Las Vegas Sun

August 17, 2019

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Higher ed:

UNLV overcame numerous obstacles to reach elite status

For a relatively young university such as UNLV to be classified as a top research institution by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching is a major accomplishment.

The Lincy Institute/Brookings Mountain West’s analysis of all 130 Carnegie doctoral universities with “very high research activity” shows that UNLV, which was founded in 1957, is among the 10 youngest in the U.S. to achieve this designation. This is a proud moment for the university, and it highlights the importance of UNLV as a major economic development asset that will continue to lift Southern Nevada’s industry and commerce.

UNLV’s rapid rise as a major research and doctoral-granting university is a story worth exploring because it shows both the challenges and opportunities that all Nevada higher education institutions face as they plan and execute major initiatives.

The drive for UNLV to reach the “very high” research classification, also known as R1 status, was purposeful and required discipline and dedication from university faculty, students and administrative leaders. The UNLV Faculty Senate voted to approve the plan, and every dean was engaged in planning for R1. The R1 campaign also received buy-in from external stakeholders such as major donors and the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce, as well as the support of both local and state elected officials. All of Southern Nevada was behind the effort.

The original UNLV R1 (or “Tier 1”) plan was introduced at the State of the School presentation by former President Neal Smatresk in September 2013. But the origins of the push started in the mid-1990s. During President Carol Harter’s 11-year tenure, UNLV vastly expanded its graduate and professional programs. One of the main criteria for R1 status is the breadth and number of terminal degrees offered. Specifically, Carnegie now considers all medical, dental, law and doctoral-level professional degrees, along with traditional research-focused Ph.Ds.

In 1994, just before Harter became president, Carnegie classified UNLV as a “Comprehensive Masters-Granting University.” In 2005, Harter publicly initiated the “Invent the Future” plan in the lead-up to UNLV’s 50th anniversary. In addition to a major fundraising campaign, the initiative was aimed at placing the institution at the “forefront of our community’s agenda” by raising UNLV’s research activities and academic reputation. By 2010, UNLV achieved Harter’s goal of ascending to the second-highest Carnegie classification — “Research University/High Research Activity.” Given her efforts, Harter is one of the most consequential leaders in shaping modern Las Vegas.

In 2008, the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program and the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech did an extensive study of the economic development prospects of the “Mountain Mega” regions in the interior West. The analysis included a look at research capacity within Western megapolitan areas, which included Southern Nevada, the Front Range (Denver), the Wasatch Front (Salt Lake City), the Sun Corridor (Phoenix-Tucson) and Northern New Mexico (Albuquerque).

A key finding was that Southern Nevada was the only region without at least one R1 university. In fact, Nevada was the most populous state that lacked an R1 school.

By 2009, the Mountain Mega project developed into Brookings Mountain West. In 2011, the Brookings study “Unify, Regionalize, Diversify: An Economic Development Agenda for Nevada,” was adopted by the Governor’s Office for Economic Development as the official plan for the state’s economic revival.

The report’s section on higher education showed a gap in Nevada’s higher education research and development capacity relative to peer states and noted that the state’s innovation was at risk because it lacked an R1 university. It also suggested the creation of a Knowledge Fund that would be directed by GOED and provide strategic investments in UNLV and UNR in research areas that matched goals in the state economic development plan. This fund clearly helped enhance both UNLV’s and UNR’s research portfolios and provided an additional funding source that would help in UNLV’s R1 campaign.

A few years later, in partnership with the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce, Brookings Mountain West compared Southern Nevada to central Florida, its nearest metropolitan economic peer region. The comparison showed Orlando ahead in five key infrastructures, two of which concerned UNLV. Specifically, the University of Central Florida had a medical school and R1 status — both of which were absent at UNLV at the time. The chamber then adopted the creation of a UNLV School of Medicine and UNLV as an R1 university as part of its policy agenda and put its political muscle behind both initiatives.

The chamber’s political support was important because the idea of UNLV having a medical school or being a major research university was a controversial notion to both the Nevada System of Higher Education and the state board of regents. By 2013, Smatresk made the bold and career-risking decision to go all in on UNLV’s School of Medicine and R1 goals. He hired Jim Thomson, the former president of the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif., to develop a set of metrics based on the Carnegie classifications whereby UNLV could judge its progress.

It is difficult to describe the risk Smatresk undertook by asserting his right to lead the R1 initiative under NSHE Chancellor Dan Klaich. Because of Nevada’s unique — read: dysfunctional — higher education structure, the proud and accomplished presidents of Nevada’s colleges and universities are direct subordinates to an appointed bureaucrat.

