Passing the buck: NSHE’s approach to on-campus health

During times of crisis, it is often the case that  elected and public officials distinguish themselves as the right leaders at the right moment: a soft-spoken lawyer from Illinois won the American Civil War; a wheelchair-bound politician led the country out of the depression and the worst part of World War II; and a shopkeeper from Missouri ordered the only use in war of nuclear weapons.  Ordinary people, propelled by extraordinary times to be remarkable leaders. Harry S. Truman famously had a plaque on his desk that said, “The buck stops here!”

Unfortunately, in Nevada the buck stops…. somewhere?

I will be honest, before the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) punted the question of student COVID vaccines to the State Board of Health, I had never heard of that board — and I like to think I am somewhat well-informed in the more mundane machinery of state government. I mean, I probably could have guessed there was such a group, but who they are and what they do was certainly not on my radar. 

That is, not until NSHE General Counsel Joe Reynolds gave the Board of Regents a way to seemingly avoid political controversy: he said the  board has ZERO authority to set vaccination requirements for NSHE. The collective gasp and proverbial pin drop thereafter was deafening. A public body many people accused of being the “fourth branch of government” finally had a lawyer who found something it was powerless to do.

When I transferred to UNLV from the Community College of Southern Nevada (CSN) to finish my undergraduate work, I was going along at a good clip getting my paperwork done — until I got an alert on the myUNLV system. There was a hold on my transfer until I could show my vaccination records. As a 30-year-old returning college student, I thought there must be some sort of error. After  all, I had been enrolled in either the Clark County School District or CSN for a total of 20 years by this time. 

What followed was a hunt for my little World Health Organization vaccination book from the late-1980s and a marathon of phone calls with the United States Air Force for a tetanus shot record that ended up being 2 months too old to be used. I was exasperated, but those were the rules: I would not be allowed to register for classes at UNLV in 2017 until I could prove I had been inoculated against measles, mumps, rubella and tetanus. I mean, who in the Western world gets measles, mumps and rubella anymore (by the way: vaccines work)? So, I was stunned when the official line became: Well, yes, NSHE can require people to get MMR and tetanus shots, but for the COVID-19 Delta Variant, one of the most contagious pathogens in generations, that’s on someone else to mandate.

Make no mistake, I have immense respect for the challenge the chancellor and presidents have in keeping the institutions of NSHE open this semester. I also have a lot of respect for many of the regents whose hearts, I believe, are in the right place. But just as in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz , a brain and a heart weren’t the only things the heroes sought from the eponymous wizard. 

Two regents openly voiced an interest in at least discussing an NSHE vaccine mandate, and I respect them for what shouldn’t be seen as a courageous stance. The health, safety and welfare of students, faculty and staff while on campus is the core responsibility of the system and campus administrations.

While universities across the country are requiring vaccinations, including the largest public university system in the country, the University of California, and though the United States Supreme Court has thus far allowed mandates to continue, Nevada’s higher education students are seeing more classes returning to online instruction, the return of S/U (satisfactory or unsatisfactory) grading, and the message that NSHE is essentially powerless to protect its students. Strong encouragement from the university presidents to students to get vaccinated is good, and probably the most a president can do without being accused of crossing the regents. (It would be something to see a NSHE institution president disciplined by the Board of Regents or chancellor for requiring vaccines on his or her campus.)

But when people such as UNLV faculty member Michael Kagan must go on national television to plead with people to do the right thing so others can have a shot at survival and then gets vats of vitriol thrown his way, and when half-measures and hiding behind lawyers giving essentially political opinions rules the day, that is the abdication of leadership. This is a crisis unlike any we have ever faced in modern times. 

It is often great being a regent — the invitations to events and your name on building dedication plaques for posterity and all — but if there isn’t the will to protect our students, faculty and staff when it really counts, then maybe it’s time some folks take another page out of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, take the next hot air balloon out of town and leave the tough decisions to someone else. The history of this pandemic will eventually lay bare the role we all had in either trying to end it or prolonging it, and I hope everyone will pause and take a hard look at what they want their pandemic legacy to be.

Nathaniel Waugh is a member of the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District Board of Trustees and the manager of Policy Advocacy and Training at the Nevada Homeless Alliance. He received his Master of Arts in Urban Leadership from UNLV.