Indy Q+A: Higher ed chancellor on workforce 'misalignment,' diversifying faculty and whether Nevada was late to student vaccine mandate

After more than a year and a half of a thus-far unending global pandemic, colleges and universities in Nevada have slowly tipped the scales back toward the “new normal,” with the in-person college experience largely resurrected amid widespread vaccine access.  

But one year after taking the Nevada System of Higher Education’s top job, Chancellor Melody Rose says “we have to remember that we are still not in normal circumstances.” 

“I think about managing COVID as this incredibly high degree of difficulty,” Rose said. “And there's no playbook for it. No one has ever done this before in our lives. We can't go to our mentors, we can't go to other institutions and say, ‘Gosh, when you did this 20 years ago, how did it work out? What are the lessons advice for me?’ We are making up the playbook as we go”.

The Nevada Independent sat down with Rose on Monday to discuss the system’s response to COVID, her thoughts on efforts to create vaccination requirements for students and faculty, and how some major legislative changes from 2021 could shape the future of Nevada’s higher education system. 

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Let’s start with COVID, and certainly what’s on a lot of people’s minds, and that is the COVID vaccine mandate. In the run up to the decision by the Board of Health to mandate vaccines for students enrolling for in-person classes in the spring, we heard a lot of criticism from some students and faculty that there was no action on a mandate for the fall semester.

Was the vaccine mandate for students implemented too late? Should there have been some effort to get some kind of mandate in place for the fall, rather than the spring? 

I would say that on the day that the Board of Health voted to create a required student vaccine, 80 percent of American colleges and universities had not made a decision about the vaccine for students. So that puts us in the early adopters of that decision — not behind, not delayed — but in the early adopter camp. 

[When the Board of Health voted for a student vaccine requirement on Aug. 20, 740 colleges and universities had moved to implement similar mandates, according to a tracker of such mandates from the Chronicle of Higher Education. As of Aug. 31, that number had increased to 831. Those numbers are roughly 19 and 21 percent, respectively, of the more than 3,900 degree granting institutions recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.]

And so I think it's important to recognize that while there may have been some coverage of the colleges and universities that were really leading that conversation early, they were always doing so with an asterisk. Every one of them was saying, “we would like to have required vaccines for students if the following conditions are met,” right? And you're well aware of those conditions — action by the FDA to fully approve, action by either a board of health or a board of regents, depending on what your state statutes say around that issue. 

So those earliest systems that were getting headlines, I think we, somewhere in the narrative, we forgot to look at the fine print, and recognize that they were still taking very cautious steps in that direction. So today, we're among that first 20 [percent] who have gone that direction.

Relative to that fine print, your statements early on did reference the FDA approval as a potential legal roadblock. But that approval still was not in place when the Board of Health took its vote, so what was it about early August that the system was ready to move forward? 

I think we have to remember how fluid the situation is. If you look at what was happening in June, what was happening in the early days of July, we really understood nationally that we were in a pretty good position for fall semester, that the virus felt under control, and then bam, you get the Delta variant. And you get the Department of Justice, stepping in to signal that the FDA might move toward full implementation. 

So the landscape during a pandemic changes very quickly and in some cases, very dramatically. And you have to be prepared to pivot. And I think that's exactly what happened over the summer.

Are there any concerns at the system level that a significant number of students might disenroll because of the mandate? 

Oh, gosh, I would hope not. 

I'm a first-generation college student, and I've spent my life encouraging young people to get a degree, and to have the kind of transformational experience that I was fortunate enough to have. So I have a tremendous amount of compassion for those who have vaccine hesitancy, whether they're students, faculty, staff, general public, [I] really feel for folks that are going through those sentiments. 

But I think we've also arrived at a timeline that allows for implementation that isn't hurried, that can be thoughtful and measured and well supported by the evidence. So certainly, my hope is that we don't lose a single student over the vaccine requirement. 

And I think on the other side of the fence, you might retain some students who were worried about the campus not being vaccinated. 

The agenda for next week’s regents meeting includes an item that, if approved, would give your office the ability to draft a system wide COVID vaccine mandate for employees. But state employees, including NSHE employees, are already included under a state policy that requires either proof of vaccination or weekly COVID testing. 

Do you think there should be a faculty mandate? And if so, why do you think that NSHE should go one step further in implementing such a mandate? 

I'd actually like to back up your question and speak first to the governor's plan for employees. Because as we all know, for the past year and a half, most of the COVID policy has been guided by our governor and our role at NSHE has been to interpret that guidance for a campus application and provide guidance and make sure that we are in alignment with his direction. 

So I just want to pause because I have to give credit to my colleagues who are literally working around the clock right now to implement the governor's vision for “vax or test” for employees. And there's a tremendous amount of infrastructure that has to be created in order to fully adhere to that directive.

In fact, today, all employees across NSHE institutions will be receiving a confidential notice from their HR department about their vaccine status that we have on file to allow us to clean up that data, if there are any errors in that, before we move forward to asking unvaccinated folks to test. 

[An initial state deadline to require vaccination proof or testing for NSHE employees was delayed to the end of August, back from Aug. 15, to accommodate internal HR changes.]

So with that as the backdrop, and we certainly hope that through that direction from the governor, that more Nevadans on our campuses will get themselves vaccinated and will be safe and be able to protect face to face learning, as well as our economy. But the issue of employee vaccines is again, one that is a national conversation. 

This is uncharted waters. And it's important to recognize that when a governing body is considering something that is unprecedented, doing so through shared governance, through inclusion, listening to all stakeholders is a vital component to getting the policy. 

I think having this on the board's agenda in September is appropriate. It is timely, given the decision around students, that if we were going to say, “Gosh, we all need to be in this together,” doing so on the same timeline is prudent. 

The system’s budgets came out of this year’s legislative session a bit mixed, with more than $93 million in restored money for positions held-vacant through the pandemic, but another $76 million in cuts to operating budgets. 

One outstanding piece of the state’s budget picture is hundreds of millions in additional federal aid provided through the American Rescue Plan. What is your sense that that money could be used to make NSHE’s budget whole? And why, if it all, should lawmakers consider increasing higher ed budgets when they come back in 2023?   

I am a fierce advocate for making our budgets whole, and let me give a few more pieces of context to our budgets. So I have always said in higher education, a flat budget is a down budget, because your expenses are going to increase. So we need to recover that $76 million, because those are dollars that go to student services directly. This is money for advising, this is money for health centers, this is money for more instruction, so that you have a good student teacher ratio across the board. These dollars are about student success. 

It's also important to understand that our expenditures went up during the pandemic, not down because of all of the mitigation efforts that we had to go through. Student revenues went down, of course, and auxiliary revenues went down. 

And beyond that, to remember that another one of our functions is research and development. So there's a multiplier effect, when you invest in our research infrastructure, our labs, etc., our research faculty, they create tech transfer, they create new aspects of our economy that diversify our economy, so that the next time we're faced with a downturn of this magnitude, we have a more diversified economy than the one we had entering march of 2020. 

So those are some of the reasons. And I would say about the one-time monies that you're referring to, our conversation internally within the Council of Presidents is really, “How do we approach those one-time monies,” whether they're coming in through the state, or whether they're potential federal earmark opportunities. This is a once-in-a-career opportunity for us to create lasting investment in our students, staff and faculty — oftentimes through infrastructure,  because one-time dollars typically can't be used for operating, because that money is going to eventually evaporate. 

Lawmakers have long criticized the transparency of NSHE’s budget, including in the 2021 session, when Assembly Ways and Means Chair Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) described the system’s budget frequently as “behind a curtain.” How would you respond to those criticisms?

I would push back to some degree because I also think Assemblywoman Carlton gave us a lot of compliments this session. And in fact, on the record, complimented [NSHE Chief Financial Officer] Andrew Clinger, who did a masterful job presenting our budget, and thanked him for his additional transparency and availability. And the feedback we got from many legislators was that it felt like a new day at NSHE, that there were new relationships forming, and that this was a positive direction that we would need to continue to move into. 

And in point of fact, I actually welcome the state's audit of NSHE [this year, lawmakers passed a bill, AB416, that authorized an audit of non-state funded NSHE budgets dating back to 2019]. In fact, I was present about a month ago for the initial meeting with the auditors and my NSHE team, and I really welcome their exploration. We're looking forward to that, and participating in that audit, because I think that that will be the definitive word. I think that having that audit completed collaboratively, will put this question to rest.

As a function of another bill, AB450, it’s possible that lawmakers may seek to revise the system’s funding formula in 2023. The last time the funding formula was debated in Carson City, those deliberations became a major source of tension between NSHE and legislators. If we do have that discussion again in 2023, what’s changed?

First of all, redoing a funding formula is not for the faint of heart, no matter who does it, and no matter when they do it — I've been through that in another state. It's a challenging environment. 

So I think we just have to appreciate the fact that that's complex. It's tense, because institutions don't want to lose out in the changes. And obviously, I would be a fierce advocate for all of the institutions advancing their position. 

So I think we just have to appreciate the circumstances. What I would say is that so much has changed in the 10 years since the funding formula was established. We've gone through the two worst economic downturns of our entire lives in 100 years, we've gone through a pandemic, the industry of higher education is going through humongous disruption and transformation. And we're really being called, appropriately called, to advance our workforce efforts and elevate them to a new position. 

A few things that I think are very hopeful about how the conversation would go. One, of course, is that we do have AB450. And that committee may, in fact, ask for a funding formula revision. I don't know yet, I mean, we haven't populated the committee, and it hasn't met yet. But certainly that is a potential outcome. 

Secondly, I will be presenting to the board in a couple of weeks, also, our vision for statewide strategic planning. And I think this is a critical component in answering your question of, you know, why would people get along better? Part of the beauty of going through a strategic planning process is you invite everyone to the table. So the vision for strategic planning that I'll present to the board and seek their input on in a few weeks, is what I would affectionately refer to as a “y'all come” strategic planning process. 

