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October 24, 2014

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Q&A: Marc Johnson:

School president sees UNR, UNLV as complementary, not competitors

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Steve Marcus

University of Nevada Reno President Marc Johnson listens to a question during an editorial board meeting at the Las Vegas Sun offices Tuesday, April 1, 2014.

UNR President Marc Johnson sat down with the Sun’s editorial board earlier this month. A wide-ranging discussion included talk about improving the state’s education system, the proposed medical school at UNLV, attaining the top Carnegie Foundation classification and the state’s north-south rivalry. Here’s a condensed version of the discussion:

What’s the elevator pitch you would tell somebody who is considering going to UNR or giving to it?

The University of Nevada, Reno is a high-performing institution, a national merit sponsoring and access institution, really putting a balanced approach to undergraduate and graduate education, research and community engagement with the entire state.

How do you compare UNR? Are there peers?

The peers we choose are those institutions in our neighboring states that are balanced between an arts and science mission and a service mission, and they’re very high research and they’re U.S. News and World Report top-tier schools. So, we compare ourselves to University of Oregon, University of Utah, University of New Mexico and the University of Arizona. Oregon State and Washington State are good peers as well, and you always select a group of peers that generate a challenge. Those generate a challenge, and we expect to grow.

How do you think you match up to those?

We match up on the U.S. News and World Report undergraduate rankings, and on our accreditation rankings we do very well. We need to grow our graduate programs and we need to grow the research programs to be Carnegie classified as “research, very high.” All those schools I mentioned have all of those classifications.

Do you think UNR or UNLV will be able to get the Carnegie classification given what you have?

Given what we have, no. The way we plan to get there is through several sources of revenue. One will be that we have a proposal that we’ll see how the Board of Regents responds at the June meeting as to whether or not we will have fee increases. Also, we have a new formula. Now we get to keep our tuition and fees, and growth generates dollars.

We believe maintaining the growth rate that we have today in our enrollment that we will move from a school of about 19,000 today to 22,000 by the year 2021 and, if we’re going to enhance quality, reduce our student-faculty ratio from to 21 to 1 to 18 to 1. To handle the student growth that we anticipate, we’re going to have to add about 35 faculty positions per year. All of those positions are going to be tenure-track jobs.

So, growth adds more faculty and more faculty add more research.

That’s correct. And we’ll be adding graduate teaching assistant positions to enhance the capacity of the undergraduate as well as the graduate programs. And the Carnegie “very high” is determined by the magnitude of doctoral graduates across a range of fields as well as research expenditures. So, we need to grow on both areas, and I believe we have a decent strategy to do that with multiple sources of funds.

When you look at these two schools, looking in the West, is there a comparison? It’s not UC Berkeley and UCLA.

I think to take something on the West Coast, UC Berkeley and UCLA are nice analogies and I would be real pleased to look like them. That’s very high recognition, but I think there are some similarities. UCLA is a real urban university; Berkeley started as the ag college actually, and they’ve always been responsible for statewide services. Though, UCLA started as an urban serving college and Berkeley started as statewide land-grant school, and of course both of the schools have turned into international stars.

So, we’re sort of in the beginning path toward that direction. But, I think they do serve as interesting histories that parallel where we are.

You mentioned UNR’s a statewide mission. What do you see it as?

We have a responsibility to educate the students of all income levels from the entire state and of course beyond the state. We have a responsibility to do research that’s relevant to the entire state and the real uniqueness of responsibility is that we have a statewide responsibility to carry the knowledge of the university into every community of the state. So, when we look at the shape of the state of our statewide mission, it looks exactly just like the shape of the state of Nevada.

It would seem to me that UNR and UNLV would be crossing swords, maybe not maliciously, but you’d certainly have territory you’d be walking over.

Well, we’d like to think not so much of territory. If you looked at it territorially, then the University of Nevada, Reno would just pull out of Las Vegas and then UNLV would have to be a completely comprehensive university to service all the needs of this large urban area. And similarly, we would have to do hospitality and gaming and we’d have to have a dental school and a law school in the north if we’re going to separate territorially.

