Prevention and mentor with the Veteran’s Treatment Court Program to work on the regent level toward open communication with all involved parties.

Swadeep Nigam

His opponent, Swadeep Nigam, shares a common inspiration with Brooks: family.

Nigam, director of Business Development and Strategic Initiatives with Paul Padda Law firm, cites a highly educated circle of family and friends as his inspiration to run for regent.

“I strongly believe that our education system needs to get upgraded,” he said. “We have different demographics now than when I moved here 35 years back.”

Though Nigam said he believes NSHE has adapted well to changes in the student population, he argues more should be done to assist first-generation students.

He also wants to focus on retention of Clark County’s top-performing students and draw on private funds to better endow scholarships. He argued his master’s degrees in business administration and economics, along with his work in the local community through organizations like the Nevada Equal Rights Commission, are resources he can put to work should he be elected.

The two candidates offered differing opinions on NSHE’s potential restructuring under the Legislature.

Brooks said he sees both sides of the situation.

“There are certainly challenges if the governance falls under the legislative body,” he said. “There will be challenges if the ballot initiative fails.”

Nigam, meanwhile, expressed concerns about the effort to centralize authority over the higher education system within the Legislature, especially given the governmental body’s part-time status.

Nigam’s financial filings show he’d heavily outraised but not outspent his opponent as of June 30, bringing in more than $16,400 from over 40 donors. By that time, he’d spent $1,000 on consulting and graphic design services. Brooks’ contributions and expenses reports show $1,900 in contributions as of June 30, with $1,500 of that money coming from City of Las Vegas Councilwoman Victoria Seaman and her husband. About $1,500 was spent on strategy and Facebook ads, according to a disclosure filed in July.

District 5

Patrick Boylan

Patrick Boylan, a former member of the Nevada State Board of Education, is focused on expanding the university system’s private partnerships and research enterprises.

If elected, he said he’d push for Nevada colleges to develop programs in cutting-edge areas like quantum computing, 3D printing and blockchain-enabled technology.

Boylan, who was an adjunct teacher at the College of Southern Nevada for 10 years and describes himself as “not politically correct,” has drawn criticism for numerous anti-Islam and anti-Muslim tweets, calling Islam the religion of “pieces” and referring to individual Muslims as “muzslime” or “mzslima.”

On the coronavirus, he said the experience shows the need for government officials to prepare for the worst.

If the university system cannot afford to fund what he views as important programs and scholarships, he supports exploring multiple options to do so.

“We have to be prepared to find other funding or increase funding from mining, marijuana, the gaming industry,” he said.

He also emphasizes the need to serve all of NSHE’s institutions, including small rural schools.

Boylan argues that the higher education system should also allow students who feel ready to return to campus to go back as long as safety and cleanliness precautions are in place.

Nick “Doc” Spirtos

While Boylan had not reported any contributions or expenses as of June 30, his opponent, Dr. Nick “Doc” Spirtos, reported running an almost entirely self-funded campaign, contributing more than $14,700 of the more than $15,700 he raised in the same period. The funds were used  on marketing and consulting. 

A physician, Spirtos is among the candidates who have named proper development of the UNLV School of Medicine as one of their top priorities. As medical director of the Women’s Cancer Center of Nevada, Spirtos said he wants to ensure the board has direct physician input on the growth of the school.

He praised the effort to bring a medical school to Southern Nevada but criticized the system’s planned spending on efforts like a multimillion-dollar medical education building, arguing instead for construction of a teaching hospital.

Spirtos also proposed NSHE look further into breaking down barriers to advancement for first-generation American students like himself. He’d like to review issues like grading in freshman classes, in which difficulties adjusting to college life may lead to lower academic marks. He also wants to look into rewarding high-achieving high school students to go to institutions in Nevada like UNLV in a program similar to one that exists at the University of Oklahoma. There, students who are named National Merit Scholars receive hefty scholarships.

Spirtos said one of his main commitments is to ensure diversity and argued that affirmative action programs need to “be at least discussed” in efforts to do so.

His opponent, Boylan, was endorsed by the Las Vegas Review-Journal last month in a piece endorsing his anti-affirmative action stance. 

The pair did agree on a key point: Both believe that efforts to strip power from the Board of Regents should be unwelcome.

Spirtos said he’s seen “no evidence” that appointing individuals to lead the higher education system — a goal of some supporters of ballot Question 1 — is more effective than electing them.

“I think that doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “I would say elect people who are interested in getting down in the weeds.”

Boylan also expressed concerns about the proposal leading to the appointments of regents. 

“Because who then gets into those positions? It’s usually someone who donates to the elected officials. It’s usually friends and family members.”

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Pashtana Usufzy
Pashtana Usufzy

Pashtana Usufzy is a freelance general features and health reporter based in Las Vegas. She previously worked as a health care reporter at the Las Vegas Review-Journal and prior to that as a local news reporter at the Las Vegas Sun.