We will also, as an ancillary benefit, be developing friends and advocates. And so that if we went into the ‘23 [legislative] session with a request, say, for a funding formula revision or any other request, the concept would be that we would have developed the advocacy and the support for that request very intentionally in advance. 

AB450 is broadly tasked with putting together an interim committee to study the alignment between NSHE’s community colleges, their funding and their governance, and the state’s workforce development goals. However, the language of “alignment” presents a question of the negative, that there’s a misalignment in existing programs. Do you think that is the case? 

I think that our [community college] campuses, and I would include Nevada State College in this as well, which was formed for the very purpose of workforce, teachers and nurses predominantly, I would say that there are tremendous things happening in workforce on all of our campuses. What has not been done, to my knowledge, is really aligning the data about what is needed for workforce, and doing a gap analysis with that data against what we are currently offering. 

Under [Vice Chancellor for Workforce Development Caleb Cage’s] direction, we are already processing some of that data working very closely with [the Governor’s Office of Economic Development] to collect what they have and surfacing that so that we can map it onto our existing certificates, badges, associate's degrees and beyond. And that crosswalk is the essential component to understanding if there's a gap somewhere. 

And so if there are gaps that are surfaced through that data collection, that will provide us the direction we need to refocus or add things that are new for new industries that are just coming online. But it also will inform the funding conversation. And I think this is a critical component, that's important for the public to understand is that many of our workforce efforts that are non-credit bearing, they don't result in a degree [and] are not funded through the state appropriation. 

And so if we want to change that, if we want to increase our supply of those opportunities, those learning opportunities, one solution for doing that is to fund it. 

Looking at the system’s diversity, there is a wide gap between the diversity of faculty and students at NSHE institutions. As of 2018, NSHE’s own data show 67 percent of all employees were white, while just 43 percent of students were white. What’s the mechanism by which the system actually closes that gap?

Well, part of it is about changing the conversation and creating intentionality. I've seen this successfully happen at other institutions. And I think creating an intentionality and creating a plan, where we are holding ourselves accountable to the outcomes will be absolutely critical. 

And [it’s] recognizing that these things don't happen overnight. And we have a team from NSHE, participating in a national-level conversation with other systems to share best practices. And the first thing we're doing, of course, is collecting the data so that we know exactly where are the gaps, so that we can hold ourselves accountable for measurable improvements over time. 

And so then that gets to the strategies, right? How do you get there? How do you get a faculty and a staff that again, mirror our student bodies today and our student bodies of the future, because they're going to continue to become increasingly diverse. And that's, you know, there's no silver bullet, right? 

What I'll tell you is one of the techniques that I saw work very effectively at one of the institutions in Oregon, when I was Chancellor there, and that was on one campus, we had, at the time, a [Carnegie R1 very high research activity] institution focused on hiring senior faculty of color. So these are folks who are hired in with tenure. And then they become mentors, to the young folks coming up behind them, which I think changes the conversation. 

Now, I will tell you, that's an expensive strategy. And it's expensive because it costs a lot more to hire a senior professor than an assistant professor. So those are the kinds of things that our task force will be looking at, and analyzing and evaluating what makes sense for Nevada, what makes sense for our institutions. 

Higher education officials ended 2021 session with mixed budget news, prospect of another fight over removing regents from constitution

Administrators, officials and lobbyists in the orbit of Nevada’s higher education system shared a common refrain coming out of this year’s legislative session: It could have been worse. 

“I think relative to where we started the process, we ended up in a much better place,” Nevada System of Higher Education CFO Andrew Clinger said. “Now, I wouldn't say that we're in a great place. We're better than we were.”

When the dust settled, NSHE escaped with roughly $76 million in cuts to operational budgets, after another $93 million had been restored to institutional coffers through federal COVID relief dollars. It was a surprise boon and last-minute addback aimed at lifting a hiring freeze and avoiding the looming prospect of faculty layoffs. 

Even now, optimism remains high that lawmakers will use some of the roughly $2.7 billion in federal aid allocated to Nevada through the American Rescue Plan to erase some or all of the outstanding $76 million cut — though exactly how or when that could happen remains unknown. 

While the budget drew much of the attention during the session, lawmakers also passed dozens of higher-education related bills, including measures that formalized land-grant university status for UNLV, created fee waivers for Native students and began the process of amending the Board of Regents out of the state Constitution. 

Budget woes blunted, but not erased

When the legislative session began in early February, vaccinations had only just begun in earnest. Among the many unknowns at the time, it remained unclear when — and by how much — the state’s precarious revenue outlook would rebound after a devastating 2020. 

Amid that uncertainty, Gov. Steve Sisolak proposed a two-year budget that skimmed 12 percent off state agency budgets. That included NSHE, where 12 percent over two years amounted to a cumulative $169 million in cuts. 

At the time, the 12 percent figure, combined with several key restorations of tens of millions in capital project funding, was seen as something of a win. Budgets fell by roughly 19 percent in 2020 by the end of last year’s special legislative session, but several administrators, system officials and lobbyists expressed relief at the time that the governor and lawmakers declined to go even further in dipping into higher education coffers to fill severe budget holes elsewhere. 

Through the course of the 2021 session, higher education advocates were concerned that legislators might use higher education budgets as a release valve. And at multiple junctures, lawmakers on key budget committees pressed higher education officials for more information on individual budget accounts, and asked why formula-based funding tied to student credit-hours, referred to as caseload growth, was increasing even as enrollment numbers fell. 

“I've said this to almost every NSHE advocate and lobbyist that I have ever met with, that I appreciate where they are, [but] that if I have a choice between kindergarteners and college kids, I'm there for the kindergarteners,” Assembly Ways and Means Chair Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) said during a May committee meeting. “They need my voice, they need our voice.”

Democratic Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton in the Legislature in Carson City on Feb. 1, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Clinger and system Chancellor Melody Rose argued to legislators that the increase came because formula budgets lagged the current budget cycle by roughly two years, and the increase was in essence a built-in “catch-up” mechanic. 

That question came in addition to claims from committee members that NSHE was better positioned to absorb cuts in large part because of federal aid dollars set aside specifically for colleges and universities through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF). 

Created as part of the original CARES Act and boosted twice by federal relief measures in December and again as part of the American Rescue Plan (ARP), HEERF ultimately funneled more than $369 million to NSHE institutions, with a little less than half — $160 million — set aside for student financial aid. 

In documents presented to the committee in the waning days of the session, Clinger argued that the HEERF money had only offset deep revenue losses at individual institutions, essentially covering massive budget holes created by empty dorms, unfilled stadium seats and unbought parking passes. Clinger said the HEERF allocation would not cover the sum total of expected revenue losses and a 12 percent across-the-board cut. 

Even now, as the widespread lifting of COVID-19 restrictions and the expansion of vaccination programs are buoying state and local economies, Clinger told The Nevada Independent that revenue projections have yet to change. The latest round of HEERF money allocated through the ARP will still be set aside to cover expected losses in non-state funding. 

The biggest budgetary win for NSHE came in the final days of the session, when budget committees opted to fully restore personnel budgets and added back roughly $93 million dollars in an effort to unfreeze hundreds of vacant positions across all eight institutions. 

However, lawmakers left another $76 million in operational cuts in place while also instituting a handful of fee waiver bills. Most notable among the waivers was AB262, which essentially waived tuition and fees for members and descendents of any federally-recognized Indian tribe or nation in Nevada. 

The fee waivers were hailed by Native leaders as critical expansions of educational access, and saw support from both UNR and UNLV. After AB262 was signed by the governor, Nevada Indian Commission Executive Director Stacey Montooth said the measure “exponentially broadened” the futures of the state’s Native Americans. 

But NSHE officials and members of the Board of Regents have raised concerns that such waivers were delivered to the system as “unfunded mandates” with fiscal impacts that are difficult to quantify because of the impact on future revenues, ultimately compounding operational cuts.  

“So [the Legislature] cut the budget, and then tell higher ed that they have to give certain students free or reduced tuition,” Regent Jason Geddes said in an interview. “And most of [the waivers] I'm very favorable about, and I've supported, like AB262, but it is tough to balance.”

Faculty labor priorities see mixed results

As lawmakers mulled the budget, faculty advocates sought action on a number of their own labor priorities with mixed results. 

In the win column, legislators approved language that allowed regents to implement the first permanent merit-based pay raise funding pool in more than a decade. 

Under a policy later approved by regents during an early June meeting, institutions will use a 1 percent pool from their budgets to fund performance-based pay increases, functionally replacing a state-funded 2 percent pool that was eliminated as part of Recession-era cuts 12 years ago.

Representatives with the Nevada Faculty Alliance (NFA), including UNLV’s Doug Unger, called the change “a victory” and “a long time coming,” pointing to the pool as a key factor in helping address issues of salary compression and worsening faculty morale.  

UNLV campus on Thursday, April 8, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Even so, the NFA’s main priority, SB373, struck a logjam in the Senate Finance Committee, where it ultimately died without receiving a second hearing.

A measure that would have granted Nevada higher education faculty collective bargaining rights under state law, SB373, was pitched by NFA leaders as a necessary step toward removing control of the current bargaining process from NSHE and the Board of Regents. 

“The problem with that is that our employers, who are the Board of Regents, both write and interpret the rules of engagement for collective bargaining,” Kent Ervin, Vice President of the Nevada Faculty Alliance, said. “And we have no way of going to an outside group for mediation or arbitration for efficient resolution of any disputes.”

Under the current system, faculty can collectively bargain under NSHE code, just as CSN faculty did last year. However, such bargaining units are unable to directly negotiate with the state for pay and benefits, leaving them unable to ask for the 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) raise offered to certain state employee unions. 

“It’s rather ironic that at the same time, our collective bargaining bill, to give us the right to negotiate under the state system, was not passing through the Legislature, we were told that, ‘well, unless you have a collective bargaining agreement with the state, you can't get this higher COLA, you have to have the agreement first,’” Ervin said. “And yet, we have no way in statute to have that agreement.”