The Nevada System of Higher Education was not set up that way. It was set up in terms of programmatic specialization, so we can do small business development down here and they can do tourism and hospitality up there. Programmatically, I think UNLV and UNR are more complementary than they are competitive.

So, they’re not exactly comprehensive on their own?

I think no institution, except maybe Johns Hopkins or Harvard can be everything in all fields, and certainly with the level of funding in this state, you can’t have two completely or even one completely comprehensive university.

You mentioned specialized campuses. How do you feel about the discussion to create like a medical school at UNLV?

The state of Nevada ranks about 47th in the number of doctors per capita, and that tells me that we need to really get hustling to produce more doctors. So, we have been increasing the class size at the University of Nevada School of Medicine, which is a statewide medical school. We need to have opportunities for these M.D. graduates who graduated medical training right here in Nevada. That means Las Vegas, it means Reno, it means the rural areas. Seventy percent of doctors tend to stay where they take their residency. So, if we do the M.D.s and send them away for residency, you won’t see them come back.

We need to increase that capacity and UNLV, the School of Medicine, UNR are sitting on a statewide committee looking at the development of a second medical school so we can enhance the capacity of turning out doctors that will stay in Nevada. So, we’re very supportive of starting that second medical school.

Would the state be better served spending the money on graduate medical education, like residencies, rather than building another campus?

If we’re choosing, then the priority would be for a graduate medical education slot. Our first priority is to take the doctors that we are training here and give them graduate medical opportunities and residencies and fellowships, but then beyond that, it’s quite appropriate to build the pipeline of medical doctor candidates as well.

I wouldn’t say it’s either/or, but I would put them in priority order. We’ve got to grow the number of doctors here.

Would you talk a little bit about regional politics and how that plays in this state as far as UNR and UNLV go?

We suffer I think, a north-south political divide. I think it’s harmful in thinking of zero-sum terms. Anything the north gets, the south doesn’t get. Anything the south gets, the north doesn’t get.

I think the governor’s economic development message is that Nevada has to grow. If we think more in terms of investing in both places rather than taking away from one another, then we’re talking about a positive-sum game and really developing the grand opportunity that this state has of being in both the Los Angeles and the Bay Area economic spheres.

In Nevada, why don’t we shoot for two top-ranked institutions? That’s a positive-sum game, and having two great universities to be a pillar of economic development and social development is much more pleasant to think about than just looking at each other and tearing each other down.

There seems to be an identity problem, right, north and south?

There are always these interests in regional gain, but if you talk to business leaders that have been involved in the whole state, they’re irritated with this north-and-south stuff. I think competition’s great in basketball and football. Other than that, UNLV and University of Nevada, Reno are partners.

We have degree programs together. We have research programs together. We can always do more, but we need to look at these institutions as a part of higher education and try to take the north-south conflict out — except when it comes to the Fremont Cannon.

What role do you see UNLV playing?

UNLV is a fine urban-serving university. They tend not to branch out and draw in students from Elko and Winnemucca. But like the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, or schools of that nature, they have their hands full serving their high-population urban area. And, as I said, they have some statewide responsibilities as well in hospitality, architecture, dental medicine and law. And then we do things together.

If UNLV is the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, what does that make UNR?

Well, we'd be more like Wisconsin at Madison: statewide, originally a land-grant university and then a number of the schools developed to serve particular regions. Yet, all those regional schools also draw in students from the whole nation.

Is there anything else you want to add? Anything we haven’t covered?

I would summarize by saying higher education is so important for the economic vitality and the social progress of the state, that it is a really good investment. So the message is that education takes lots and lots of work, but an education has such a payoff in both the lifestyle and income level of those who get the education that it’s real important that we invest in it.

That is far, far beyond these fun arguments of UNLV versus UNR. That again is just wasted energy, when we could really be focusing our effort and investment on education at all of our institutions and encourage every young person to adopt the notion that more education will pay off.

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