Removal of regents from Constitution is not the solution

As a three-time graduate of the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE), including a combined five years involved in student governments at the College of Southern Nevada and UNLV, I have spent many, many Thursday and Friday meetings, events and ceremonies with several university regents. Your average regent is an alum of one or more of Nevada’s higher education institutions, passionate about higher education and very responsive to students and the community. Suffice it to say, I consider myself relatively well-informed on NSHE and the Board of Regents. What I don’t consider myself is convinced we need to change the way they are governed.

Have there been bad apples along the way? Sure. (I ran for the Board of Regents when I was 18 years old because of the poor conduct of a regent — this was also when I first met Jon Ralston, but I digress.) We have admittedly sometimes gotten it wrong. But for every bad choice we have made, I can point to someone like Thalia Dondero, Dorothy Gallagher or Sam Lieberman, all great public servants who cared deeply for higher education and Nevada’s students.

I believe the now familiar effort to remove the regents from the Nevada Constitution is well-intentioned, and I am probably an outlier among my former student leader colleagues for thinking it is a heavy-handed solution to a nonexistent problem. 

Regents travel two paths. Along the first are the policy decisions they make that affect Nevada’s future and have bearing on our competitiveness in attracting businesses to an educated workforce, oversight of two Tier One research institutions and appointment of the chancellor and university presidents. The other road is largely one of anonymity. I would bet most Nevadans don’t even know there are 13 regents, let alone which one represents them, let alone what they do all day. Now add to that mix that they’re eligible for re-election only once (because their terms are six years, limited to 12 years total) and you’re left with a group of elected individuals you don’t spend much time thinking about — unless you work at or attend a NSHE institution and even then, most likely not.

The biggest rallying cries for the effort to remove regents from the Constitution and place them under the oversight of the Legislature are accountability and transparency, always two great buzzwords. The argument goes that because the founders of the state wrote the regents into the Constitution, they are beyond the reaches of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the state — that somehow, they are on the same level as the governor, Legislature and Supreme Court. 

I know for a fact that none of the regents believe that, and I would counter that Chapter 396 of the Nevada Revised Statutes (NRS) speaks extensively to the functioning of NSHE. In fact, 28 sections deal exclusively with the Board of Regents. And the Legislature has already defined the allowable number of regents, their term lengths and how much they get paid. How much more accountable can a public officer be, beyond that, than by direct election by the people?

Removing the regents from the Constitution stems from a desire for greater legislative control. Unfortunately, in a state with a part-time Legislature, that often means greater gubernatorial control (although that is a deeper constitutional conversation we need to have as Nevadans). The Legislature, however, is still able to, and often does, exert a large amount of authority over NSHE, most notably over its budget — and this session has seen many proposals that give NSHE further direction.

Despite proponents’ claims that the intent behind the effort is not to remove the ability of Nevadans to elect their regents, when the original version of AJR5 was proposed there was a piece of companion legislation that called for the reduction of the board from 13 to nine with just five elected members and four appointed members. The idea of appointed regents is not new, either. I remember a hearing wherein the late, great Sen. Bill Raggio proposed the appointment of the regents — 11 years ago.

I grant that we elect a lot of people, and some positions shouldn’t be elected. For example, the offices of county recorder, treasurer, assessor and clerk. These are department heads in every practical sense. And the challenges inherent in asking voters to elect judges is well known, so much so that most people just skip them on the ballot altogether. But the Board of Regents has an important policy role and each member ought to be and remain elected. 

All this isn’t to say I don’t think some kind of reform is needed. I do believe the Board of Regents is too large and their terms too long. The regents need to develop policies to police themselves and hold themselves accountable, and lawmakers should have a discussion with them in order to examine possible reforms. This includes looking at compensation (to run for regent requires no filing fee because the compensation of the board is almost non-existent). 

The Legislature can and should explore all of its options to push worthy reform on the board. Am I unequivocally opposed to this latest effort, SJR7? Absolutely not. I am just not convinced, as yet, that this is the best or only solution to addressing the governance of the Nevada System of Higher Education.

Nathaniel Waugh is a member of the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District Board of Trustees and a program supervisor at Hope for Prisoners, where he focuses on workforce development for dislocated workers and recently released offenders. He received his Master of Arts in Urban Leadership from UNLV.