Klaich, who ultimately left his position in the wake of a string of scandals including plagiarizing from a draft report produced by the Brookings Institution and falsifying a document he presented to a legislative study committee, was not shy about asserting his authority. Klaich even went so far as to issue gag orders prohibiting presidents from making any public comments that were inconsistent with NSHE priorities. Doing so was a potentially firing offense. Yet despite operating in such an environment, UNLV’s leadership pressed the case for R1 status.

Symptomatic of Klaich’s style, in the fall of 2013, he demanded that UNLV turn over its extensive analysis and R1 benchmarking to NSHE. This was followed by a vote of the regents requiring that UNLV and UNR seek R1 status together using the framework that UNLV developed. Smatresk understood that for political and institutional purposes, adding UNR to the R1 drive made the plan more palatable to the governor and legislators. Also, there was no way the regents would allow UNLV to advance past UNR, given that the board has a documentable bias in favor of UNR.

Ironically, UNR had just issued a study in December 2012 that compared UNR to California State University-tiered schools and concluded that UNR was simply too small and poorly funded to compete against Western flagship state universities such as Oregon or Arizona. Once UNLV released its R1 plan, UNR quickly switched gears from its “university-in-the-middle” strategy and jumped on the R1 bandwagon. UNR then let the state know it would need an additional $123 million in resources to achieve R1 status. UNLV, by contrast, made no such resource request.

Don Snyder, who served as UNLV’s acting president in 2014, immediately embraced the R1 and medical school initiatives. Snyder — who spearheaded efforts to develop the Fremont Street Experience and the Smith Center for the Performing Arts, and served as co-chair for UNLV’s 50th anniversary fundraising campaign — created a well-organized strategic planning process for advancing the push to R1.

Len Jessup was hired as UNLV president in 2015 with the understanding that the R1 initiative and the School of Medicine were priorities for the university and the region. Jessup, who has a real talent for understanding, promoting and growing programs at the R1 level, expanded the goals to include many professional fields and degrees.

As part of Jessup’s reformulation and expansion, Thomson’s metrics were modified to reflect the changing landscape in higher education brought on by a boom in non-Ph.D. terminal degrees. The broader vision for R1 status better positioned UNLV to advance rapidly under the new Carnegie classification structure. Jessup worked with special counsel Nancy Rapoport to hire 16 leaders into vice president and dean positions who were of R1 caliber. That team worked with the deans and vice presidents already in place to implement the university’s priority on graduate credentials.

The result is that quietly, but methodically, UNLV has built the largest, highest-ranked and most comprehensive graduate program in Nevada.

Consider the changes in the Greenspun College of Urban Affairs under Dean Robert Ulmer. Ulmer, working with faculty in Public Policy and Leadership, developed a new professional Doctor of Public Policy degree. The market for this credential was immediately evident as UNLV had to turn away more than half of the applicants. Graduates of this program will count in future Carnegie calculations of R1 status.

Thus, UNLV not only achieved Carnegie R1 status, but has seeded many more doctoral programs that Carnegie will consider in future R1 designations. Plus, as the UNLV School of Medicine ramps up, UNLV will add more than 100 MDs and at least $40 million in research and development spending per year. Both will help UNLV secure continued R1 status.

Building on the momentum will require continued support and infrastructure investments.

At the same time, emphasis on the research missions, graduate programs and infrastructure needs at UNLV and UNR will continue to come at the expense of the state’s two- and four-year colleges. Indeed, a recent analysis prepared by the Legislative Counsel Bureau indicates that since the implementation of the revised funding formula in 2013, operational funding for these schools (as well as UNLV’s) has decreased — UNR alone has gained.

As the missions and trajectories of Nevada’s universities and two- and four-year colleges become further differentiated, the state’s higher education structure and funding must reflect this reality.

We have been vocal advocates for reforms that would provide the two- and four-year colleges with separate governing boards that are fully attuned to their needs. Likewise, these schools should not be forced to compete for the same pot of funding as UNLV and UNR. Rather, funding for them should be separate and reflect these institutions distinct missions and constituencies.

UNLV’s and UNR’s ascension to R1 status — UNR’s came two days after UNLV’s — is significant and worthy of celebration. However, Nevada’s work in ensuring that all of the state’s higher education institutions fulfill their potential is far from complete.

UNLV has enjoyed a remarkable rise as a research and doctoral-focused university. Just 25 years ago, UNLV had finally been listed by Carnegie among comprehensive masters-granting universities. This year, UNLV joins Carnegie’s class of leading research universities. Now imagine the next 25 years when UNLV will likely be considered among the top 50 research universities in the U.S.

Las Vegas deserves nothing less.

Robert Lang is executive director of Brookings Mountain West and the Lincy Institute at UNLV. He is also a professor of urban affairs in the Greenspun College of Urban Affairs. David Damore is a professor and department chair in political science at UNLV.