Friday, June 7, 2019 | 2 a.m.
Nevada System of Higher Education Chancellor Thom Reilly appeared on “Nevada Week in Review” in early May. In discussing student diversity at UNLV, the program host asked Reilly what we could learn as a system from what UNLV is doing right.
Reilly took this opportunity to delegitimize Southern Nevada and silence decades of work UNLV leaders have invested in building deliberate and intentional programs to create a diverse student population. Reilly observed: “If you think about it, it is really just a product of the diversity of our state. In and of itself, it is no great accomplishment.”
If this is the case, let’s look at Shelby, Tenn., where African-Americans make up 54% of the population. One would expect the University of Memphis — a university the chancellor attended — to reflect the diverse population of the county, if one believes Reilly’s assertion. Instead, the African-American student population is 33%, well below the county figures.
History matters when it comes to higher education access, and it took Brown v. Board of Education to desegregate the University of Memphis. A great many universities still struggle to reflect their diverse population, and it is not just a product of the diversity of the state or region. It takes visionary leadership, courage and hard work for universities to reflect their population.
Reilly’s statement reflects a disregard for the people who have fought for education civil rights throughout the years and made it possible for public higher education to be open to all students, regardless of race. Further, his comments indicate his lack of understanding and appreciation of public higher education student enrollment, the dynamics of student enrollment at a public university that serves a majority-minority young adult population, and the challenges facing a public university that enrolls a majority of first-generation college students.
Diversity does not merely appear in higher education without a concerted effort and effective leadership, particularly in a state that ranks 49th for residents who pursue postsecondary education.
For Reilly to say UNLV’s diversity “is no great accomplishment” is to silence the decades of work put in by higher education and community leaders to create new pathways to postsecondary for our diverse student population.
Reilly went on to say that our region does not have a “high culture” of college attendance and that we need to start talking to students in middle school about the value of a college degree. Brilliant idea, which is why UNLV has been doing this since the1960s — and it is a likely reason why UNLV is one of the most diverse universities in the nation.
The UNLV Center for Academic Enrichment and Outreach houses dozens of federally funded college opportunity programs designed to motivate and support students from disadvantaged backgrounds in their pursuit of a college degree. The center has been building K-12 and higher education bridges for the region’s neediest students since 1966, when it received its first federal grant. Today, it operates more than 25 federally funded programs that amount to millions of dollars. These grants allow the center to create and deliver programs from middle school through graduate education for students. The center follows students and ensures they have academic, social and economic resources they need.
The center’s success is built upon on the relationships and partnerships with over 75 private and public organizations cultivated for over 50 years. In fact, to date they have served thousands of low-income and diverse students who otherwise would not have attended college. Today, these students are among our business, community and elected leaders.
Not only has UNLV intentionally increased its diverse student population, it was recognized by Brookings Mountain West research as one of the leading universities in the Mountain West for providing lower-economic status students with tools to enter the middle class upon graduation, and hailed nationally by U.S. News and World Report as tied for first as the nation’s most diverse national public university. These achievements should not be trivialized as “no great accomplishment.”
Next time Reilly is asked about UNLV’s student diversity, let’s hope he defers to the folks on the front lines creating bridges and working with students, families and community leaders to ensure that the university not only reflects our population but that its graduates are thriving and building a strong and diverse region of which we can all be proud.
Magdalena Martinez is an assistant professor and director of education programs at the Lincy Institute at UNLV, where she researches education policy, social justice and diverse student populations.