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August 1, 2014

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How UNLV aspires to be top-tier research university

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L.E. Baskow

UNLV acting President Don Snyder refers to a Brookings Institution and SRI International economic development agenda for Nevada at the Four Seasons Hotel on Wednesday, March 19, 2014.

Updated Thursday, March 20, 2014 | 9:30 a.m.

UNLV acting President Don Snyder lobbied Las Vegas business leaders Wednesday to support the university’s quest to become a top-tier research institution.

The former banker, gaming executive and Hotel College dean outlined the economic benefits of having a Tier-1 university in Las Vegas during an hourlong keynote address at a Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

Snyder, now seven weeks into his new position, is working on a 20-year plan to transform UNLV into a top research university mentioned in the same breath as the universities of Oregon and Washington.

“You can’t have a great community without a great university that’s connected to the community,” Snyder told nearly 400 business leaders gathered at the Four Seasons Hotel. “My job as (acting president) is to make sure we don’t lose momentum on Tier 1, the medical school and the stadium. These are incredible needs for this community and the university.”

UNLV has come a long a way in the past 20 years, Snyder said.

In 1994, the Carnegie Classification of Institutions, which Snyder called the gold standard of college rankings, classified UNLV as a Tier-4 “Comprehensive Master’s Granting University.”

Since then, UNLV has become a Tier-2, “High Research” university, according to Carnegie. About 100 universities have this status, representing the top 4.5 percent of some 4,600 colleges nationally.

“It’s not a bad place to be,” Snyder said. “We can take great pride in that.”

However, in the coming two decades, UNLV’s goal is to become a Tier-1, “Very High Research” university, Snyder said. Only 108 universities are in Carnegie’s most-coveted category, representing the top 2.3 percent of colleges in the country.

•••

Carnegie looks at several key metrics to calculate its college rankings, including graduation rates, the number of doctoral degrees awarded and the university’s research output, spending and grant funding.

UNLV lags behind Tier-1 institutions in all of these factors.

• UNLV’s current six-year graduation rate hovers around 43 percent.

In the next 10 years, UNLV hopes to boost its graduation rate to at least 60 percent. The university plans to graduate 4,250 bachelor's and 1,500 graduate/professional degrees each year.

• Less than a quarter of UNLV’s student body consists of graduate and professional degree-level students.

In the next 10 years, UNLV hopes increase its graduate student body above 25 percent.

• Nevada’s patent awards are dwarfed by nearly every Western state, except for Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. Last year, UNLV received about 50 patents for its research. California received nearly 3,000 patents, and the next highest performing state — Washington — received more than 300 patents.

In the next 20 years, UNLV hopes to increase its number of patent awards, and help create a dozen start-up companies a year from university research.

• In 2011, UNLV’s annual grant funding for research was about $30 million, which is below the Tier-1 average by about $80 million. Last year, UNLV was able to increase grant funding to $42 million.

In the next 20 years, UNLV hopes to increase its grant-sponsored research to $120 million a year, or about $75,000 per faculty member.

“(These goals are) intimidating in one sense, but it’s what we clearly need to do,” Snyder said.

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Las Vegas is the largest metropolitan region in the Mountain West that lacks a Tier-1 university. Nevada is one of three Western states — the others being Idaho and Wyoming — that lacks a top-tier research university.

A 2011 Brookings/SRI report found Nevada’s lack of a Tier-1 university posed a “threat” to its economic diversification efforts.

“This is a competitive disadvantage,” Robert Lang, director of the Brookings Mountain West, said in a panel discussion preceding Snyder’s speech. “All of these regions have this, and Las Vegas doesn’t.”

UNLV’s current direct and indirect economic impact is $4.5 billion. As a Tier-1 university, however, UNLV could double its economic contribution to $8.9 billion, according to UNLV’s Center for Business and Economic Research.

That represents about 9 percent of all the economic activity in Las Vegas, economist Stephen Brown, director of CBER, said.

•••

To propel UNLV to Tier-1 status, significant investments are necessary from the public and private sectors, Snyder said.

UNLV needs more faculty, more research space and more support from the business and political communities to boost the kind of research that will attract new industries to town, Snyder said.

• During the recession, the size of UNLV’s faculty dropped from its peak of 925 to 780. The average faculty size for a Tier-1 university is 1,200.

