Las Vegas Sun

March 18, 2019

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Analysis: UNLV supporters on high alert toward NSHE, regents

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Thom Reilly

At last Tuesday’s meeting of the UNLV Foundation, members were told that Chancellor Thom Reilly was encouraging them to speak with him about the future of the university.

But for the sake of rebuilding trust between the UNLV community and the Nevada System of Higher Education, here’s hoping those discussions turn out better than one that occurred before the foundation meeting.

A conversation between Reilly and two prominent UNLV supporters about a variety of topics generated questions last week on campus after word about it spread through the campus community.

A key point of concern stemming from the conversation involved a disparity between per-student state funding between students at UNLV and UNR. UNLV receives nearly $2,500 less per student in state money than UNR, a sore point for those who have long contended that NSHE, the Nevada Board of Regents and state lawmakers give UNR preferential treatment.

Reilly, when asked about the funding during his conversation with the supporters, made a reference to F grades and, according to at least one of the people involved, said UNLV was doing a substandard job in class completion and the university’s graduation rate. That was interpreted by some as Reilly blaming UNLV for the funding difference.

Reilly, through a spokesman, said he addressed the issue of F grades during an broad explanation on the state’s funding formula for higher education and did not state that UNLV was receiving less state funding because more of its students were failing.

But while the concerns over the discussion may have stemmed from a misunderstanding, the fact that the issue made the rounds shows how much UNLV supporters are keeping up their guard when it comes to oversight of the university by Reilly and the regents.

For the record, the only F grades that matter in terms of state funding are those given to students who enroll in courses and never show up. Those are known as “nonattendance/effort” grades, as opposed to “earned” grades given to students who come to class but flunk out. The logic is that universities should receive state funding for earned F grades because resources were expended on students who received them — compensation for instructors, for instance.

So for earned F’s to make up the difference, UNLV would have to be giving out 270,000 more F’s than UNR, according to one analysis. And that’s not happening.

Again, Reilly contends he didn’t say F grades were the difference. Through the spokesman, he said he was referring only to nonattendance F’s during the conversation and then only as part of a larger explanation of the funding formula.

So what is the reason for funding disparity? It’s largely that UNR receives more state money than UNLV for what are classified as statewide services, such as the university press and UNR’s cooperative service.

This is a point of contention in itself, as some Southern Nevadans believe UNR has been allowed to obtain funding for services that aren’t truly offered statewide while UNLV doesn’t get funding for having such attributes as its law school and hospitality program.

But regardless, the concerns that emerged after the conversation between Reilly and the supporters point to friction between the university community and state higher-ed officials over management of UNLV.

Reilly deserves credit for opening his door to conversations, including holding a forum last week with faculty members and student representatives.

But as the conversation showed, he’s being scrutinized closely by UNLV supporters.

Reilly has stressed that student achievement and graduation rates will be a top priority for NSHE under his leadership, which is a noble objective.

But any suggestion that UNLV is underserving its students wouldn’t be entirely fair, especially compared to UNR. For instance, UNLV is doing an exceptional job of making itself accessible to lower-income students, and then giving them an opportunity to earn a degree that has proportionally more value than those at UNR.

UNLV is tied with two other schools as the nation’s most ethnically diverse campuses, too — far ahead of UNR in that respect.

Plus, if UNLV is losing more students than UNR, consider the economy of Las Vegas and the availability of well-paying jobs here. Leaving school and joining the workforce is an attractive option for many UNLV students.

And finally, UNLV rates well against UNR in comparisons between both schools and institutions like them in terms of graduation rates. Compared to schools in similar-sized metro areas – such as the University of Texas at San Antonio and Portland State — UNLV does well. But UNR, which is considered Nevada’s flagship institution, performs at or near the bottom of comparisons with flagship schools in states of similar size, such as the University of Iowa and the University of Oregon.

So UNLV supporters, with justification, are on high alert for what sounds like criticism.

As comments made during the UNLV Foundation meeting made abundantly clear, supporters felt the university was on the right track under President Len Jessup and are concerned that Reilly and Jessup’s detractors on the Board of Regents forced him out to benefit UNR by knocking UNLV off-course to becoming an elite research institution.

It’s safe to say that the criticisms that were leveled against Jessup — in essence, that he allowed management issues to get out of hand, which forced Reilly and the regents to intervene — haven’t galvanized the community into thinking he needed to be pressured out.

So as Jessup prepares to begin his duties at Claremont Graduate University in California on July 1, and Reilly and the regents gear up to find his successor, it’s a tense time.

Gregory Lee, the out-going president of the foundation, spoke volumes during last Tuesday’s meeting when he said, “I try to take the chancellor and the chairman and vice chairman of the Board of Regents at their word.”

Ideally, UNLV’s backers wouldn’t have to “try” to trust state leaders. Trust is broken, and Reilly and the regents are under a microscope as a result.