Sunday, March 1, 2009 | 10:18 p.m.
Imagine a state where every college and university sends lobbyists and administrators to the state capital to appeal for as much money as possible. Higher education representatives compete with lobbyists from K-12, public safety and the health industry, all vying for time with lawmakers.
Further assume that higher education is funded based on enrollment — a method developed in the early 1970s. Finally, in this state, the governor and state legislators rarely if ever sit around a table with business and higher education leaders to define state priorities for colleges and universities.
The results in such a state are highly predictable: erratic funding, disengaged policymakers and frustrated higher education officials.
Am I describing the 2008-09 events in Nevada state higher education policy? Actually, this is an account of South Dakota up to 1995.
In the not so distant past, the political dynamic in South Dakota looked much like it does in Nevada today. Then something dramatic happened. Higher education administrators worked with state policymakers and business leaders in a series of dialogues to A) define goals and priorities, B) dump an outmoded funding model and C) create incentives for institutions that demonstrate progress on agreed-upon outcomes.
South Dakota’s new political dynamic has been in play for more than a decade now and funding is predictable, institutional infighting is almost nonexistent, and public officials regularly work with higher education leaders to address state challenges.
South Dakota’s experience is by no means unique. A growing body of evidence in higher education research suggests that states such as New Mexico and Nevada — which fund their institutions based solely on enrollment — are expensive to fund and do not graduate college students at expected levels.
High-performing states such as New Jersey, Ohio and South Dakota provide incentives to their institutions to achieve a variety of outcomes. Also, policymakers, higher education officials and business leaders in high-performing states meet on a regular basis and have established goals for their institutions.
Absent some fundamental changes, we can expect continued fighting about higher education funding in Nevada. Opposing ideologies, futile verbal exchanges and political machinations are familiar, sure signs of trouble.
Ron Knecht, a member of higher education’s Board of Regents, recently called on higher education in Nevada to become more efficient. Knecht contrasts higher education’s purported lack of productivity with the efficiency gains in telecommunications and mattress production.
Analogies are powerful tools, but they may confuse as much as enlighten. Efficiency is not the same as effectiveness, and students are living adults who sometimes rebuff standardized solutions that drive down costs in product-driven industries.
Hyperbolic comparisons do not create the cooperation we need, they only divide parties and showcase individuals. To be sure, efficiency is a legitimate concern in higher education, but it will not produce the change we are looking for.
From a completely different perspective, Regents Michael Wixom and Jason Geddes wrote a commentary a week ago in the Las Vegas Sun claiming the governor’s proposed cuts are “devastating” and would “eliminate higher education in Nevada in any semblance of the form that we know now.”
Higher education system Chancellor Jim Rogers, administrators, faculty and students have staged various forms of protest to challenge the proposed cuts. In the midst of economic austerity, those who claim money as the sole solution risk being perceived as out of touch with reality.
Certainly, there is a minimal level of funding required for higher education to simply maintain current service levels, but finding a consensus on that level is impossible when the chasm between parties is so wide.
The final sign of trouble within Nevada’s higher education policy scene is the obvious political “gaming” taking place. The governor is attempting to game the system by setting a negotiation anchor that he knows is unrealistic. Six percent salary cuts and a $475 million reduction are neither realistic nor likely.
This negotiation tactic is an old classic. Throw out a figure that you know you cannot achieve but that upsets your opponents yet defines the starting point of the negotiation. Then, once the opposing negotiators meet you halfway, reluctantly accept, feigning disappointment that you sold your soul, conceding to their wishes.
Complex problems do not always require complex solutions — only a logical, well-tested starting point and a will to change. If Nevada is serious about making a more efficient and effective higher education system, three immediate actions can pave the way to improvement. Each action requires policymakers, business leaders, and higher education officials to work together.
First, the state must retire the current funding model, which is predicated on enrollment. The funding model was appropriate 30 years ago but has long outlived its utility.
Second, we must define a nonnegotiable, base level of funding that is guaranteed during good and bad economic times. This approach should be supplemented by a marginal amount of funding that rewards institutions for reaching agreed-upon state goals.
Third, the Board of Regents must serve as a vehicle of unity for higher education rather than as an instrument of controversy. Our elected system of regents celebrates different perspectives, but the board should first provide a forum for institutions, regents and the chancellor to air differences and find common ground before lawmakers and the media receive multiple and often conflicting messages.
The three solutions I suggest balance autonomy with accountability, without falling to either extreme. Other states have made bold moves to change their systems of higher education and reaped the rewards for their citizens. It’s time Nevada does the same.
Mario Martinez is a professor in the Higher Education Leadership program at UNLV. He is co-author of the coming books “Policy and Performance in American Higher Education,” by Johns Hopkins University Press and “Innovative Strategy-Making in Higher Education,” by Information Age Publishing.