In 10 years, UNLV hopes to increase its full-time instructional faculty to 1,200 (an increase of 330 from present), and its tenure-track faculty to 975 (an increase of 250 from present).

• UNLV currently has 201,320 gross square feet of space for research facilities, such as biology and chemistry laboratories. It aims to double its research space to about 400,000 gross square feet to match the University of Oregon and other Tier-1 institutions.

“We can’t get to Tier-1 without new buildings,” Lang said. “We just don’t have the space (to do research).”

• More than a third of UNLV’s state funding — $73 million — evaporated during the Great Recession.

UNLV Provost John White said he would like to see that money return to campus in the next 10 years to help the university with its Tier-1 goals. More funding will be necessary to build out UNLV’s campus to accommodate more students, faculty and research as well, he said.

The return on investment will be gradual, but will start immediately and be long-lasting, White added.

"I know it’s a big ask,” White said. “But Southern Nevada needs a big investment.”

•••

To attract more federal and private grant funding for research, UNLV must change the type of research it does, UNLV economics professor Alan Schlottman said.

Universities have historically encouraged and rewarded academic research instead of applied research, or research that could be applied to real-world applications in business and technology.

“We need to foster a culture that promotes applied research,” Schlottman said, adding universities ought to act more like businesses: take bold risks and not fear failure.

Schlottman pointed to the University of Central Florida, in Orlando, Fla., as a model for UNLV.

Like UNLV, UCF is located in a tourist economy and was founded a little more than 50 years ago.

However, in that time UCF has grown into the second largest public university in the country, with more than 60,000 students, and was able to attain Carnegie Tier-1 status.

It didn’t happen overnight, Thomas O’Neal, UCF’s associate vice president for research and commercialization, said.

“We made a conscious effort for 10 years,” O’Neal said.

UCF built a medical school, beefed up its football team and invested heavily in applied research in fields like aerospace, energy, engineering, technology and sciences. It also developed several business and entrepreneurship centers, helping kickstart and advise hundreds of businesses in the past decade.

As a result, UCF had the third highest number of patents last year, only behind the university systems of Texas and California, O’Neal said. Those patents have fueled economic diversification and growth in Orlando, which has broadened the region’s tax base, he added.

UCF doesn’t force faculty members to work with industry leaders on research, but dangles huge incentives to do so, O’Neal said. The university provides $2 million a year in matching grants for business-led research projects.

“Universities are starting to get it,” O’Neal said. “Faculty knows their salaries are tied to economic development.”

•••

As UNLV formulates its Tier-1 plans, it must reconcile its current mission with its future goals.

Since it was founded in 1957, UNLV has championed its access mission, enrolling thousands of first-generation college students and those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

To support its Tier-1 goals, former UNLV President Neal Smatresk called for “modest tuition increases.” When university leaders unveiled a four-year plan to raise tuition rates by 17 percent, students balked.

“The pursuit of Tier-1 status is noble,” UNLV undergraduate student body president Mark Ciavola said. “It will certainly help UNLV increase its prestige and diversify the economy. But we absolutely cannot achieve Tier-1 status on the backs of students.”

Some faculty members are skeptical about UNLV’s Tier-1 initiative. Although a top-tier UNLV means more federal research grants and increased academic stature, some faculty members question the university’s academic direction.

UNLV is focused on a stadium, medical school and applied research that helps business. Its new president comes from a business background, and the presidential search committee is stacked with business leaders.

With so much emphasis on economic development, where does the traditional, liberal arts college education fit in?

Paul Werth, UNLV’s faculty senate chairman and Russian history professor, believes he’ll remain relevant at a UNLV focused on becoming Tier-1. But there is tension among staff.

“Faculty understand we can’t be indifferent to the needs of our community,” Werth said. “But there’s a certain danger in that regard.”

And what of UNLV’s Minority Serving Institution goals? Once its Hispanic student population reaches 25 percent of the total student body, UNLV would be eligible to receive additional federal funding.

However, only two Minority Serving Institutions are also Tier-1 universities.

John White, UNLV’s provost, said the university remains committed to its access, minority and academic missions.

“We don’t shy away from it,” White said. “We plan to achieve our Tier-1 status while maintaining our access mission.”

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