Las Vegas Sun

September 16, 2019

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Continuing chaos at NSHE should lead to higher education reform

During the 2017 legislative session, after a series of Nevada System of Higher Education scandals including allegations of plagiarism, sexual harassment and the submission of a falsified document to a legislative committee, a number of reform bills were introduced.

But, as we detail in a forthcoming analysis, most of the bills died.

The efforts to push out UNLV President Len Jessup, and now startling revelations of Medicare/Medicaid fraud involving the UNR School of Medicine, once again put NSHE in the headlines and demonstrate the need to reform the administration and governance of higher education in Nevada.

The good news is that one major reform bill from the 2017 legislative session has survived. Introduced by Assemblyman Elliot Anderson and Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, AJR5 removes the “Board of Regents of the University of Nevada” (and yes, that is the board’s legal name and why you vote for a university regent, not an NSHE regent) from the Nevada State Constitution. If the Nevada Legislature passes the same bill in 2019, and voters then approve the measure in 2020, the Legislature will have full authority to completely overhaul higher education in 2021.

Even with a constitutional constraint in place, there is still much the Legislature can accomplish in 2019. Indeed, despite misguided notions that NSHE is a “fourth branch of government,” the regents’ constitutional carve-out only precludes the Legislature from interfering with the regents’ authority to govern the branches of the state’s single land-grant institution, UNLV, UNR and Desert Research Institute. All other authority invested in the state’s higher education system is statutorily derived.

The constitutional constraint does, however, preclude acting on NSHE Chancellor Thom Reilly’s stated desire to create a hybrid/elected board. This was tried before. In 1948, the Nevada State Supreme Court found it unconstitutional in King vs. The Board of Regents of the University of Nevada. Thus, the soonest Reilly’s preferred reform could be implemented is in 2021. By then, his leave of absence from his tenured professor position at Arizona State University will have expired, along with his three-year NSHE contract.

That Reilly is unaware of Nevada’s higher education reform history is not surprising. Although he holds a Ph.D. in public administration, higher education management/governance is an area where he has neither practical experience nor academic expertise.

We are also concerned that by forcing out a popular UNLV president, Reilly is now so stigmatized in the Las Vegas business and civic communities that any reform he suggests — no matter how well conceived — may be dead on arrival. Yet we need no further delay in reforming Nevada’s higher education system.

Fortunately, there are decades of outside studies and numerous legislative reports recommending corrections to the current system’s deficiencies. There also are well-established best practices from other states that Nevada can consider. In both 2014 and 2016, the Lincy Institute at UNLV convened meetings examining various aspects of higher education reform in Nevada that highlighted these best practices. Lincy is planning similar events between now and the 2019 legislative session.

Based on our research, expertise and collective experiences with different higher education systems, we offer the following recommendations. We offer these ideas only in hopes of starting a conversation on the issue. Reform requires the active participation of diverse stakeholders, including civic and business leaders, students and faculty, state and local elected officials, and college alumni and major donors.

For higher education administration, we propose the following:

• Replace NSHE with a Department of Higher Education composed of three divisions, one for general administration and one each to administer to the specialized needs of the two- and four-year colleges and the universities. This change would not grow the state budget. NSHE is so bloated, it could easily adjust and Nevada would still see cost savings.

• Replace the chancellor with an executive director who would report directly to the governor and the higher education boards. The job title chancellor is an academic honorific that is inappropriate for a bureaucratic position. Staff employed in a higher education system office need not be academics, but they should have work backgrounds in academic system management.

• Downsize the NSHE staff from 200 to 40. This level of staffing is consistent with administrative agencies across the nation. In Virginia, for instance, fewer than 60 employees support the work of 42 public institutions, whereas Nevada has just eight.

• Reassign displaced NSHE staff, resources and property in proportionate measures to Nevada’s colleges and universities and to the governing boards.

• Like all other state agencies, locate the Department of Higher Education in Carson City, and a satellite office at the Grant Sawyer Building in Las Vegas. Transfer the NSHE offices on the UNR campus and adjacent to UNLV to those institutions to increase space for teaching and research.

For higher education governance, we propose the following:

• Reduce the university governing board from 13 to seven regents to work more directly with the presidents of UNLV, UNR and DRI as they develop and implement institution-specific priorities. This process can begin with the elimination of the four regent seats with terms expiring in 2020. With the passage of AJR5, the Legislature can fully reconstitute the board, including its size, composition and selection, in 2021.

• Provide seven-member appointed governing boards for each of Nevada’s two- and four-year colleges. Local governments in the respective institution’s service zone should vet and submit board applicants and the governor and Legislature should make board appointments.

• Create Assembly and Senate Higher Education and Economic Development Committees to improve legislative oversight and coordination. Under the current committee system, related policy is considered in multiple committees, leading to policy fragmentation and the duplication of legislators’ efforts.

The implementation of these reforms should address many of the key defects in the current structure. The result will be a system that empowers localities and regions to engage with their higher education assets and recognizes that institutions that offer vocational certificates should not be governed and administered in the same way as those offering law and medical degrees.

Finally, we need not wait until the 2019 session to begin reform. By a majority vote, the regents can immediately reclaim their authority over policymaking and the hiring and firing of presidents, which they originally delegated in 2005 to the chancellor at the time, Jim Rogers.

The time to reform Nevada’s higher education system is here and now.

Robert E. Lang is the executive director of Brookings Mountain West and the Lincy Institute at UNLV. He is also a professor in the Greenspun College of Urban Affairs and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. David F. Damore is a professor of political science at UNLV and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. William E. Brown Jr. is the UNLV director of Brookings Mountain West.