Friday, May 25, 2018 | 2 a.m.
People who serve on state boards of regents commonly tend to be prominent figures — high-powered attorneys, corporate and business leaders, prominent academicians, former politicians and so forth. Their résumés are often loaded with service to community boards, nonprofits and professional organizations, giving them extensive political and professional connections.
Donald McMichael Sr. isn’t that type. He’s a newcomer to politics, and his academic experience in higher education is limited to a nine-week photojournalism program at Syracuse University, for which he earned a certificate of completion but not a degree.
But McMichael, a retired Air Force sergeant who has been a postal deliverer for the past 23 years, recently was surprised to find himself running unopposed for the District 4 seat of the Nevada Board of Regents.
So barring competition from a write-in candidacy or an unexpected development, McMichael will join the board after the November election.
Last week, McMichael sat down with the Sun to discuss his background, his candidacy and his thoughts on the state of higher education in Nevada.
Excerpts of the conversation follow, edited for clarity and brevity.
Let’s start with your military career. How long did you serve?
I did 20 years and finished up as a U.S. Air Force photojournalist, a combat photographer.
I finished up my career overseas at Godina Air Base in Japan, and then I was sent here to Nellis as the first and only photojournalist assigned here. That was in 1985.
Then I got called up to serve overseas in Desert Storm, where I spent approximately a year and a half. I ended up as one of Gen. (Norman) Schwarzkopf’s personal photographers. I was in-country for approximately a year. I did a few odds and ends. I actually served in the Navy while I was there as an Air Force photojournalist. I was assigned to the U.S.S. Saratoga, and so I was flying CAP (combat air patrol) missions into Iraq.
So Las Vegas has been your home since the mid-1980s?
Yes, I decided I’d settle here because of the proximity to the base, along with the ability to go to Wright Patterson or any of the other bases. I can catch a hop and go back overseas.
I’ve been doing my work for the post office ever since I got out of the service.
So it’s been 23 years. I will be retiring in five months and 12 days.
What prompted you to become a candidate for the board of regents?
Well, I went down to the voting office to find out what exactly was available that I could apply for as a candidate. And because I’m in a sort of unique position, working for the federal government, I cannot take a partisan candidacy because of the Hatch Act.
So I had to look at nonpartisan positions that were available. The only two were the sheriff and the regents positions. And the sheriff required three years of either on-the-job training or some sort of law enforcement position, so that left me with the regent position.
And I figure I can probably give people some of the knowledge that I have and probably come up with different ways to solve problems, because of the things I’d do in the military. I kind of look at things outside the box, and that seemed to help me quite a bit in the military in solving problems that saved hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars while I was in the military. And I figured I could bring that unique perspective into the education system here in Las Vegas.
What do you hope to accomplish on the board?
The students here are willing to try to get a higher education, but there are barriers that a lot of them can’t overcome. It might be in their home, or employment, and especially trying to come up with money for tuition.
I’ve been looking at that problem over the years, especially trying to help my son with his degrees (McMichaels’ son, who attended the for-profit ITT Technical Institute, is an IT coordinator at UNLV). He’s saddled with $80,000 worth of student debt, and part of that is a parent-student loan of a little more than $40,000 that I signed for.
I said, “This is really ridiculous.” There’s got to be a better way of going for higher education than burdening yourself with such tremendous debt.
I was thinking, since this is the greatest place for making money and/or losing money, I’d come together with a package that I would try and get some of the casinos to sponsor kids who would like to further their education without saddling them with this enormous debt.
And I’d think through their publicity office, they’d look at that and say, “That’s not a bad idea.” If we can send 10 kids to college, maybe five of them will come back and stay in Las Vegas. We have managers and system developers and IT specialists that we need in gaming, and it seems a waste to have somebody saddled with so much debt and then they leave the state because they have no other way to pay this off, and they seek employment somewhere else, like Silicon Valley or back East.
There’s so much of an opportunity here for them, especially just in gaming. With the new machines that are coming out and the ability to try to hack into them, we could train these people right here and they can be the greatest asset to the casinos, rather than trying to hire somebody out of Silicon Valley.
Some people might look at work that needs to be done to improve higher education in Nevada and run the other way from the board of regents. What’s different about you?
I saw that because this position is noncompensating, it gives me all the free time I need to pursue other things. If it was a salaried position, I’d be stuck in an office or have to go over a lot of paperwork. But because I have the freedom now, I can go and meet these students at the colleges and community colleges, where I’m not really tied down to an office.
That’s the freedom I’m looking for. It doesn’t tie me down to where I can’t take my trips overseas and visit some of the places I was stationed at, whereas a full salaried position would probably limit my ability to move around like that.
Besides affordability and access, what do you see as some of the other major challenges for higher education in Nevada?
Well, I think the curriculum that they’re teaching right now is adequate but it’s not up to the standard of some of the other states, especially California. I’d like to make sure their textbooks are at least on par with California. It seems to me like it’s been lacking here for some period of time, as if they don’t want to invest in textbooks that can keep people on par with other parts of the country, especially California, where the schools are so much — I don’t like to use the word better, but are so much more progressive.
So I’d like to make sure all the textbooks are up to date and aren’t five or 10 years behind.
How much of a learning curve do you think you’ll have in joining the board?
I don’t know. I’m going to try to pick the brain of Allison Stephens, who’s in the position right now, and ask her what is the learning curve. How fast will it take me to get up to speed? If she will give me any assistance, I would appreciate it.
I don’t know if Kevin Page, the chairman, would be able to make any suggestions. He’s probably a busy individual.
When I filed for the position, I said, “Well, I’m going to be running against Allison, and probably I won’t get the position, but we’ll see.”
And then I kept waiting and waiting to see if somebody else was going to put in for it, and all of a sudden I find out she’s running for Congress.
Are you surprised to be running unopposed?
I’m actually shocked. I said, “District 4, that’s a pretty big district; why wouldn’t somebody else want to run in that position?”
But I’m kind of relieved. For one, I don’t have to do any campaigning. I don’t have to make any expenditures as far as signs or anything of that nature. I’ve already sent my photo up to the state. So at this point I’m just cruising into the position having not spent a cent.
I didn’t want to spend a lot of money to begin with, because I think more citizens should apply for these positions and give back to the community when there’s such a large need for somebody to help, especially the students.
I want to start hitting the schools, especially seeing the students who are preparing to graduate. I’d like to do it when they’re juniors and start saying, “Look, you have to think not just for today, but you have to think for the next four years. You have to say, ‘Where am I going to be in eight years, and how do I achieve that goal?’ ”
You’ll be coming onto the board at a time of turmoil at UNLV, with many of the university’s supporters having lost confidence in the board and higher education system, and calling for major changes in structure. What are your thoughts on that?
I figure once I actually get on the board, I can suggest that, really, do we need 12 (sic) regents here in Las Vegas?
I think we could accomplish the same goal with half as many regents, which would save quite a bit of money. We could streamline all of these districts so that we can probably combine the districts in order to alleviate a lot of these turmoil.
I think it’s a lot of infighting. People are trying to jockey for positions. They’re looking at right now what is the weak and the strong position to be in, and they want to go on one side or the other. I’d like to say, “Maybe we should step back and say maybe we need to reduce our size.” And maybe let that be the beginning.