And while faculty fears over impending layoffs were allayed by the restoration of personnel budgets, other compensation cuts remain in place. That includes deep cuts to the Public Employees Benefits Program (PEBP), including reductions in life insurance benefits and the wholesale elimination of long-term disability insurance.

The expected pain from those cuts was partially mitigated with the surprise addition of a premium holiday. But with the enrollment period for the current fiscal year already come and gone, Ervin and other faculty advocates are still “cautiously hopeful” that lawmakers could use federal relief money to plug holes for the 2023 fiscal year. 

The Accountability Question

Each of the last three legislative sessions has had a similar yet distinctive throughline: a visible lack of trust between key legislators and NSHE, its chancellor and the Board of Regents. 

The history of tension between the Legislature and the regents spans decades. Unlike many other states, the Board of Regents that govern higher education in Nevada are written directly into the Constitution with the power to control not only universities, but also community colleges. Critics of the board have often charged that it and NSHE at large have wielded that constitutional status as a legal shield, at times casting itself as a fourth branch of government in legal disputes with the Legislature. 

The relationship deteriorated quickly and severely in the wake of a 2016 scandal that saw then-Chancellor Dan Klaich ousted over the revelation that his office had misled legislators during the high-stakes revision of the system’s funding formula in 2012. 

The incident and other lingering divisions between legislators and the regents finally led to 2017's AJR5, which sought to expand legislative oversight by pulling the Board of Regents from the state Constitution entirely. 

After four years of winding through the legislative process, AJR5 became Question 1 on the 2020 ballot. But after all those years, including a year of full-throated public campaigning, Question 1 was rejected by voters by a narrow margin of just 3,877 votes out of more than 1.2 million ballots cast. 

Just five months after the ballot question failed, lawmakers introduced and passed SJR7, a legislatively-proposed constitutional amendment that would remove the Board of Regents from the state Constitution, in essence mirroring Question 1 with a handful of small tweaks.

Like AJR5 before it, SJR7 would need to secure passage from both houses in another legislative session before it could head to the voters for final approval in 2024. The measure cruised easily through both the Assembly and Senate, encountering only a bit of late-session resistance from a small bloc of 11 conservative Assembly Republicans — far short of the 22 votes needed to block the measure. 

Lawmakers on the floor of the Assembly inside the Legislature in Carson City on Thursday, April 15, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Question 1’s backers have coalesced around SJR7, now armed, they say, with the knowledge of why Question 1 failed at the ballot box. 

“I think there's just significant evidence that can't be ignored that the public was very, very confused about it,” said Warren Hardy, a former state senator and lobbyist with the nonprofit Council for a Better Nevada, which funded efforts supportive of Question 1 on the 2020 ballot. “And so being as close as it was, I feel like having a question clarified and very specific about the fact that it just simply looks at taking the regents out of the Constitution, but yet doesn't change any of the statutory provisions related to how they're elected or anything.”

The question of whether the regents should be enshrined in the state Constitution has also been linked to a related but separate question: Should the regents be elected at all? 

Both sides of that issue have argued that the possibility of appointing, rather than electing regents — which is not a policy addressed either by Question 1 or by SJR7 — should not be part of the debate over the regents’ constitutional status. 

Even so, the two issues have so-far been inextricably tied together, both in opposition rhetoric and in the Legislature. 

In the midst of the second round of discussions in 2019, then-Democratic Sen. Joyce Woodhouse — a co-sponsor of AJR5 — proposed SB354. It was a sweeping measure that would have completely overhauled the makeup of the Board of Regents (if Question 1 on the 2020 ballot were to pass), dropping the number of regents from 13 to nine and splitting the board between just five elected regents and four appointed by the governor. 

Even though the bill failed to pass, it has since served as proof-positive among Question 1 skeptics that Legislators will likely attempt to appoint at least some regents should the legal bar be lowered and the board is removed from the Constitution. 

Vocal Question 1 critic and Regent Jason Geddes asked in an interview with The Nevada Independent, in light of moves by lawmakers to slash budgets, enforce fee waivers and audit system finances, “What is the overall intent, if not to make the board appointed, not elected?”

“I think [appointed regents] is still the through line,” Geddes said. “I don't think they should have brought [SJR7] this session. To me, it's somewhat dismissive of the electorate to say, ‘they just didn't understand it. and even though they voted it down, we're going to bring it back.’”

Proponents of SJR7 argue, just as they did with Question 1, that the entire debate is and should be about the accountability of the board to lawmakers. To that end, among the differences between last year’s failed ballot question and this year’s renewed joint-resolution is the addition of a Constitutional requirement for lawmakers to audit the higher education system every two years. 

Lawmakers would have the power to initiate an audit regardless of the passage of SJR7, and indeed moved this session to begin just such a process with AB416. But, Hardy said, the enshrinement of a legislative audit in the language of SJR7 was included because “the public overwhelmingly supported that provision.” 

“We started emphasizing a little bit because of the public interest that was in it,” Hardy said, citing internal polling and focus groups. “But certainly for the most part, when we were trying to figure out what people did and didn't understand about it, it was pretty clear that those who supported it understood [audits] and wanted it included.”

The broader question of accountability often dips deeper into something more foundational: Should Nevada overhaul the structures through which it governs higher education? 

One potential kickstart to discussions about new governance models could come from AB450, a bill backed by the governor and creating an interim committee tasked with examining whether governance and funding structures for Nevada community colleges align with broader workforce development goals. 

AB450 was the end result of a promise Sisolak made in his State of the State address in January, when he pledged to call on lawmakers to work with NSHE “to develop a framework to transition Nevada’s community colleges to a new independent authority that will focus on making Nevadans job ready.”

In the time since, the governor has at least twice called for increased community college funding — once during a post-session bill signing event, and again during a roundtable event with U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh last month. 

U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, right, and Gov. Steve Sisolak announce a workforce grant during a roundtable at the College of Southern Nevada on Tuesday, June. 22, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

“I've always maintained — from my time on the Board of Regents to the [Clark] County Commission to now as governor — our community colleges are underfunded and underappreciated and overlooked, unfortunately,” Sisolak said during the roundtable.

What form such an increase would take is unclear. But should AB450 initiate new talks on a funding formula revision, higher education administrators said it is likely that any community college formula changes would ripple outward to the state’s four-year institutions, too. 

And while the bill is in a technical sense merely a study — often the death of lawmaking endeavors — Hardy said key provisions in AB450 mean the study committee will produce an actionable report come the next regular session. 

“This is the first step towards modernization,” Hardy said. “And we're very delighted that there's language included in there, this implementation language. That it is not just a study, but there's a provision that requires the group to come back with recommendations for 2023. So we think we can begin implementing these things as early as 2023.”

Land grant status, more policies pass muster

No single piece of legislation threatened to re-open regional wounds between UNLV and UNR in the early months of the legislative session like SB287

In the simplest terms, the measure sought to formalize UNLV and the Desert Research Institute as federally designated land grant institutions alongside UNR in statute, essentially firming up several legal opinions that held that UNLV and DRI were already land grant schools, as both were already part of the “University of Nevada” as described in the state Constitution. 

UNLV administrators and Southern Nevada boosters praised the measure as a necessary equalizer between north and south, a change they said could provide the state’s younger university the same opportunities afforded the venerable UNR. 

But many at UNR —  including university President Brian Sandoval, who vetoed a similar measure during his time as governor in 2017 — railed against the bill as potentially devastating to the university’s Cooperative Extension, which partners with county governments across the state to provide a host of popular programs.  

University of Nevada, Reno on Friday, Oct. 23, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

In the end, the regional push-and-pull was for naught, as last-minute compromises gutted the original draft’s most controversial provisions. SB287’s final form left UNR’s funding for its Cooperative Extension untouched, while still allowing for formal legal recognition of UNLV and DRI as land grant institutions.

For the Council for a Better Nevada, also a major booster of the bill, Hardy said the goal for 2021 was securing formal land-grant status in Nevada law — not pursuing millions of dollars in funding made available to UNR through its operation of the Cooperative Extension, as the original draft did. 

“In retrospect, if I had to do it again, I would have only included section six that provision related to codifying land grants in the first place,” Hardy said. “Because that was the portion that we were interested in.”

The ultimate financial effect of SB287’s addition of grant application opportunities will likely take months or years to play out as UNLV and DRI faculty apply for the grants at issue. 

SB287 was only one of many higher education-related bills that survived the session. Other major legislation approved by lawmakers and signed by the governor includes: 

  • SB434: Restores $25 million in state funding for the medical education building under construction for UNLV’s nascent Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine. Originally allocated in 2017 but cut during the 2020 special session, Hardy said the money will go toward furnishing the interior once construction is complete. 
  • SB347: A wide-reaching bill that, among other things, directs the regents to create a sexual misconduct task force and create a system-wide campus climate survey, and also removes citizenship requirements for the Millennium Scholarship, Silver State Opportunity Grant and the Nevada Promise Scholarship. The measure was the end result of three bills — two addressing Title IX issues and a third focused on scholarship requirements — merged into one.
  • SB342: Allows the Board of Regents to give final approval to a 50-year partnership deal between the UNR Medical School and Reno-area health care giant Renown Health. Hailed as “transformative” by proponents, the deal was approved by regents in a 12-1 vote at their June meeting. 
  • SB128: Directs the state treasurer to conduct a study on the effectiveness of publicly-funded scholarships and grant programs. The study would evaluate a range of metrics, from the administrative costs of these programs to the short and long-term viability of publicly funded scholarships. 
  • SB327: Though not wholly related to NSHE, this bill in part expands definition of racial discrimination to include ancestry, color and certain traits like hairstyles. The bill also prohibits discrimination based on “traits associated with race” for enrollment in Nevada schools, including institutions under NSHE’s umbrella. 

