Las Vegas Sun

August 18, 2019

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Sun editorial:

Nevadans deserve answers about corruption in higher education

Kevin Page owes Nevadans some answers. So do Rick Trachok and Jason Geddes, two of Page’s cohorts on the Nevada Board of Regents.

Last month, Page was exposed for abusing his authority when, in 2015, he demanded that UNLV allow one of his family members to skip a prerequisite course in the Lee Business School. As shown in emails obtained by the Sun, Page then followed up with an unspecified threat of retaliation when UNLV administrators resisted him.

“Next semester the LBS better not play games with (student) and her getting her classes,” Page wrote. “For some reason, people take kindness for weakness. I am usually very nice but, can change gears when I need to.”

The emails further showed that Trachok, who was the regents chairman at the time, was notified about the matter.

Yet in the weeks since Page’s grossly inappropriate behavior came to light, he and Trachok have refused to say a word about it. So has Geddes, the current board chairman. Instead they’ve ducked and covered, either declining or ignoring numerous messages from the Sun seeking comment.

That’s a slap in the face to everyone in Nevada, and it’s the very picture of irresponsible leadership.

Nevadans deserve to know whether Page was held accountable for his corruption. If he was, it’s our right to know how he was disciplined. If he wasn’t, the regents have a responsibility to tell us why not.

His behavior was inexcusable. Not only was Page self-dealing, in doing so he threatened the jobs and livelihoods of people over whom he had authority. Keep in mind too that UNLV offered to bend over backward to help Page’s relative — who the Sun is not identifying by name or her relation to him — take the prerequisite course and still graduate on time. Administrators also courteously explained to Page that exempting the student from the requirement could jeopardize the business school’s accreditation and would be unfair to the thousands upon thousands of students who have had to take prerequisite courses.

But Page stayed on the attack.

Now, in not addressing Page’s corruption, it appears that members of the 13-seat board are protecting their own and ignoring wrongdoing. That certainly is the case with the three-man cabal of Page, Trachok and Geddes, who are clearly hoping Nevadans will forget the matter and move on.

But in the regents’ silence, they send a loud-and-clear message to residents of this state: We don’t answer to you.

For the record, that’s wrong. Dead wrong.

The members of the regents board are all elected. They oversee UNLV, UNR and six other institutions, meaning all Nevadans have a vested interest in how the regents operate.

That being the case, the board is absolutely accountable to the public. And it’s obligated to hold itself accountable.

Think of it like a higher education equivalent of a local school board. But instead of a superintendent and administrative office, the board oversees a chancellor, Thom Reilly, and the Nevada System of Higher Education staff. And in this comparison, the university presidents and their administrations would be principals and their staffs.

So it’s critical for Nevada to be served by competent, responsible regents. Some members of the board meet that description, but the Page situation shows that many do not.

Unfortunately for our state, the regents and NSHE have proven time and time again over the years that they’re not worthy of trust.

UNLV supporters have long complained that meddling, micromanaging and other inappropriate behavior by the regents and NSHE has thwarted progress at the university and resulted in a revolving door of leadership. Counting acting president Marta Meana, UNLV has had six presidents or temporary leaders since 2006. There’s also ample evidence of the regents favoring UNR over UNLV and the other institutions of higher learning, notably by approving funding formulas that disproportionately benefit the Reno school. And while the regents have fiercely criticized UNLV for issues like cost overruns from the successful 2016 presidential debate and a controversy at the School of Dental Medicine, UNR rarely gets such grillings. That was even the case when a billing scandal was uncovered recently at the UNR School of Medicine, which happened around the same time as the situation at UNLV’s dental school.

It’s no wonder that campus sources have speculated that Page’s threat to “change gears” had something to do with former President Len Jessup’s ouster. Jessup defended staff members who stood up to Page, prompting conjecture that he was pushed out in favor of someone who’d give the regents what they wanted.

Meanwhile, the former chancellor was ousted amid a plagiarism scandal, and Geddes also was exposed for lifting parts of a doctoral dissertation he submitted as a student at UNR.

In short, there’s a lot of rot within higher ed governance in Nevada.

The regents structure doesn’t help. It has too many members to operate effectively, which, combined with the fact that regents aren’t compensated, tends to draw weak candidates in elections. Interest was so light in the most recent election that one candidate, who ran unopposed, won a seat despite not having a college degree.

But Nevadans don’t have to put up with this.

One immediate option is to seek a recall election, which would require a petition signed by 25% of the voters from the targeted regent’s last election.

In the longer term, voters can effect change by supporting a 2020 ballot question aimed at clarifying the power of the Legislature and governor’s office to hold the board accountable. Assuming the ballot question passes, lawmakers are poised to restructure the regents during the 2021 legislative session.

These steps will give Nevadans more strength to deal with situations like Page’s inappropriate behavior and force the board to work in the best interests of all of our state universities.