Las Vegas Sun

October 22, 2019

Currently: 65° — Complete forecast

Sun editorial:

U.S. News rankings are latest sign of higher-ed problems in Nevada

The latest annual college rankings from U.S. News & World Report paint a disturbing picture of Nevada’s higher education system.

In the rankings, released this month, UNR slumped to No. 240 on the list of the top 381 national universities after being ranked as high as No. 181 just six years ago. Meanwhile, UNLV is ranked in a tie with the bottom 88 institutions. No other four-year institution in Nevada made the rankings.

That’s simply not good enough. Although the U.S. News & World Report rankings are only one indicator of colleges’ performance, they speak to two major problems with higher education in Nevada.

One, it’s underfunded. Two, the system suffers from gross mismanagement by the Nevada Board of Regents and the Nevada System of Higher Education.

Unfortunately, there’s no quick solution to these glaring problems. However, Nevadans have the power to drive major changes in the next couple of years.

One major step is to vote in favor of a 2020 statewide ballot initiative to clarify the scope of the regents’ authority, which would pave the way for lawmakers to restructure the board and get it under full control of the executive and legislative branches of state government.

The system is overseen by the 13 elected members of the Board of Regents, who serve as policymakers, and NSHE, which administers day-to-day operations in a way akin to the superintendent’s office of a public K-12 school district. The presidents of the various colleges report to the NSHE chancellor, who in turn reports to the regents.

The problem in Nevada stems from language in the state Constitution regarding the scope of the regents’ authority. Through the years, the regents and their attorneys have argued that the constitutional language essentially makes the board a fourth branch of government, independent of the executive, legislative and judicial branches.

The ballot initiative would remove the regents from the Constitution, making them clearly accountable to state lawmakers. From there, the governor and state legislators would go into the 2021 legislative session poised to make structural changes to give lawmakers more oversight and reduce the regents’ ability to inflict damage.

This is vital, especially for UNLV, which suffers from meddling and undermining by higher education decision-makers. Their litany of crippling moves included forcing out President Len Jessup in 2018, halting progress that Jessup had made in faculty recruitment, student support, facility development, fundraising and relations with the business community, to name a handful of the areas where Jessup excelled.

For Southern Nevadans, another way to drive improvement is to galvanize in support of UNLV and demand more state funding for the university.

Investing in education in the state’s most populous and most economically vital city is smart, as other states have recognized. Look no further than Tempe, Ariz., where Arizona State University is integral in powering the Phoenix metro’s growth and vitality.

Another prime example is Charlotte, N.C., where the University of North Carolina-Charlotte has leap-frogged UNR in the magazine’s rankings and is listed at No. 228. That’s no accident. Leaders there galvanized in support of obtaining more higher-education funding for their community in recent years, and the urban university soared as a result.

Similar improvements occurred in such cities as Orlando, Fla. (University of Central Florida University, ranked No. 166), Atlanta (Georgia State University, No. 211) and Miami (Florida International University, ranked No. 218).

These metros understood that bolstering their universities aided their communities by providing a high-quality workforce to serve employers and help attract new businesses, fueling entrepreneurism, keeping bright young people in their city, improving the quality of life for families and serving the business community with high-grade research, to name a handful of the benefits.

Going into the 2021 session, Nevada lawmakers need to realize that doubling down on investment in UNLV is good not only for Las Vegas but for the entire state. This is a pretty simple equation: UNLV serves the community that drives the state’s economy, so giving it the resources it needs to provide a high-quality education to students will benefit the state from border to border.

Despite the disappointing rankings, there’s been good news for UNLV and UNR this year, as both achieved elite Carnegie R1 status as research institutions.

With adequate funding and proper oversight in place for both schools — and for higher education overall in Nevada — our state could make remarkable progress.

Bumping along the bottom of national rankings isn’t acceptable, nor is it inevitable. In the next couple of years, Nevadans have a prime opportunity to turn the tide.