Updated, 7/2/21 at 11:30 a.m. - This story was updated to include additional details on the Nevada Board of Regents as among the few elected boards nationwide, and to correct a transcription error. NFA Vice President Kent Ervin said "for efficient," rather than "or efficient."

Lawmakers clarify price tag for expanding undocumented student access to Silver State Opportunity Grant

unlv campus

Allowing undocumented Nevada students to apply for the need-based Silver State Opportunity Grant without filling out a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form, which requires a Social Security number, would cost about $250,000 annually, officials told lawmakers on Thursday. 

Attending college can be particularly burdensome for students without legal status, who are ineligible for awards such as the federal needs-based Pell Grant. 

While AB213 does not include a fiscal note, bill sponsor Assemblyman Edgar Flores (D-Las Vegas) and Andrew Clinger, chief financial officer for the Nevada System of Higher Education, clarified that in order to create an alternative form and process for undocumented students to apply for the grant, the Nevada System of Higher Education will draw up to 5 percent of the Silver State Opportunity Grant program funds, which total $5 million a year allocated from the state general fund. 

“That's why there's not a fiscal note on that piece, because with that language in there it gives us the resources to go ahead and implement that alternative FASFA,” Clinger said during a hearing before the Assembly Ways and Means Committee last Thursday. 

Clinger added that he was unsure whether the complete 5 percent, or $250,000 annual total, earmarked in the bill would be necessary to implement AB213.

“Obviously we want to get as much of those funds out to the students as possible so we will keep those administrative costs as low as we can,” he said. 

Flores, who also practices immigration law, added that the process of filling out the alternative form would ensure privacy protection for undocumented students. 

“It's very similar to the way you would go about filling out a passport, except that it would be our own revised new version of it and it would not be reported and it would not go out to the federal government. It would be locally handled within the jurisdictional boundaries of Nevada,” he said. 

Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas), who chairs the Assembly Ways and Means Committee, expressed concern about the recurring cost the bill would mean for the grant program. 

“If it's an ongoing cost and we start scraping money off of tops of scholarships to get things done, then I think that's a bigger policy discussion for everyone to have,” she said. 

Along with removing the FAFSA requirement to apply for the Silver State Opportunity Grant, AB213 would also scrap the requirement that students sign an affidavit declaring themselves either citizens of the U.S., legal immigrants or to have filed for a legal immigrant status in order to apply for the Millennium Scholarship, which offers free or reduced tuition to Nevada colleges and universities. 

Heading off concerns about the value of extending the scholarship to undocumented students, Flores noted that undocumented students’ immigration status is likely to change through their time in higher education and said the state has a responsibility to support all students. 

“We have a vested interest in ensuring that our students who are graduating here, we've already invested X, Y and Z in ensuring that they go through our system of K-12. Now we have a vested interest in continuing to ensure that they graduate and can put all those benefits and resources and all those capabilities to work for our state,” Flores said. 

In addition to expanding access to the state grant for undocumented students, AB213 would also enshrine certain Nevada System of Higher Education practices in state law, such as guaranteeing that graduates from Nevada high schools receive in-state tuition and are eligible for the merit-based Millennium and last-dollar Nevada Promise scholarships. 

The measure also aims to ensure enrolled members of federally recognized tribes in Nevada are eligible for in-state tuition regardless of state residency status. 

The committee did not immediately vote on the bill, which still needs a vote from the full Assembly and Senate in order to be passed as state law before the Legislature ends on Monday.

Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in Behind the Bar, The Nevada Independent’s newsletter dedicated to comprehensive coverage of the 2021 Legislature. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Lawmakers add back $93 million to higher ed budget for faculty, staff positions, though millions more in cuts remain

The Nevada Legislature building

With just two weeks to go before the end of the 2021 legislative session, state lawmakers boosted the Nevada System of Higher Education’s (NSHE) budget with the allocation of more than $93 million in federal COVID relief dollars aimed at lifting a system-wide hiring freeze.

Legislators in a joint budget meeting on Saturday approved spending part of the state’s $2.7 billion share of American Rescue Plan to restore funding for an estimated 487 full time system positions kept vacant or on track to be eliminated — a partial reversal after lawmakers on Friday split along party lines in a vote to close that budget with $169 million in cuts still in place. 

The decision to backfill those cuts had been hinted at by Assembly Ways and Means Chair Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas), who on Friday said “we’re not done yet” on the NSHE budget prior to approval of the recommended 12 percent cuts. One day later, Carlton reiterated that “it’s not over until it’s over.”

“We were trying to get where we needed to be, we needed to have information and guidance, we needed to be able to allow staff to get their work done,” she said. “So I just wanted to make sure that folks understand that as we move through this process, it's an ever changing world because we don't know what's on the other side of the curtain right now.”

Lawmakers stressed that the federal dollars needed to be allocated only for restoring and hiring positions — a sentiment agreed to by NSHE Chief Financial Officer and chief lobbyist Andrew Clinger.

“I'm happy to make sure that we as a system, as we implement these funds, that it goes specifically for position restorations and does not get moved to any other spending category, so that it will only be used to restore positions,” he said on Saturday. “We are in agreement with that.”

Still, the federal influx doesn’t immediately reverse all of the proposed spending cuts to NSHE. The system is still facing a roughly $75.7 million combined cut over the biennium, nearly all of which will be absorbed through operational cuts, Clinger said. 

But with expectations that tens of millions of dollars available through additional higher education-specific federal aid will cover most, if not all, of expected institutional shortfalls from non-state revenue sources, Saturday’s decision brings the system’s budget as close to whole as it has been since the pandemic began. 

Even so, how this position funding will be treated in future sessions could still be subject to change. Because it is a one-shot injection of funds being used to restore permanent positions, rather than a more traditional increase to the system’s base budget, whether lawmakers keep the system’s budget at the currently proposed level in future sessions remains “an open question,” Clinger said.

Clinger told The Nevada Independent that he hopes the amount of the federal aid will be treated as part of the system’s base budget in the future, but said the ultimate policy decision will fall to the governor and the Legislature in two years’ time. 

A partial funding restoration

Recent joint budget committee decisions took advantage of the recently-released broad spending guidelines for the state’s $2.7 billion share of the $1.9 trillion federal American Rescue Plan legislation passed in March. 

Lawmakers had previously voted to preliminarily use that same pot of money to backfill more than 300 vacant state employee positions at an estimated cost of more than $20 million over the two year budget cycle. 

But Democratic legislative leaders have been more cautious about backfilling the governor’s proposed 12 percent cuts to the NSHE budget — in part because of other federal relief dollars targeting higher education institutions, but also because of a desire to wait for federal guidance and long-simmering tensions between the Legislature and NSHE.

“At this moment in time, we can make this decision,” Carlton said. “Forty-eight hours ago or so, we couldn't make this decision because we weren't there yet.”

In total, lawmakers approved spending $46.6 million over the upcoming fiscal year and $46.5 million in the 2023 fiscal year to fund position restorations and lift temporary hiring freezes for administrative and academic faculty positions.

NSHE estimated that the approved funding would restore 487 positions, but not all divisions of the higher education system provided specific hiring estimates. Clinger said it was because the system could not identify all potential impacted vacancies, saying “it wasn't in any attempt to not be transparent.”

According to documents shared with the committee, the federal funding will help fund 100 positions at UNLV, 122 positions at UNR and dozens of positions at state and community colleges.

A partisan split emerges on the budget

Prior to Saturday’s actions, Republican lawmakers had criticized the move to close the higher education budget with substantial cuts, with several pushing for a firm commitment to review higher education accounts alongside other fiscal needs. 

The nine Republicans on the joint committee, which includes both Assembly Ways and Means and Senate Finance, ultimately voted as a bloc to reject the motion to close the budgets without receiving such assurances from leading Democrats on Thursday.

“It's not just cuts to universities,” Sen. Ben Kieckhefer (R-Reno) said. “This is $25 million out of the College of Southern Nevada and $10 million out of the new med school, where we just graduated our first class and we're celebrating. It’s $1.2 million out of a college scholarship program that supports our lowest income minority students who are going to college for the first time in their families. I think we can do better, and I hope that we get there.” 

Committee Democrats defended their decision in the same manner as they have throughout the session, pointing to the need to balance limited available long-term revenue sources against a bevy of needy programs. 

Among those defending the cuts was Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas), who pushed back on Kieckhefer’s assertion and said it was “a little bit frustrating when we paint a partisan picture” of difficult budgeting decisions. 

“I always appreciate when there's a tough decision that we all of a sudden want to talk about minorities and low income and the most challenging,” Frierson said. “I think that we are in this together, and in particular on this committee, it requires that we make tough decisions and that we rely on each other.”

More broadly, Democrats chafed at criticism that they unfairly cut higher education budgets relative to other state funding needs. Instead, they said, NSHE institutions have received hundreds of millions in federal aid, including tens of millions more in direct aid for students, all while the state mulled how to fund other crucial areas such as K-12 education or critical health services. 

“I've said this to almost every NSHE advocate and lobbyist that I have ever met with, that I appreciate where they are, [but] that if I have a choice between kindergarteners and college kids, I'm there for the kindergarteners,” Carlton said. “They need my voice, they need our voice.”

Carlton was also broadly critical of the opacity of the system’s budget, saying that much of its money was “behind a curtain” and that “sometimes it’s hard to make tough decisions on NSHE when you don’t have all the data.”

Carlton reiterated that her position on higher education cuts was not adversarial, but rather one that demanded “accountability and explanation.”

Democratic leaders also sounded off in frustration against charges that cuts implied they did not care about college students. That included Assembly Majority Leader Teresa Benitez-Thompson (D-Reno), who told the committee that “hard decisions'' made last year to cut NSHE’s budget came in part because it was well-funded per-pupil to begin with, and also because it could rely on investment-linked rainy day accounts to absorb much of the immediate budgetary damage where other agencies could not.

Though not specific, Benitez-Thompson’s comments appeared to reference a $50 million one-shot payment to institutions last June from a market-linked “market fluctuation account” traditionally used by NSHE to fund special projects or deferred maintenance costs.

