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September 21, 2014

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Improve college governance to fix higher ed, boost Nevada’s economy

During the 2013 legislative session, the Nevada Legislature passed Senate Bill 391 establishing the “Committee to Conduct an Interim Study Concerning Community Colleges” to examine “the governance structure and funding methods for community colleges.”

In response to a request for recommendations from this committee, we presented our proposed restructuring of Nevada’s higher education administration and governance at a Lincy Institute event Friday.

Underlying our proposal are two key points:

First, this point has been argued repeatedly by attorneys from the Legislative Counsel Bureau: The members elected to the Board of Regents of the University of Nevada are supposed to govern the University of Nevada.

Period.

The bureau has issued the same opinion three times — in 1967, 1978 and March of this year.

The University of Nevada and its board are precisely described in the Nevada Constitution. Such a call-out in a state constitution is both powerful and limiting. It provides certain power in the areas described; yet such constitutional specificity also limits the scope of power.

Quite simply, an entity called the “Board of Regents of the University of Nevada” cannot change its name to the “Nevada Board of Regents” and assume power beyond the constitutionally designated scope.

This is especially true when the state constitution specifically calls for a tier of “state normal schools” (now known as state colleges) that exist alongside the University of Nevada.

Second, the unwillingness of higher education officials to act on the numerous recommendations calling for governance reforms has resulted in institutions that are commonly referred to as community colleges morphing into something very different.

Indeed, when the federal government views Nevada, they see two branches of the state university (UNLV and UNR), four four-year colleges, (the College of Southern Nevada, Great Basin College, Western Nevada College and Nevada State College), and one two-year institution (Truckee Meadows Community College).

In short, not only does the Board of Regents of the University of Nevada not govern the community colleges, Nevada has — according to federal data reported by the state — but one community college; that term implies some degree of local accountability and input, neither of which is possible under the present governance structure.

Given these issues, our proposal calls for a two-tier higher education structure that is constitutionally sound, enhances legislative oversight, and, by integrating the administration and governance of higher education with the state’s economic development priorities, recognizes and empowers localities while strengthening the higher education infrastructure.

Under our proposal, UNR and UNLV, including the Desert Research Institute, are essentially unaffected, with one important exception: These institutions would receive the full attention of the Board of Regents of the University of Nevada, the chancellor, and the relevant Nevada System of Higher Education staffers who would be transferred to what would become the University of Nevada System Office with locations in Reno and Las Vegas.

Our proposed college-level structure, the Nevada Office of Higher Education, would be coordinated by an 11-member statewide higher education board appointed by the Legislature to four-year terms from three regional college districts based on combined statistical areas in southern, northern and rural Nevada. Put simply, the districts are aligned with commuting patterns that are reflective of an integrated economy and workforce in these three areas.

At the local level, each public college would have a governing board of seven members — including one student member — nominated by local governments and appointed by the Legislature to four-year terms.

Combined, the statewide board and local college boards will ensure integration and coordination with the state’s economic development priorities and the Regional Development Agencies’ activities, such as the Las Vegas Global Alliance.

Further, we propose the state board absorb the functions of the Commission on Postsecondary Education, which oversees not-for-profit and for-profit colleges and universities operating in the state, thus creating a better-coordinated statewide higher education system of postsecondary institutions.

Akin to what was done in Arizona and New York to attract and align higher education institutions in a manner that best serves state and regional needs, we propose that each district submit a request for proposal to the Nevada Office of Higher Education that includes a master plan developed in collaboration with the Regional Development Agencies, community leaders, business interests and local elected officials.

The master plan should identify the number and the type of institutions that the stakeholder group believes are necessary for its district, as well as the funding sources and partnerships to support any additional institutions that a region wants to develop.

In sum, our proposal positions Nevada public colleges as state-led and funded under the Nevada Office of Higher Education while locally engaged and governed under local college boards. Further, it extricates the state from potential legal challenges while integrating the administration and governance of higher education with Nevada’s economic development priorities in an innovative manner.

At the same time, it is important to understand what we are not proposing. We are not proposing that any existing public institution of higher education be dismantled. We are not proposing that two- and four-year institutions be put under the exclusive control of municipal or county governments. We are not proposing that local resources replace funding from the state general fund for any existing public higher education institution. And we are not proposing the creation of a larger administrative bureaucracy than presently exists.

Rather, what we are proposing is a restructuring of the present administration and governance so that existing resources may be used more effectively in hopes of improving the educational and economic underperformance that has long plagued Nevada.

Magdalena Martinez is director of education programs at the Lincy Institute, David Damore is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at UNLV, and Robert Lang is the UNLV director of Brookings Mountain West.

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