“We do pretty well at this, so the accusation that we don't care enough or we don't do enough is always one that sits sideways with me, because I think it is factually untrue,” Benitez-Thompson said. “And I think that to paint this committee, any of us, as in a spot of being less-than-concerned about students is just hyperbolic rhetoric that does nothing to actually help us have sincere conversations.”

Speaking to The Nevada Independent prior to Saturday’s meeting, Clinger said he credited the governor’s office and the Legislature for building NSHE’s budget back up in the years following the great recession, such that per-pupil funding int he system — measured as funding per-full-time equivalent (FTE) student — is above the national average

But not all funding metrics tell the same story, and Nevada’s per-pupil numbers benefit from a lower number of students in the higher education system than other similarly-sized states. 

“If you look at it on a per capita basis, it definitely does not come out as favorable, because we unfortunately, don't have as many high school students going on to college, perhaps, as other states do,” Clinger said. “But the students that are in our system, which is what the FTE-basis compares, the state has done a good job of funding those students.”

Perhaps the greatest sticking point during discussions has been massive tranches of federal aid provided to NSHE through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF). Created as part of the original CARES Act and boosted through additional funding last December and again through the American Rescue Plan, HEERF provided an early lifeline to universities, colleges and students nationwide that suddenly began treading water last year as revenues dried up overnight. 

That was also the case in Nevada, where three rounds of HEERF money amounted to more than $369 million, of which roughly $160 million was set aside for direct student aid. 

At multiple junctures this session, Democratic lawmakers have pointed to the HEERF aid as a key mitigating factor for NSHE, providing tens of millions in relief that was designed to help higher education institutions, specifically. 

But nearly all of that money, according to an NSHE budget document shared with legislators this week, has been used by institutions to cover millions in lost non-state revenues such as reduced campus housing occupancy or lost parking fees.

As a result, NSHE and other higher education advocates have argued that the federal money through HEERF — though vast — would do little to help cover other losses.

“There are a lot of other impacts to the institutions sort of outside of the state operating budget,” Clinger said.

Clinger added that there are factors that may yet mitigate the severity of NSHE’s budget woes through the next two years, though. 

Most notably, NSHE’s original estimated budget reduction was based on an assumption that non-state revenues, such as that from residence halls, will continue to remain sharply down from pre-pandemic levels through much of 2022 and into 2023. 

Should the impacts of the pandemic recede faster than expected as vaccinations increase and health risks fall, Clinger said non-state revenues could bounce back sooner than current projections. 

With positions restored, some challenges remain

As administrators and faculty await final word on budgets for the next two years, the restoration of hundreds of positions held vacant for the last year will likely kickstart efforts over the next year to rebuild the somewhat-depleted ranks of faculty and staff. 

The restorations come at an especially crucial time for the state’s two universities, as each looks to maintain its designation among the top research institutions in the country. 

In late 2018, both UNLV and UNR achieved a major milestone as each received a so-called “R1” designation from the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. A classification handed out to 130 universities every three years based on how much research is conducted at a given institution, administrators at both UNR and UNLV said the status came only after years of investment in research faculty, support and infrastructure. 

But with few indications of the long term impacts of the recent cuts, the continuation of the Carnegie classification through the next evaluation period is not certain.

“You are only an R1 university as long as the last ranking that came out ranked you as an R1 university,” UNLV Provost Chris Heavey said. 

Unlike nearly every other aspect of the university experience, research labs largely continued operations unimpeded through the pandemic. Working around mandated masks, social distancing requirements and other limits on operating procedures, UNLV Interim Vice President for Research Lori Olafson said research lab operations “didn’t have any unintended consequences related to the pandemic."

As much as the research itself was unscathed, however, the number of faculty across the system was a different story. 

In an effort to curb hemorrhaging revenues, Gov. Steve Sisolak mandated steep statewide cuts early last year of 4 percent, with plans to cut an additional 16 percent through the next fiscal year (a number that rose for NSHE to 19.8 percent by the close of last year’s special session). 

To comply with those cuts and in an effort to prevent the level of layoffs seen during the Great Recession, the Board of Regents pushed to approve measures for system-wide furloughs and hiring freezes as a means to dramatically reduce operating costs. 

More than a year later, those freezes — affecting roughly 370 faculty positions across the eight NSHE institutions — are still in place, but now likely to be lifted after approval of the federal funding on Saturday.

“The practical implications of this would be that the hiring freeze would be lifted, sooner rather than later, so that staffing could be put in place for the upcoming school year,” Sen. Julia Ratti (D-Sparks) said on Saturday.

UNR Vice President for Research and Innovation Mridul Gautam said that the impact of those open positions stretch far beyond research programs alone. 

“It's not just a research enterprise in isolation,” Gautam said. “They attract good graduate students, they attract good undergraduate students. Those undergraduate students graduate, and they tell their friends about it. And they come back, our enrollment goes up with good solid students, we can reach out and make education accessible to everybody … So every component is affected when we get resources and gets affected when we don't get the resources from the state. It's not just the faculty.”

Complicating matters further is the lingering issue of faculty compensation. Nevada faculty have complained for years that a recession-era limitation on merit pay — one that functionally eliminated any faculty merit raises for a decade — has limited upward mobility and made it difficult for some to justify rejecting job offers from other universities. 

It’s a problem that predates the pandemic, and it’s one that remains difficult to address as Nevada’s higher education funding increases have generally trailed regional rivals in the long term, administrators said. 

“Part of the reality is if you don't have a competitive pay structure for faculty, your most productive faculty leave because they get recruited away to other places,” Heavey said. “So we don't have a silver bullet solution to that but we think it's something that the state really needs to address.”

Lawmakers appear poised to approve a 1 percent pool of university funding that would be used to pay for merit raises. The move has been praised by faculty advocates, but still criticized in part because it falls short of the 2 percent state-funded merit pool that existed before the recession. 

University professors — especially professional, tenure-track faculty — are far from the lowest-paid employees of any given university. But, UNR economics professor Elliott Parker said those salaries do not exist in a vacuum, and a sustained lack of pay increases in good economic times has eroded willingness among some to stick around through the bad.

“After a while, you kind of break the loyalty, and some of your best faculty will go,” he said. 

Higher education institutions now also must face a new logistical problem — filling nearly 200 vacant positions across both UNR and UNLV that have been held open for more than a year. 

Those positions are not necessarily static. Both UNR and UNLV are massive employers with more than 10,000 employees between them, pre-pandemic. As a result, Heavey described the vacancies as rolling, with the most pressing ones — those that may jeopardize the accreditation of a certain program — exempted from the freeze. 

“The churn of positions within the university is very large,” Heavy said. “In a given week we might lose five people, and then we might say okay we're going to refill two. And now, because we've held so many vacant, now we're getting closer to a net-even or even starting to grow back a little bit in terms of the total number of faculty that we have.”

Dozens of the positions in question are for professional faculty, which, unlike classified staff such adjuncts or graduate student jobs, can only be filled after a months-long search process. 

Kent Ervin, Vice President of the Nevada Faculty Alliance, said a number of searches planned at UNR this spring had already been canceled. However, if searches were to begin again this fall, according to Gautam, many would be complete by the start of the next academic year in the fall of 2022.

But lost in the debate over whether lawmakers will restore lost money, administrators said, is the possibility of boosting higher education funding in the long term — and the costs associated with not doing so. 

A case in point, according to Gautam, was a lost opportunity to participate in a National Institutes of Health (NIH) program meant to speed the development of COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics through clinical trials. UNR was initially approached by NIH for participation in the program in late November, but the university “didn’t have the infrastructure,” and potential research partners at Renown Health and the Veterans Affairs hospital were “busy with what they were doing.”  

“Those things don't come to mind when we're when these cuts happen, because we're just trying to maintain the status quo and barely managing to maintain the status quo,” he said. “In fact, we’re falling behind — forget about advancing, or building things that we need to build in the state. Those things don't happen when these cuts come around.”

Millions in federal aid could ease higher ed cuts

Nearly $200 million in estimated federal aid will flow to fiscally beleaguered institutions and struggling students in the coming weeks as part of the massive $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, pending final guidelines on spending restrictions expected later this month from the Department of Education.  

The third round of aid from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) initially created as part of the CARES act last year, this newest round of money comes as yet another shot in the arm for the state’s seven degree-granting institutions. 

Those institutions entered this year’s legislative session with plans to cut 12 percent of their budgets in each of the next two fiscal years — roughly $84 million per year in combined cuts. 

With nearly $40 billion set aside for colleges and universities nationwide, this latest round of aid is also by far the largest, outsizing both the first ($14 billion) and second ($23 billion) aid packages combined.

As with the other two rounds of HEERF funding, a vast portion of the new money will flow to students, likely allowing them to cover a range of pandemic-related expenses if federal guidelines follow a similar pattern to the last round of relief. 

Distributed through the individual colleges and universities, such funding has so far been readily scooped up by students through the past two rounds of aid, according Tim Wolfe, the director of financial aid and scholarship at UNR. 

“We opened up [HEERF II applications] on a Monday, and by Tuesday morning, we had 4,565 applications in one day,” Wolfe said.

The remaining half will be divided up between institutions, with variations based on size. According to early estimates of the aid from the Association of Public Land-Grant Universities, the largest single slice will go to UNLV, which is expected to receive more than $68.7 million, including aid set aside for student grants. 

Other institutional aid estimates include $58.4 million for the College of Southern Nevada; $39.8 million for UNR; $13.7 million for Truckee Meadows Community College; $9.4 million for Nevada State College; $5.1 million for Western Nevada College; and $2.2 million for Great Basin College.  

Much of those funds, according to Nevada System of Higher Education Chief Financial Officer Andrew Clinger, will be targeted at covering widespread revenue shortfalls triggered by the pandemic. 

“This is to help us manage that student revenue side of it, it's the registration fees and tuition that student students pay,” Clinger said. “But it's also dorm fees, and food service fees, and all the other what we call ancillary services on campus that are experiencing revenue losses as well.”

Still, at the institutional level, it remains unclear what revenue losses may be covered by the new law in the absence of additional guidelines. 

“Right now, the language says it can be used for shortfalls in revenue,” Vic Redding, UNR Vice President of Administration and Finance, said. “So we just don't know which revenue will be eligible and will be at the top of the list for that backfill.”

Those revenue shortfalls have been compounded by state budget cuts, especially as enrollment head counts sputtered amid a switch to virtual or hybrid learning and broad restrictions on the in-person use of campus facilities. 

“Not only are enrollments down, but the students who are enrolled are taking fewer courses, so our registration fees were down,” Redding said. “But most significantly, our non-resident tuition was down because we had a much more significant drop off in out-of-state students, and almost all international students were precluded from coming. So just the percent drop of enrollments doesn't quite tell the whole picture.”

Concerns also remain over the future of institutional budgets, especially as the Legislature mulls the short term nature of proposed cuts, and whether additional cuts could be used in conjunction with federal relief to further reduce state spending on higher education in the short term. 

During a budget hearing last month, budget subcommittee chair and Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) pressed Clinger and system Chancellor Melody Rose on an increase in funding related to the system’s funding formula, even as enrollment began to fall. 

Rose and Clinger countered that the formula increases were based on pre-pandemic enrollments, not the most recent data. Even so, Carlton appeared to leave an open lane for additional reductions, should room in the funding formula be found.   

“We're looking at a very, very tight budget schedule and I'm looking at a weighted student credit hour that, if we redid the calculation, it would be a different number for next year,” Carlton said at the time. “And there's a possible savings there that I would like to be able to analyze and be able to wrap my arms around.”

These discussions come amid a broader statewide debate over just how to divide up more than $4.1 billion in federal money bound for state and local governments in Nevada, an amount roughly equaling the state’s annual budget. 

It remains unclear how much of that money will be directed to individual state agencies and programs, and what money, if any, may be directed to higher education in addition to pre-established HEERF funds. 

Contract buyouts at colleges, universities surged to $1.1 million last year amid pandemic budget cuts

The money spent by Nevada colleges and universities on contract buyouts and settlements ballooned to more than $1.1 million last year, up from roughly $713,000 in 2019 or an increase of more than 54 percent, according to a report presented Thursday during the Board of Regents quarterly meeting. 

Though the total is still far below the pre-2018 average of $4.4 million, NSHE Chief General Counsel Joe Reynolds told regents that roughly half of those 2020 payments stemmed from voluntary buyouts offered as part of the pandemic-related budget cutting process. 

“[Institution presidents] have to do a cost benefit analysis of whether eliminating a particular position, even though it will result in a short term cost, may result in a long term savings,” Reynolds said. 

Still, some regents grilled Reynolds on a lack of specificity in the buyout report and called for more details on how buyout decisions were made and for what positions, especially amid the pandemic budget crunch. 

“Recognizing that there are about 20,000 employees in the system, and these buyouts and settlements are definitely a cost of doing this,” Regent Carol Del Carlo said. “But as we all know, we've got very limited resources, especially with the pandemic that's happened, so I really think we need to really look at this policy.”

These payments varied widely from institution to institution, with the College of Southern Nevada and Nevada State College reporting no such buyouts, while Truckee Meadows Community College reported nearly $544,000 in payments. 

The report noted nine of those 13 payments stemmed from “budget savings reorganization,” and TMCC President Karin Hilgersom told regents that those buyouts came largely as a result of “key recommendations” from an internal budget reduction task force. 

Other large buyouts were also reported at Western Nevada College ($196,000) and Great Basin College ($184,000), both increases from the year prior. Buyout payments generally fell elsewhere, including both at UNLV ($90,000) and UNR ($53,000).

Below are some additional highlights from the Board of Regents’ two-day quarterly meeting. 

Budget talks remain priority as legislative session continues

Concerns over the long term effects of a planned 12 percent budget cut through the next two fiscal years continued to permeate higher education policy discussions this week during the board’s two-day meeting. 

System Chancellor Melody Rose and Chief Financial Officer Andrew Clinger have for weeks been briefing legislative committees on system priorities, as legislators look to navigate the economic fallout of pandemic-related shutdowns.  

But amid a handful of other higher education-related bills in the works, Regent Jason Geddes said the budget remained “first and foremost.”

Pointing to the gradual phase in and phase out of federal coronavirus relief money over the next two years, Geddes asked Clinger to “smooth out” the cuts throughout the process, such that “when we go into the 2023 session, we’re in a better place” than following the Great Recession. 

Regents and some faculty speakers raised concerns over planned cuts to the long term disability insurance as part of the state’s public employee benefits program. 

In calling for those cuts to be rolled back and for disability insurance to be restored, the Nevada Faculty Alliance criticized cuts in part for shifting costs away from the state and “to the most vulnerable employees.” 

Regents signaled interest in the question of long-term disability insurance, with Regent Joseph Arrascada asking that the board examine a formal measure in support of the restoration of those proposed cuts. 

Community College governance changes remain on the horizon

Few new details were made available this week on expected legislation that would seek to split the state’s four community colleges off from NSHE, though Clinger told regents that Gov. Steve Sisolak is expected to meet with system stakeholders by the end of next week. 

The governor announced during his State of the State address in January that he would seek to direct NSHE and lawmakers to explore a separate governance structure for the state’s four community colleges. 

But with just 10 days before a legislative deadline to introduce bills, few details have emerged on what such a structure may look like or what it would seek to accomplish. 

Some regents have openly defended the existing single-board system, with at least a handful of such defenses arising during Thursday’s meeting.

During a presentation of an audit of six years of transfers that showed community college transfer compliance — or that transfers between two and four year institutions saw little to no credit losses — jumped to more than 95 percent in 2019, up from just 76 percent in 2018, NSHE Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affair Crystal Abba said the audit “exemplified the benefits of a unified system.”  

“I think it would just be extremely difficult and probably impossible from the standpoint that, in my role as the vice chancellor, the beauty of the pressure that I was able to apply was that I can apply it to both sides of the equation, the two year institutions and the four years,” Abba said, when asked how difficult work on transfer issues would have been without a unified system. “If you split the equation, I'm only going to be able to work on my half.”

As regents questioned Abba on the audit, Regent Amy Carvalho pointed to statistics that show that many transfer students nationwide who attended community college and ultimately graduated with a bachelor's degree were women or underserved groups, noting ultimately that transfer were “exactly where we need to focus our efforts.” 

“That's why it's so important to have one system that includes our community colleges and our four year institutions so that we provide higher education for all of the students of Nevada, including our women and our underserved population,” Carvalho said.   

Renown Health, UNR Medical School draw close to finalizing major partnership agreement

A major deal that would link the UNR School of Medicine and Reno-based health care provider Renown Health is nearing completion, according to a presentation Friday by medical school Dean Thomas Schwenk and Renown CEO Tony Slonim. 

The partnership — which was billed as “near-final” by Schwenk — would integrate “clinical teaching, clinical research and clinical practice components” between the two institutions over the course of a 50-year-long agreement. 

Among other changes, Schwenk described a “long term vision in which academic leadership of our departments and clinical leadership of service lines and medical services” would “come together.” Notably, the agreement would also appoint the UNR president to Renown’s board, where they would serve as a voting, ex-officio member of the board. 

The deal would be the first of its kind in the state, though there remain a handful of outstanding constitutional issues, namely the ultimate control of the program by the regents, rather than by a private entity like Renown. 

In addressing the legal questions of such an agreement, NSHE Chief General Counsel Joe Reynolds told the board that he recommended formal legislation amending state law governing the board’s duties, such that the agreement remains in lock-step with duties outlined by the state Constitution.

That legislation has yet to be introduced in Carson City, and Reynolds told the board he recommended any vote on the final agreement be made only after lawmakers had a chance to address the issue legislatively, first. 

Even so, regents and officials from UNR and Renown praised the proposal, calling it “transformational” for the region's medical care. 

“I continue to be bullishly supportive and excited about the opportunities associated with this affiliation,” UNR President Brian Sandoval said. “I think it'll be transformational for healthcare, education and services in northern Nevada.”

Slonim said that the agreed-upon language should be voted upon by Renown board’s finance committee on March 30 before heading to the full Renown board on April 6. Once approved, it must also receive approval from the Board of Regents before becoming effective. 

Possible cuts still loom large as legislators begin parsing higher education budgets

Even as hopes remain high that new federal coronavirus relief could buoy state coffers, concerns over expected 12 percent cuts came to the fore Wednesday as members of the joint budget subcommittee on K-12 and higher education met for an initial overview of higher education funding. 

Budget documents from the system show those cuts would amount to roughly $85 million lost per year in both 2022 and 2023, an amount that system administrators and institutions presidents have said could hurt or otherwise stall gains made after the Great Recession. 

“Of course, I also agree that, as state agents, we all need to share the burden of revenue loss, I get it,” TMCC President Karin Hilgersom told the committee. “But I think it's not safe to assume that we have gone to the last year unscathed, because that's just not an accurate picture of what's been happening at TMCC.”

But Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas), the chair of that subcommittee, later pressed Chancellor Melody Rose and the system’s chief financial officer, Andrew Clinger, on the specifics of the the Nevada System of Higher Education funding formula, asking twice why the weighted student credit hours that make up that formula had increased, even as the coronavirus had shuttered most in-person classes. 

“So when I look at the weighted student credit hours, and Mr. Clinger would be familiar with my concerns, it’s just a constant growth, it’s exponential, it doesn’t seem to ever flatten out” Carlton said.

Rose and Clinger countered in part on the basis that the funding formula was last adjusted “right at the beginning of the pandemic” — when enrollments remained relatively flat — and has not yet been updated to reflect the possibility of now-decreased enrollments in the short term. 

“I imagine if you looked at weighted student credit hours for the current fiscal year, which we won't know until June, I wouldn't be surprised if, in some cases, those numbers were negative on the campuses,” Clinger said. “So it's a matter of the timing of the look back.”

Several of Nevada’s university and college presidents, asked by Carlton to explain the impacts of the proposed 12 percent cuts, acknowledged the difficult position of legislators required to manage the budget of the entire state. 

But, in the words of UNR President Brian Sandoval — a former governor who presided over the state in the depths of the Great Recession — 12 percent cuts would be “very, very difficult.” 

“We understand that we need to have shared sacrifice, we want to work with you,” Sandoval said. “But it is going to make a mark on us … I know as well as anybody that this is a difficult time, and that we’re going to work through this, but it will be difficult for our campus.” 

The relationship between higher education administrators, regents and the Legislature has long been strained — so much so that legislators nearly removed regents from the state Constitution through a proposed amendment (that amendment failed in the 2020 general election by less than one percentage point). 

As the state’s third-largest slice of the appropriations pie behind only K-12 education and health care services, NSHE is frequently among the state agencies with the largest raw cuts during economic downturns. Such was the case just last summer, when legislators added an additional $25 million cut, on top of nearly $110 million in already-planned-for reductions. 

In Wednesday’s meeting, Carlton appeared to leave the door open for additional cuts down the line, in part by reassessing if a decrease in weighted student credit hours would shift the funding formula. 

“We're looking at a very, very tight budget schedule and I'm looking at a weighted student credit hour that, if we redid the calculation, it would be a different number for next year,” Carlton said. “And there's a possible savings there that I would like to be able to analyze and be able to wrap my arms around.” 

But as legislators mull the future of the budget specifics, some faculty raised concerns that the short term effect of such cuts would be continued position losses and workload increases, especially as institutions have already spent nearly a year leaving vacant positions open amid a system-wide hiring freeze. 

“In a concrete sense, that means that those bodies, those employees in whatever critical role that they serve, whether it's a faculty member who's teaching in the classroom, or if it's a tutor, or an advisor, or a financial aid rep or any position that we might have on campus — that work still has to get done,” Laura Naumann, chair of the Nevada State College Faculty Senate, said. 

Kent Ervin, a chemistry professor at UNR and Vice President of the Nevada Faculty Alliance, said these short term hiring solutions will likely become long term issues. 

“It will take years to dig out of this,” Ervin said. “The only hope is, this is a big hope, that federal relief funding through the American Rescue Plan will come in and fill the short term gap, so that the state economic forecasters will be sufficiently encouraged by that [and] we can avoid the longer term cuts through the end of next biennium.”

Amid budget talks, faculty lobby for merit pay increases 

For 12 of the last 13 years, Nevada law has prohibited pay raises for higher education faculty, essentially freezing salaries outside one-time promotions by ending a state-funded 2 percent merit pay pool as part of emergency recession-era cuts. 

What has followed, according to faculty at Nevada colleges and universities, are a series of severe retention, salary compression and morale issues as academic and administrative faculty have been locked out of all but one pay raise, possible only when receiving a promotion.

Those problems have been particularly acute for administrative staff, who often must move from department to department to seek pay raises, according to Doug Unger, an English professor at UNLV and president of the UNLV chapter of the Nevada Faculty Alliance. 

“Right now, there's no way for them to raise their salaries at all, except by moving laterally and leaving their positions,” Unger said. “So what happens in the institution is, you get very, very accomplished people … administrative faculty who are doing these amazingly difficult tasks —  what will happen is they won't stay, they'll move laterally so they can take a promotion somewhere in another department.”

The prohibition was partially removed in 2019, after legislators opened the door for NSHE colleges and universities to set aside 1 percent of their institutional budget for those increases. But after an initial version of the governor’s budget unveiled in January replaced the language, effectively blocking those raises once again, faculty are once more lobbying legislators to get it pulled from the final budget.  

The likelihood of such a removal is high. Susan Brown, director of the Governor’s Finance Office, told The Nevada Independent in an email that the language was included as part of the drafting process using last biennium's language and that the prohibition was not re-added intentionally. 

Still, if and when institutions do establish such 1 percent pools for dedicated pay increases, it may be some time yet before Nevada faculty see raises across the board. 

“It's pretty clear to us this year, even though the pool will be created, nobody's getting a raise,” Unger said. “It'll be targeted at those retention, and serious compression issues that administrators have to use in order to maintain the institution.”

Board of Regents approves controversial federally-mandated changes to Title IX rules on sexual misconduct

regents meeting

In a sometimes-heated meeting that later triggered a social media storm, the Board of Regents voted 10-3 Friday to approve a controversial change to Title IX rules governing the adjudication of sexual assault and harassment cases on college campuses. 

At the center of the debate is a federal regulatory change from May that instructs universities to make a number of key changes to the way Title IX functions. Most important — and often most controversial — among those changes is a requirement that any investigation into harassment or assault include a live hearing with cross-examination conducted by an “advisor.”

In simple terms, the new rules also raise the burden of proof needed to successfully argue harassment, require investigators to presume any accused person is innocent and disallow any investigation for an incident not in the U.S., i.e. in a study abroad program.

Opponents of the new rules have argued that these changes collectively weaken a system meant to protect victims of sexual violence and harassment, and that they will further drive down the self-reporting of such offenses at a time when these incidents are already drastically under-reported. 

“[This law] turns the process from victims seeking justice to instead go through a criminal trial, which by the way, will cost more money for institutions, and it will without a doubt discourage victims of sexual violence from coming forward,” Regent Lisa Levine said. “Bad laws are meant to be broken. as policymakers, we have the power to halt this terrible and harmful law.”

But proponents — most notably Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — have argued in part that the old rules put in place under the Obama Administration made it too easy for false accusations to ruin the reputation of the falsely accused.

Though the changes are nearly universally opposed across the American higher education landscape, colleges and universities were left with few options but to implement the new rules ahead of an Aug. 14 deadline, and largely for a single reason: Hundreds of millions of dollars in potentially lost federal funding. 

“The consequences of the board not enacting these new regulations would put us out of compliance with Title IX law, which would subject the board to investigation by the Office of Civil Rights and it would jeopardize our federal funding,” NSHE General Counsel Joe Reynolds said. 

In terms of raw dollars, system CFO Andrew Clinger told regents that Nevada institutions received more than $567 million in federal funds in fiscal year 2019, of which $420 million came through the Education Department. 

Levine was the most vocal opponent of the measure during Friday’s meeting, calling the decision a false choice and more than once pushing to vote down the measure and seek instead to sue or join a lawsuit against the Department of Education over the legality of the changes. 

But she was not the only critic. Of the regents who spoke on the agenda item Friday, all expressed a discomfort or dismay that their choice was either to implement these changes or risk demolishing an already-hollowed out budget. 

“We hear threats all the time coming out of the administration doing this and that, and unfortunately for us, that $400 million is something they control,” Regent Patrick Carter said. “There's not another person that's in between them from moving that $400 million from us. And in the current space where we are, that would be absolutely devastating, especially for the next fiscal year coming up.”

But even as regents looked to formalize a process for pursuing legal action against the Department of Education later this month, Levine accused NSHE General Counsel Joe Reynolds of slow-walking a decision to join existing multi-state lawsuits aimed at stopping the rule change and withholding information about the change until just days before Friday’s special meeting — too little too late, in her estimation, to effectively challenge the rules. 

“Why in the world is the board seeing this for the first time one week prior to it needing to be implemented is beyond me,” Levine said. “Three months was plenty of time for general counsel to come forward to the board and seek input on whether to join litigation. Three months was plenty of time to gauge the state attorney general's office, too, instead of them finding out at the last hour yesterday as a failure of NSHE going to them.”

As Board Chair Mark Doubrava sought to wind down discussion and initiate a vote on the measure, Levine chimed in again, this time because Attorney General Aaron Ford had called her to clarify discussions between his office and NSHE regarding a possible lawsuit. 

As Levine spoke, noting now that Ford had hung up “because Chair (Mark) Doubrava had taken him off the agenda,” she was interrupted by a call for a vote and a remark that her comments were out of order. With that, board Chief of Staff Dean Gould cut in and asked Levine to mute herself on the online call. 

“I don’t want to man-speak, but I will have to if you continue to child-speak so please stop,” Gould said, an apparent reference to an exchange between himself and Levine during a meeting on July 23.

During that meeting, as Levine was seeking to add new business for the Aug. 7 meeting, Gould interrupted her to imply her suggestions of new business were becoming lectures to the board. Levine responded that she would try “not to lecture and be mansplained again.” 

The comment triggered swift backlash on social media, including from an increasingly large swath of elected officials from across the state. 

Democratic Rep. Susie Lee said the incident was “embarrassing” and called for Gould to “do the ‘manly thing’” and apologize for his remarks; Gov. Steve Sisolak, who appointed Levine, said he expected a swift apology and that Gould’s behavior was “completely unacceptable”; Ford called it “utterly ridiculous"; while Treasurer Zach Conine’s quote tweet of the exchange said simply: “This is disgraceful.”

In a tweet, Levine later wrote that it “wasn’t just me that was shut down, it was every victim & survivor of sexual violence whose voice should have been heard and who I was fighting for.”

Though Regent John Moran, who spoke immediately after Gould, said the remarks were “not necessary,” no other regents acknowledged the remark before a roll-call vote was finished and the board recessed for 10 minutes. Ten regents ultimately voted for the change, with Regents Levine, Moran and Donald McMichael voting against it.

In a statement released Friday evening, Gould confirmed that his comment stemmed from that initial interaction on July 23.

"My reaction during today’s Board of Regents meeting was in response to a previous meeting (July 23, 2020), at which I was attempting to protect the Board from a possible open meetings law violation during the new business portion of the agenda and Regent Levine accused me of 'mansplaining,'" Gould wrote. "I found this comment to be unprofessional and embarrassing and is not an appropriate way for an employer to speak to an employee.

"During today’s meeting, while the Board Chair attempted to conduct a roll call vote Regent Levine was disrupting the defined procedural process. At that time, I became frustrated at her lack of decorum. In retrospect, I should not have stooped to her level of acrimony."

In a coda to the debate, the attorney general did eventually manage to make a statement to the board, though not until it took public comment at the meeting’s conclusion. In his remarks, Ford said that lead counsel from Pennsylvania had approached his office in May regarding a possible multi-state lawsuit that Nevada could join, but that his office never received a “definitive response” from NSHE. 

“Frankly, given NSHE’s previous comment letter, which outlined a much more moderate position than taken in the multi-state lawsuit, and given the lack of attentive response and interest in joining the lawsuit, as well as the lack of information available at the time to include it in the declaration, we were unable to join the lawsuit,” Ford said.

A decision on whether or not Nevada or NSHE will join any existing lawsuits against the Title IX rules, or whether it will file a lawsuit of its own, is scheduled for the regents’ next meeting on Aug. 21. 

Update, 8/7/20 at 4:10 p.m. - This story was updated to include details on which regents voted against the decision to implement the federal Title IX changes.

Update, 8/7/20 at 7:07 p.m. - This story was updated to include a statement on Friday's incident from Board of Regents Chief of Staff Dean Gould.

In special meeting, Board of Regents brace for additional budget cuts; limited campus reopenings remain on-schedule

Students at UNR's Joe Crowley Student Union

As the economic and public health consequences of the coronavirus pandemic continue to ripple, several regents on Thursday excoriated millions in legislatively approved budget cuts, charging that legislators left them few options with just weeks before the state’s seven colleges and universities plan on reopening their campuses for limited in-person instruction.  

“If those 63 people are in charge of higher education in this state, God help us,” Regent Trevor Hayes said, referencing a ballot measure that would remove the regents from the Constitution. “There is no understanding in Carson City. I don't know what happens to people when they get in the building, but they do not understand the importance of higher ed funding, or they think we can just keep raising tuition on the backs of our families and our students to supplement the money that they take away.”

That ballot measure, Question 1, has been routinely framed by the regents and the chancellor as a measure that does little to reform higher education but grants the Legislature more control over the board. Proponents, however, have charged that it provides needed oversight to a body long mistrusted by the other branches of state government. 

Also among the legislative critics was Board Chair Mark Doubrava, who told regents that watching budget discussions in both legislative chambers was “quite disturbing for me to see.”

“My take on the Legislature was, ‘We’re going to hold your chancellor and your CFO [Andrew] Clinger hostage, and we’re going to say we want to take $50 million more on top of what’s already been approved, and we can cut some deal quickly and reduce it to $25 million,” Doubrava said. “I just don’t think that’s a way to run the state or Legislature.”

The Nevada System of Higher Education has been planning for steep budget cuts ever since state revenue projections plummeted in the spring — projections that prompted Gov. Steve Sisolak to request that all state agencies draw up plans for possible cuts of 6, 10 or 14 percent for the 2021 fiscal year, in addition to a mandated 4 percent cut to the near-finished 2020 fiscal year. 

In a sweeping set of initial budget reductions approved in April, NSHE slashed operating budgets, froze hiring system-wide and sought to prepare for the implementation of furloughs and increased student fees should they be required to follow the most dire of those early estimates. 

But proposed reduction measures have only expanded over time as the severity of the state’s budget crisis came into sharp focus this month. In a special legislative session meant to plug 2021’s $1.2 billion statewide budget hole, legislators and the governor approved an additional $25 million dollar cut, raising the total amount cut from NSHE’s 2021 budget to more than $135 million.

Those cuts did not sit well with Hayes, who said it was unfortunate that legislators do not understand the importance of higher education “no matter how much we try to explain.”

“We, as higher ed, are a key to the solution to the problem of an economic downturn,” Hayes said. “We’re going to help to dig that out, we’re going to help to get that even higher when we’re going through the good times. 

But Regent Lisa Levine pushed back on that notion, saying in part that calling the Legislature the problem “is just poor politics,” especially if legislators might weigh even deeper cuts in the near future. 

“People don't trust [NSHE] to do the right thing with the money, and we need to show that we're trying,” Levine said. “And I'm very grateful to hear that there are small ways that we've already shown improvement … but that is just one way that we need to be thinking.”

Levine, who was appointed to the board earlier this year to replace Regent Sam Lieberman after his unexpected death, said that she hoped future budget decisions included discussion about “transformative change” and that the board must “really think critically about how we're making these cuts.”

Thursday’s budget discussion was information-only, however, and much of the decision-making will lie in an upcoming regent’s meeting scheduled for August 7. 

Limited reopenings remain on-track, for now

Regents also heard presentations from each institution on how they planned on executing limited reopenings of individual campuses to accommodate the return of at least some in-person instruction for the fall semester. 

Following a list of 10 guidelines laid out by NSHE, those reopening plans followed similar themes. Broadly, every institution has moved most classwork online, embracing a mix of synchronous classes — those taught at regular times through video software such as Zoom or BlueJeans — and asynchronous, or more traditional online classwork that is absorbed at different times for different students. 

Institutions have also broadened resources for instructors, created guidelines for testing and contact tracing, implemented mask mandates and created additional rules for social distancing while on campus. 

Still, regents expressed some concern that — despite robust planning — in-person instruction may remain elusive or outright impossible amid spiking coronavirus cases statewide. 

“We can appreciate how these plans are fluid and nimble, but I have to say — I mean there's a chance that we may have no students on campus,” Doubrava said. 

With the start of the semester now roughly one month away, Chancellor Thom Reilly said the system will continue to monitor conditions and follow the guidelines laid out by state, local and federal health authorities, adding that each institution is “prepared to pivot” should the need arise. 

Still, even amid the drastic rise in coronavirus cases, Nevada’s higher education system is among the majority of institutions nationwide that have opted for at least a partial reopening. A tracker maintained by the Chronicle of Higher Education shows roughly half of U.S. colleges still plan for in-person fall semesters, while another 34 percent have pushed for a hybrid model and just 12 percent decided for an online-only semester. 

Proponents of removing Board of Regents from Constitution launch formal ‘Yes on 1’ campaign

regents meeting

A Nevada coalition has launched a campaign to push a ballot question that would remove the Board of Regents from the state Constitution, which supporters argue is necessary to “modernize” oversight of higher education.

Nevadans for Higher Quality Education is a bipartisan coalition backing “Yes on 1,” a campaign seeking to pass Question 1 on the ballot in November. The initiative would strip the board of its “fourth-branch-of-government” status by subjecting it to oversight by the Legislature. The Board of Regents was established by the state Constitution in Article 11, the “Education Article,” and given authority over the state’s higher education system 

“I think the most important thing to emphasize is that this would not really change anything about the way the higher education system would function,” Carol Lucey, former president of Western Nevada College, said on Monday. “Primarily, this is a technical issue with the Constitution.”

AJR5 has already passed through the first step of a five-year process to amend the Constitution, having been approved by the Legislature in two consecutive sessions. All that is left is voter approval in this year’s general election.

Organizers say the coalition plans to launch a full-scale campaign to inform voters about the ballot question leading up to November. Part of the challenge will be educating voters about what it means that the Board of Regents is part of the Constitution and how that allows the board to avoid legislative oversight, which Lucey says is needed for a board she has observed to be “not effective, not efficient, certainly, and not transparent.”

Nevada is the only state that has a higher education system governed by a single board with constitutional status. According to the coalition, the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) has a $29 million budget used for administrative costs rather than university funding.

While a press release from the coalition on Monday stated that the system’s budget is “larger than any other state’s,” the coalition has since clarified that the initial statement was erroneous, and the budget is “larger than any other similarly sized state.” The coalition compared Nevada's budget with those of higher education systems in five other states with populations between two and three million people.

Tom Kaplan, a member of the Council for a Better Nevada and supporter of “Yes on 1,” says the large number of administrative costs is one flaw with the system that increased oversight could correct.

“By comparison, states like Virginia have five times the number of colleges and universities, yet one-third of the employees in their system-wide office. We deserve better,” Kaplan said in a press release on Monday.

According to Andrew Clinger, chief financial officer for the system, the $29 million budget that is cited is “not accurate.”

“It’s misleading because we don’t have a $29 million system administration budget,” Clinger said. “What they’re including in that… is what we call the system computing center.”

The system computing center budget, which was $18.8 million for the financial year 2019/2020, covers data systems and finance, HR and payroll records for all of Nevada’s higher education system institutions and universities, as well as services for rural health care facilities, the Department of Corrections, the Department of Transportation and multiple K-12 school districts in the state. 

All of these expenses and services are included in the system’s budget under AB543.

While the coalition does not yet face opposition by any organized groups, organizers anticipate that there will be those who campaign against the initiative going forward. 

Even prior to coming before the Legislature, the initiative faced opposition, including by the higher education system, the Board of Regents and Chancellor Thom Reilly, who said any changes enabled by removing the body from the Constitution would not be different from those enacted through the normal legislative process.

Detractors also have said that the measure would allow the Legislature to transition seats on the Board of Regents from elected to appointed positions, taking away the ability of Nevadans to select their own regents.

Proponents of the measure argue that the text of the initiative would not do that.

“It has nothing to do with that,” Lucey said. “It has nothing to do with their right to vote for their regent. Nothing would change in that respect. What would change is there would be some oversight of what the board has been up to over the years.”

The text of AJR5 does not make that change, but an increase in legislative control over the board could allow for that change to be made.

Supporters of the initiative include The Vegas Chamber, the Council for a Better Nevada and the Nevada Farm Bureau, among others

Updated, 6/16/20 at 5:44 p.m. –This article was updated to reflect Nevadans for Higher Quality Education corrected its earlier misstatement that the Nevada System of Higher Education's budget was higher than any other state's.